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Air Force Modernization

The Islamic Iranian Air Force of 1980 did not have a long historical tradition. In a real sense, it was mostly a product of former President Richard M. Nixon's 1972 decision to allow the shah to buy whatever he wanted from US defense contractors. Before that time, the IIAF had been a relatively small affair with its most sophisticated aircraftbeing 129 F-5A/B fighters provided in the late 1960s and early 1970s, largely under the grant Military Assistance Program (MAP). From 1950 to 1971, American arms sales to Iran totaled only 1.2 billion, but during the next seven years, the cumulative total burgeoned to approximately $21 billion.

Although the Shah tried from 1973 on to proceed with vast expansion and modernization programs for all the services, the IIAF was the most favored service. It received the largest share of defense modernization expenditures and had less trouble than the other services in finding and retaining qualified personnel. From 1970 to 1977, the IIAF increased in numbers of personnel from 17,000 to 100,000 and in numbers of combat aircraft from 175 to 341. But such growth was not without problems. Sophisticated aircraft came into the inventory faster than air and ground crews could be trained. So much equipment was bought so fast that the American side of the exchange could not adequately account for all the transactions.

Although the IIAF had always been associated solely with American aircraft and American assistance, from 1972 forward, increasing US aircraft sales and US Air Force assistance helped the IIAF grow into almost a mirror image of the United States Air Force. Arms exports to Iran during the 1970s skyrocketed. In 1977 alone, the U.S. exported $5.7 billion dollars worth of equipment to Iran. Throughout the 1970s, Iran had purchased sophisticated aircraft for the Air Force. The acquisition of 77 F-14A Tomcat fighters added to 166 F-5 fighters and 190 F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers, and gave Iran a strong defensive and a potential offensive capability. The P-3F, built for the Imperial Iranian Air Force, had a P-3C airframe with a cabin layout that was a hybrid of the P-3B and P-3C.

The IIAF acquired over 100 F-5As during the 1960s and early 1970s. The first F-5 Freedom fighters arrived in Iran in 1965, and Iran ordered a total of 103 F-5A's and 23 F-5SB's. Many of these were later sold to Vietnam, Turkey, Greece and Ethiopia. In their place Iran received F-5E/F Tiger IIs. The first examples were delivered in January of 1974, when 28 F-5Fs were received in Iran for conversion training. A total of 166 F-5E/Fs were supplied to Iran between 1974 and 1976. The Imperial Iranian Air Force F-5E/Fs were equipped to a high standard, with an onboard Litton inertial navigation system and weapons/ballistic computer.

The list of weapons sold included 160 F-16s (the F-16s were purchased, but not delivered). The Iranian Air Force was also to receive 7 AWACS (the only ones sold outside of NATO at the time) and long-range transports. Before the end of his reign, Shah Reza Pahlavi even contemplated the sharing of development costs for the United States Navy's new F-18 fighter. Both of these combat aircraft were dropped from the revolutionary regime's military acquisitions list.

Amazingly, even after the Shah of Iran fell from power in 1979 - leaving an anti-American regime - arms sales to Iran continued. It was only after the Iranian hostage crisis began in 1979 that sales were terminated. Interestingly, the Iranians tried to sell back the 80 F-14s they had purchased for $3 billion - as they proved difficult to maintain - but the U.S. was not interested.

After the Revolution Iran found it extremely difficult to keep their F-5 fleet operational. With sanctions imposed on Iran, no spares were left for the F-5 and many aircraft became unserviceable and others being cannibalized to keep the remainder flying. Throughout the Iran-Iraq war the lack of spare parts caused by the American arms embargo was complicated by the general lack of adequate numbers of trained maintenance personnel.

The IRIAF upgraded their remaining Tigers called the Offogh-project, which improved the range of the F-5 APQ-159 radar and enabling the aircraft to carry advanced missiles like the PL7, AIM-9P Sidewinders and R-60 Aphids. By the end of the century the remaining F-5's were nearing their end of operational life and the IRIAF was seeking a replacement.

In the 1980s, China and North Korea, with their "independent" policies on arms sales, were the only countries willing to sell Iran combat airplanes. Iran had acquired two Chinese-made Shenyang J-6 trainers in 1986, possibly from North Korea. Unconfirmed reports in 1987 indicated that Iran was receiving Shenyang F-6s (Chinese-built MiG-19SFs), and that Iranian pilots were receiving training in North Korea. In total between 16 and 25 F-6 aircraft were said to have been delivered sometime between 1984 and 1987. The reconnaissance squadron had also struggled to perform its duties with limited equipment. Once flying close to 34 aircraft, by late 1987 it was reportedly reduced to 8, and only after converted 5 Tomcats to serve in a noncombat role. It was not clear whether these 5 airplanes were in addition to the 10 reportedly in interceptor squadrons.

