Key point: An arms embargo is preventing Iran's military from buying many modern military platforms.
Tehran is keen to produce its own jet fighters—but designing and manufacturing advanced combat jets poses formidable technological challenges difficult for an isolated industrial base to resolve on its own. Nonetheless, the Iranian air force has prominently showcased its development of several domestic fighter jets since the turn of the century, most notably the HESA Saeqeh (“Thunderbolt”), which Iranian media have claimed to be superior to the F-18 Hornet.
But performance specifications and technical details for these aircraft have remained either vague or nonexistent. This may be less due to secrecy than because additional details would likely be unimpressive, because the Saeqeh is a reverse-engineered American F-5 Freedom Fighter with a new tail and upgraded avionics.
The F-5 Freedom Fighter traces it lineage to a 1950s-era Northrop project that yielded the two-seat T-38 Talon trainer still serving in the U.S. Air Force today. A single-seat variant, however, evolved into the F-5, a lightweight supersonic fighter for export to less wealthy military allies of the United States. Initially priced at just $756,000 per plane (around $6 million, adjusted for inflation), the elegant little fighter could carry more than six thousand pounds of bombs on five hardpoints, as well as two Sidewinder heat-seeking air-to-air missiles on the wingtips. The later F-5E Tiger II variant added radar, lengthened the fuselage to carry additional fuel, enlarged the stubby wings for improved maneuverability and upgraded the J85 turbojets, boosting maximum speed to Mach 1.6. Freedom Fighters went on to see extensive combat over the skies of Vietnam, Ethiopia, Iran, Kuwait and Yemen—and are actively being used in ground-attack missions today by the air forces of Tunisia and Kenya.
Iran received nearly three hundred Freedom Fighters of various models from the United States between 1965 and 1976, including 166 of the more advanced F-5Es and F Tiger IIs in the 1970s, and fifteen RF-5A Tigereye reconnaissance aircraft reportedly used for U.S. spy flights into Soviet airspace. These saw extensive use as ground attack aircraft in the Iran-Iraq War, but still engaged in a number of air battles, scoring an even 4-4 kills against faster Iraqi MiG-21 fighters and even damaging a MiG-25 Foxbat with cannon fire.
However, the fallout from the Iranian Revolution brought an end to the flow of spare parts, replacement aircraft and missiles from the United States needed to maintain the F-5 fleet. The Iranian air force improvised new components and cannibalized older planes for spare parts, and today it is estimated there are still thirty to fifty operational F-5s in the Iranian air force’s inventory.
In 1997, Iran announced that the Iranian Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company (HESA) was developing a domestically-produced jet fighter called the Azarakhsh (“Lightning”) which supposedly was entering “mass production”—which is to say, between four and six appear to have been built in the subsequent decade, out of a planned thirty. The Azarakhsh, at least in its original form, was evidently a reverse-engineered F-5E, with uprated thrusters, reinforced wings, modified radar and improved weapon capabilities. The Azarakhsh doesn’t appear to have reached operational units, and the program was terminated in 2010.
By 2004, the new Saeqeh fighter was featured on state TV. It has also been variously named the Saeqeh-80 and the Azarakhsh-2. This also appeared to be an F-5—but with two instead of one vertical tail stabilizers, canted outwards like those on F-18 Hornet. To drive the comparison home, the Saeqehs were painted navy blue and yellow, so that they resembled the Blue Angels aerobatics team. The Saeqehs also have additional wing strakes, and some sport new square jet intakes. The aircraft were inspected by then president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and fired rockets at targets in a 2007 war game.
The Saeqeh’s twin-tail stabilizers are believed to give the better turning and takeoff performance than the F-5E, making it a superior “low-and-slow” plane. Upgrading the F-5 to carry advanced weapons would be an obvious improvement, but so far photos of Saeqehs only show them armed with short-range Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and unguided air-to-ground bombs and rocket pods. Most assume the Freedom Fighter’s two twenty-millimeter cannons have been retained.
Modernized avionics and radar would be another obvious upgrade, but again, details of such modernization are scant. The Saeqeh supposedly has a domestically-produced countermeasure and navigation system, and new cockpit instruments possibly obtained from Russia or China. However, the Saeqeh cockpit shown in this video still looks pretty similar to the basic F-5E cockpit.
The APG-159 radar is also supposedly improvised with Iranian components. This may relate to the Ofogh (“Horizon”) project in 1999, which doubled the range of the F-5’s APQ-159 radar from thirty-two to sixty-four kilometers, or a Russian or domestic alternative. Even the Saeqeh’s engines are mysterious; early reports that they were Russian RD-33 turbofans are inaccurate, as the F-5 airframe is too small to carry them. Iran announced in 2016 that it had successfully reverse-engineered the F-5’s J85 engines for domestic production—which might mean the earlier Saeqehs were running on refurbished J85s rather than new ones.
The Saeqeh has been deployed to an operational unit, the Twenty-Third Tactical Fighter Squadron based in Tabriz, in northwest Iran, where it has been conducting reconnaissance missions. Observers have only seen serial numbers for nine aircraft out of a planned twenty-four. It’s now claimed there are enough for a second “squadron,” but exact numbers of deployed aircraft remain a mystery. Supposedly these aircraft continue to exhibit the low-maintenance requirements the F-5 was famed for.
Tehran has also released footage of the Saeqeh production line. However, it’s generally believed the Saeqeh airframes are actually taken from the large inventory of old F-5s in non-flyable condition. While turning a non-flyable hunk of metal into a combat jet is still impressive, it’s not quite the same as designing and building the components entirely from scratch.
On February 9, 2015, the Iranian Air Force unveiled the Saeqeh-2 two-seater variant. The Iranian Air Force had previously converted thirteen older single-seat F-5s into Simorgh (“Phoenix”) two-seat trainers by cannibalizing parts from other F-5s. However the Saeqeh-2 is intended serve as both a trainer and combat plane, and reportedly has improved radar and weapon loads, and the ability to mount precision-guided munitions. It’s thought that Iran’s seventeen remaining F-5F two-seaters may form the basis for Saeqeh-2 production.
In any case, while Saeqeh-2 may not truly be a “new” or “mass produced” fighter in the way those word are generally understood, it’s still a maneuverable, supersonic jet fighter and could be a useful trainer/light fighter like the Korean FA-50 Golden Eagle. However, the Iranian jet has yet to be seen carrying long-range air-to-air missiles and precision-guided weapons, which are essential capabilities for modernized third-generation MiG-21s or F-4 Phantoms. Given Tehran’s demonstrated track record of hyping its military technology to the point of stretching the truth, the silence on this aspect of the Saeqeh’s abilities may be telling.
That may be beside the point, however. The modified and rebuilt F-5s may be a way for Iran to gain experience in jet fighter production, test out the twin tail configuration and make good propaganda for Iran’s industrial capabilities. Experience gained from the Saeqeh program may be directed to a truly new design such as the Shafaq subsonic stealth fighter. The first Shafaq prototype was supposed to be ready by 2008—but the most that’s been seen of the fighter since is a wooden mockup in 2014. In 2016, it was finally announced that a Shafaq prototype would soon begin testing.
That goes to show that Iran’s foray into domestic military aircraft production is a long-term process aiming at eventual self-sufficiency—and that one shouldn’t interpret Tehran’s pronouncements about its homemade armaments too literally.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. This article first appeared several years ago.