Iran's Mig-21s, F-6s and F-7s (part one)

(To Andrea Gaspardo)

Previously we had already talked about the Iranian Air Forces (IRIAF) and how one of their characteristics that most strike external observers is the extreme heterogeneity of the means they employ (a speech which, moreover, can be extended to the Iranian Armed Forces in their complex). Today we will face in two installments a niche topic, even for insiders: the story of how Iran obtained (or tried to obtain) the Mikoyan-Gurevich Mig-21, the Shenyang F-6 and the Chengdu F-7 ( opening photo), a story that hardly anyone in Italy has had the opportunity to know.

During the reign of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Imperial Iranian Armed Forces and in particular their air branch (IIAF) were essentially committed to the "buy American" policy. In truth, during the 70s, the Persian monarch had begun to toy with the idea of ​​diversifying his external supply sources and, in the aeronautical field, had ordered the military high echelons to explore the possibility of integrating into the ranks of IIAF also the Shenyang F-6 and the Chengdu F-7, respectively the Chinese copies of the Mikoyan-Gurevich Mig-19 and the Mikoyan-Gurevich Mig-21, however in the end nothing came of it.

After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the new Islamic Republic of Iran was dragged into a long and bloody war, which lasted from 1980 to 1988, against the Baathist Iraq led by Saddam Hussein. During the grueling conflict, "air power" played a key role in the operational doctrines of both Iranians and Iraqis. While the Iranian IRIAF lined up a deadly trident of US origin made up of F-5s, F-4s and F-14s, the Iraqi IrAF had a heterogeneous collection of aircraft of 2a, 3a and 4a generation of British, Soviet, Chinese and French ancestry.

Already at the beginning of the conflict, the Iraqis had the basic versions of the Mig-19 and Mig-21 at their disposal, but soon more advanced ones also arrived, such as the Mig-21MF and the Mig-21bis directly from the Soviet Union which, although suffering serious losses during the conflict, they also obtained good results in both air defense and ground attack missions.

As the war progressed, Iran began to run out of aircraft, and the political and military elites in Tehran sought a way to obtain the same aircraft that were in service with their enemies. The Iranian need to equip itself with new "wings" was also made even more urgent by the fact that in that period the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (Pasdaran) was working hard to create its own air force (what is now known as AFAGIR: Aerospace Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) that was both rival and complementary to the IRIAF. But having infuriated the Soviet Union early in the war by publicly rejecting a secret arms offer (which indeed led the Soviets to throw all their strategic weight in support of the Iraqis!), Iranian leaders had to hurry and in a creative way of the "alternative shores". One of these was the German Democratic Republic, more informally known as East Germany.

The Armed Forces of East Germany, the Nationale Volksarmee, despite being those with the smallest numerical consistency, were considered at the end of the 80s the best equipped and the most professional among those of the Soviet allies of the Warsaw Pact. The air component of the East German military machine, the Luftstreitkräfte der Nationalen Volksarmee (LSK), was at that time a powerful air force equipped with about a thousand fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft, both combat and support, and among of them there were 251 Mig-21 belonging to no less than 10 different versions (Mig-21F/F-13/PF/PFM/MF/bis/SPS/U/UM/US).

After a long series of negotiations, the authorities of Tehran and East Berlin reached an agreement according to which Tehran would send its pilots (all members of the Pasdaran) to train in East Germany, and East Berlin would hand over a first tranche of 20 Mig-21 (specifically: 16 Mig-21PFM - following photo - and 4 Mig-21U) with the option to purchase another 20 and with a view to selling the entire fleet.

However, Iranian plans to purchase East German Mig-21s did not materialize for two reasons. First, in 1988 the Iran-Iraq War ended with a ceasefire and in the immediate future the authorities in Tehran had far more pressing priorities, such as starting the process of rebuilding the country. Secondly, the changes that soon began to deeply undermine the foundations of the communist world led to the demolition of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the subsequent reunification of the two Germanies the following year.

Having gained full legal control of all assets belonging to the former East Germany, the newly reunified federal Germany immediately halted any arms transfers to Iran. At the time only 3 Mig-21U had been transferred to the Persian state, too few to make any use of them, therefore both the Pasdaran and the IRIAF decided to give them up, demilitarizing them and transferring them to as many military museums.

If the career of the Mig-21 in Iran aborted before even starting, that of the Shenyang F-6 is, if possible, even more mysterious (and almost certainly never happened!).

Developed by the People's Republic of China as a copy and improvement of the Soviet Mig-19, the Shenyang J-6 (photo) entered service in large numbers with the People's Liberation Army Air Force in 1964, before being offered to the US market. 'export as Shenyang F-6 and achieve some success in Third World countries. During the Iran-Iraq War, the F-6s, just like the Mig-19s and Mig-21s mentioned above, also ended up fleshing out the ranks of the Iraqi Air Force (IrAF). The Iraqis obtained their F-6 thanks to the mediation of Egypt, which was also a large user of the aircraft which provided support in various ways: by putting the Iraqi authorities in contact with the Chinese ones, by helping the Iraqis economically, by preparing the infrastructures on its territory industrialists entrusted to the final assembly of the F-6 bound for Iraq and training Iraqi pilots. At the IrAF, the F-6s often carried out ground attack missions and were occasionally also used for the point air defense of the Baghdad blue weapon bases. While suffering noteworthy losses, the F-6s nonetheless did their job honestly and it didn't take long before they piqued the attention of the Iranian enemy.

Here, however, the story becomes smoky and both the sources and the evidence diverge decidedly. According to some, driven by the need to purchase new aircraft, especially for the aforementioned nascent Pasdaran Air Force, the Iranians have contacted the Chinese to negotiate the purchase of 93-100 F-6s while a certain number of Pasdaran pilots have been sent to China and North Korea to train on the new aircraft. The aircraft were then delivered and saw some use between 1987 and 1988, especially in the air-to-ground role, all certified by US intelligence reports which are still available and can be consulted today. In the wake of this theory, even today the F-6 would still be in service in Iran in 12-18 specimens depending on the sources, used by a single IRIAF or Pasdaran squadron with ground attack tasks.

Yet there is a very real possibility that all this is nothing but a colossal falsehood! The author of this analysis has for years studied the past and the present of the Iranian air weapon as well as the means it has used, yesterday as today, and in all this time frame a single photo has never been published depicting a F-6 with Iranian livery! It is true that Iranian pilots both employed in the Pasdaran and in the IRIAF trained intensely in China and in North Korea on the Shenyang JJ-6 (the training variant of the Shenyang J-6/F-6) but this happened only in the ambit of the program that led Iran to adopt the much more powerful Chengdu F-7. The rumors according to which Iran was in talks with Vietnam for the sale of its F-6s have also proved to be totally unfounded and the Iranian authorities themselves have always categorically denied that the F-6s have ever arrived in the country.

At the end of the fair, the total lack (and I stress over and over the word “total”) of any photographic evidence, should be considered as a strong element to affirm that the Shenyang F-6 has never been adopted by Iran and that this "rumor" should be placed in the "Cold War hoaxes" corner.

A whole different story has the Chengdu F-7 as protagonists, but we'll talk about this in the next episode...

Read: "Iran's Mig-21s, F-6s and F-7s (part two)"

Photo: Shahram Sharifi / Twitter / Darkone / web