Given the technical sophistication of reconnaissance aircraft, it was almost impossible to acquire from non-Western sources aircraft capable of performing to Iranian standards. The only substantial acquisition was the purchase of 46 Pilatus PC-7 trainers from Switzerland. Iran requested three Kawasaki C-1 transports and a 3D air defense radar system from Japan, but this transaction did not appear to have materialized by 1987. Reports also indicated that Iran had placed with Argentina an order for thirty Hughes 500D helicopters. An order was place for 16 Mig-21 aircraft (12 Mig-21PFM and 4 Mig-21U trainers) from East Germany, but only 2 had been delivered before the transaction was canceled in 1989 following German reunification.

Beginning in the early 1990s a number of domestic aircraft projects were started. These included a number of projects designed at reclaiming existing aircraft and extending their service life, as well as production of copies or derivatives of foreign aircraft, with and without licenses. Considerable amounts of energy were spent exploring foreign markets for replacement parts and reverse engineering various components for the F-4, F-5, and F-14 fleets, along with the various western type helicopters primarily in service with the Army. By the end of the decade Iran's domestic aircraft industries had, with the help of foreign technical assistance, laid the ground work for series production of a number of trainer, fighter, and other aircraft. Iran had also begun an ambitious Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) program, that would also bear fruit in the following decade.

During 2002 Iran's state aircraft manufacturer HESA test flew a license produced copy of the Ukranian Antonov An-140, dubbed the Iran-140, which it hoped to sell to military and commerical customers. Despite the tragic loss of many senior Antonov officials on their way to observe the test flight, the relationship between the two companies remained strong and a similar deal was also sought for the production of Tu-334 airliners for civilian uses.

An unknown number of "new" Su-25s were delivered to the Iranian Revolution Guards Corps Air Force (IRGCAF) in 2003. Where these Frogfoots originated from was unclear. Since the number was said to include advanced Su-25T and Su-25UBK aircraft reports suggested that these aircraft could have come from Russia or Ukraine, two countries Iran had significant contact with during the 1990s especially regarding aircraft manufacture.

In July 2003 Chengdu Aircraft Industrial Corporation (CAIC) unveiled the new "Super-7" or Chao Qi fighter plane to the public. The new Super-7 is an all-purpose light fighter, required to have all-weather operation capabilities, be capable of performing the dual tasks of dogfight and air-to-ground attack, and have the ability to launch medium-range missiles. Mass production of the fighter will not begin until two and a half years of research are completed. The plane is being produced to be sold abroad to developing nations. China said it had received orders from Iran and some African countries. Production of the Super-7 aircraft, now called the FC-1 (with an export designation of JF-17) was supposed to begin in 2006, but this was believed to have been delayed. Iran had not recieved any such aircraft by 2008.

Defense Industry Daily reported on 06 August 2015 that : "Following a visit by the French Foreign Minister in July, an Iranian government spokesman indicated [Farsi] that the procurement of new fighters - specifically Mirage fighters from France - would be a high priority following the lifting of sanctions. As the French Air Force brings in new Rafale jets, the older Mirage 2000 5-EI fighters it operates will be phased out. With Dassault's Mirage production line closing in 2007, the Iranian Air Force may look to buy ex-French Mirages in order to resupply the depleted 24 older models it currently possesses, or to acquire a new, proven multirole fighter fleet on a budget."

The J-10 is a single-engine aircraft that has a flight range of 2,900 kilometers. The J-10, which is known by the moniker Vigorous Dragon, is an advanced combat aircraft that foreign sources say is based on the original designs of the Lavi, an Israeli prototype whose manufacturing was canceled in the 1980s.

Iran will reportedly allow China to develop its largest oilfield for two decades in return for the delivery of 24 Chengdu J-10 fourth-generation multirole fighter jets under a deal estimated to be worth $1 billion, the Taiwan-based Want Daily newspaper reported in August 2015. If both governments confirm that the agreement is a go, and neither had done it so far, Tehran will become the second country to operate the export version of the J-10. In 2009, Beijing sold 36 J-10B jets to Pakistan for $1.4 billion, Watch China Times noted.

On 02 September 2015, it was reportedthat China had agreed to sell Iran advanced J-10 war planes planes that many analysts believe contain Israeli-designed components. The deal was first reported by the Debka File web site, a prolific source of Israeli fake news. While the deal had not been independently confirmed by any of the governments, a Chinese newspaper said that a deal to sell Iran 20 J-10 planes had been struck. In return, Iran will provide not cash, but crude oil, which will be released over the next 20 years. The Debka File report had put the number of planes to be sold at 150. The Chinese report was widely circulated in Israeli media. International news agencies said that the deal was worth some $40 million. But this it was a bit ridiculous that the price would be $40 million for 150 advanced jet fighter aircraft.

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