Vintage Iranian fighter jets continue to fall from the sky

The frequent crashes of Iranian fighter jets are a stark reminder of the age of Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) aircraft.

Two Iranian pilots were killed on May 24 when their Chinese-made Chengdu J-7 crushed 200 km east of Isfahan city center due to accident. In February, an IRIAF F-5 two-seat fighter crushed at a school in the northwest city of Tabriz after experiencing technical problems. The crash killed both crew members and one person on the ground.

On June 1, 2021, another F-5 crashed after developing a “Technical problem” near Dezful in southwestern Iran. This accident also killed the two crew members.

In December 2019, a MiG-29 IRIAF crushed in the Sabalan mountain range near the country’s border with Azerbaijan. This fighter had recently been overhauled and the pilot was taking it for a test flight when the accident occurred.

And on August 26, 2018, an F-5 forced landing near Dezful after developing mechanical issues killing the pilot.

All of these incidents are unsurprising. Of course, every Air Force loses fighters, and even pilots, to accidents or technical malfunctions. In the case of Iran, however, most of these accidents can be attributed to the simple fact that its jets are really old, with many airframes worn out after more than 40 years of operation.

The last time Iran bought new fighters was in the early 1990s, when it acquired a fleet of MiG-29As from Moscow. Yet to this day, the bulk of the IRIAF consists of jet aircraft ordered by Iran before the 1979 revolution, when the last Shah of Iran purchased large numbers of F-4s and F -5 and, above all, 80 F-14A Tomcats, 79 of which were delivered before the revolution. The only other aircraft purchased were Chinese F-7s, which are essentially licensed copies of the MiG-21, in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war. (In 1991, a significant number of Iraqi Air Force personnel flew to Iran to escape destruction during the Persian Gulf War of that year. Tehran confiscated all of these aircraft, including the MiG-29 and French-made Mirage F1s.)

That Iran kept its high-maintenance F-14As operational for so long is not unimpressive, especially considering all the media reports in the late 1970s, which consistently predicted that Tehran’s Tomcats would be grounded without constant technical assistance. from American contractors and a regular supply of spare parts. Despite all those entrepreneurs who left Iran after the 1979 revolution and the imposition of an arms embargo on Tehran, the Tomcats remained operational. They proved to be invaluable assets during the war with Iraq. Not only did many F-14s continue to fly after the revolution, they are still flying nearly half a century later.

But still, these planes are really old. And despite Iran’s success in keeping many of them airborne for so long (and even producing derivatives of the F-5 from scratch), their lifespan is clearly coming to an end.

But what could replace them?

It has been reasonably speculated that Iran could decide to acquire two different types of fighters, one from China and one from Russia, by the end of this decade or the beginning of the 2030s. more likely would be Russian Su-30SMs and Su-35s to replace F-14s and F-4s and Chinese J-10Cs to replace MiG-29s and others.

However, the likelihood that Iran will seek Russian jets after the invasion of Ukraine has likely diminished in light of the severe supply chain issues the Russian military is likely to face in the coming years. Moreover, aviation experts noted that the J-10C was a much better and more affordable aircraft even before this war. The J-10C also has Active Electronically Scanned Radar (AESA), which advanced Russian jets such as the Su-35 do not have, much to the chagrin of Egypt and other arms customers. Russians.

A fleet of J-10Cs, specially armed with China’s PL-15 long-range air-to-air missile, would arguably be Iran’s air force’s most significant upgrade since it purchased the F-14s armed with the long-range AIM-54. Phoenix missiles in the late 1970s. (Iran apparently was not happy with its MiG-29As after testing them against its Tomcats and finding that the latter consistently outperformed the former.) And since China and the ‘Iran recently signed a 25-year strategic agreement, Beijing would probably be willing to sell Tehran the jets.

However, that might never happen. The strongest armed force in Iran is not the regular army, but the paramilitaries of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). And the IRGC preferred to develop locally-made ballistic missiles and drones rather than import advanced fighter jets to modernize the IRIAF. The IRGC donated all the planes of its small air force, a modest fleet of Russian-built Su-25 Frogfoot attack planes, flown from Iraq in 1991, return in Baghdad in mid-2014, shortly after the Islamic State (ISIS) conquered large parts of northern Iraq.

The IRGC has also shown a similar reluctance to import main battle tanks when Iran previously had the ability to upgrade the regular army’s armored forces (the Artesh). Therefore, rather than modernizing with J-10Cs or other new aircraft over the next decade, the powers-that-be in Iran may instead decide to leave the country’s long-standing arsenal of combat aircraft behind. wither and die rather than gradually withdraw and replace them.

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