Busted: Iran's 'New' Saeqeh Fighter Is Really Just an Old American F-5

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.
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.