Although Tehran wants to produce its own jet fighters, designing and manufacturing advanced combat jets poses formidable challenges, Still, the Iranian air force has 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.
However, performance specifications and technical details for these aircraft remain vague or perhaps, nonexistent. This may be because additional details would likely be unimpressive, as 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,” writes Sébastien Roblin of Georgetown University in his article for The National Interest. He adds that, “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.”
Fallout from the Iranian Revolution brought an end to the flow of spare parts, replacement aircraft and missiles from the United States. The Iranian air force had to improvise new components and cannibalize older planes for parts. Today it is estimated there are still thirty to fifty operational F-5s in the Iranian air force’s inventory.
Iran announced in 1997, that the Iranian Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company (HESA) was developing a domestically-produced jet fighter called the Azarakhsh (“Lightning”) which it said was entering “mass production”. Between four and six appear to have been built in the subsequent decade, out of a planned thirty. The Azarakhsh program was terminated in 2010.
The new Saeqeh fighter was featured on state TV in 2004. It also appeared to be an F-5, but with two instead of one vertical tail stabilizers. Ironically, the Saeqehs were painted navy blue and yellow, so that they resembled the Blue Angels aerobatics team. The Saeqehs 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,” writes Roblin.
Details of modernized avionics and radar are scant. The Saeqeh supposedly has a domestically-produced countermeasure and navigation system, and new cockpit instruments possibly obtained from Russia or China. Still, the Saeqeh cockpit looks similar to the basic F-5E cockpit.
According to Roblin, “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.”
Tehran released footage of the Saeqeh production line. It’s generally believed the Saeqeh airframes are taken from the large inventory of old F-5s in non-flyable condition, and turning a non-flyable hunk of metal into a combat jet is impressive, yet it’s not the same as designing and building entirely from scratch.
The Iranian Air Force unveiled the Saeqeh-2 two-seater variant on February 9, 2015. The Iranian Air Force had converted thirteen older single-seat F-5s into Simorgh two-seat trainers by cannibalizing parts from other F-5s. The Saeqeh-2 is meant 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, according to Roblin.
While Saeqeh-2 may not truly be a “new” or “mass produced” fighter as is generally understood, it’s still a maneuverable, supersonic jet fighter. Roblin says that it “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.”
Modifying and rebuilding F-5s may is a way for Iran to gain experience in jet fighter production, as well as to test out the twin tail configuration. The experience Iran gains 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 all that’s been seen is a wooden mockup in 2014. In 2016, testing was announced for a Shafaq prototype.
Iran’s delving into domestic military aircraft production is a long-term process aimed at self-sufficiency, but Tehran’s pronouncements about its homemade armaments shouldn’t be taken literally.