Frequent crashes of Iranian warplanes are striking reminders of how old the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) aircraft are.
Two Iranian pilots were killed on May 24 flying their Chinese-built Chengdu J-7 crashed 124 miles east of downtown Isfahan due to an accident. In February, a two-seat IRIAF F-5 fighter jet crashed to a school in the northwestern city of Tabriz after technical problems. The crash killed both crew members and one person on the ground.
On June 1, 2021, another F-5 crashed after developing one “technical problem” near Dezful in southwestern Iran. This crash also killed both crew members.
In December 2019, an IRIAF MiG-29 crashed in the Sabalan Mountains near the border with Azerbaijan. This fighter jet had recently been overhauled and the pilot was taking it for a test flight when the crash occurred.
And on August 26, 2018 an F-5 crash landing near Dezful after mechanical problems killed the pilot.
All these incidents are not surprising. Of course, every Luftwaffe loses fighters and even pilots to accidents or technical failures. However, in the case of Iran, most of these accidents can be attributed to the simple fact that its jets are really old and many airframes are worn out after over 40 years of operation.
The last time Iran bought new fighter jets was in the early 1990s when it acquired a fleet of MiG-29As from Moscow. Nonetheless, to this day the bulk of the IRIAF consists of jets ordered by Iran prior to the 1979 revolution, when Iran’s last Shah delivered large numbers of F-4s and F-5s and, most notably, 80 F-14A Tomcats. 79, bought from them, were delivered before the revolution. The only other aircraft bought in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War were the Chinese F-7s, which are essentially licensed copies of the MiG-21. (In 1991, significant numbers of the Iraqi Air Force flew to Iran to avoid destruction during that year’s Gulf War. Tehran seized all of these aircraft, including the MiG-29 and the French-built Mirage F1.)
The fact that Iran kept its high-maintenance F-14As operational for so long is not inconspicuous, especially given all the media reports in the late 1970s that kept predicting that Tehran’s Tomcats would be on the ground without constant hands-on technical support would remain by American contractors and a steady supply of spare parts. Although all of these contractors left Iran after the 1979 revolution and the imposition of an arms embargo on Tehran, the Tomcats remained operational. They proved an invaluable asset during the war with Iraq. Many F-14s not only continued to fly after the revolution, but 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 in the air for so long (and even making F-5 derivatives from scratch), their lifespans are clearly nearing the end.
But what could replace it?
It has been reasonably speculated that by the end of this decade or early 2030s Iran may decide to acquire two different types of fighter jets, one from China and the other from Russia. The most likely options would be Russian Su-30SM and Su-35 to replace the F-14 and F-4 and Chinese J-10C to replace the MiG-29 and others.
However, the likelihood of Iran scouting for Russian jets after invading Ukraine has likely diminished given the severe supply chain issues the Russian military is likely to face in the years to come. In addition, aviation experts have noted that even before this war, the J-10C was a much better and more affordable aircraft. The J-10C also features an AESA (Active Electronic Scanning Array) radar, something advanced Russian jets like the Su-35 don’t have, much to the annoyance of Egypt and other Russian weapons customers.
A fleet of J-10Cs specially armed with China’s long-range PL-15 air-to-air missile would be arguably the Iranian Air Force’s most significant upgrade since it procured the F-14s armed with the long-range AIM-54 Phoenix -Missiles in the late 1970s. (Iran was reportedly not happy with its MiG-29As, after testing them against its Tomcats and finding the latter consistently outperformed the former.) And since China and Iran recently signed a 25-year strategic agreement had, Beijing would probably be willing to sell Tehran the jets.
However, that can never happen. The main armed force in Iran is not the regular military but the paramilitary corps of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). And the IRGC has preferred to develop locally built ballistic missiles and drones rather than importing advanced fighter jets to arm the IRIAF. The IRGC turned over all aircraft to its small air force, a modest fleet of Russian-built Su-25 Frogfoot attack aircraft flown from Iraq in 1991. the back to 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 opportunities to upgrade the armored forces of the regular army (the Artesh). Instead of upgrading with J-10Cs or other new aircraft over the next decade, the powers-in-place of Iran might instead choose to let the country’s long-standing arsenal of fighter jets wither and die, rather than gradually phase out and replace them.