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

(To Andrea Gaspardo)

In the first part of this analysis we talked about how Iran was interested in the Mig-21 and the F-6 at the time and how this interest had ended in a stalemate and had even given rise to some vivid " Legends of the Cold War".

In this second part, we will deal with the case (this time “real”) of how Iran ended up ordering and operating Chengdu F-7s, another product of Chinese defense industries. Also in this case, the final input came from the need, which emerged during the Iran-Iraq War, by Iran to acquire desperately new aircraft, in particular to be allocated to the nascent air branch of the Pasdaran.

The Iranians had had the opportunity to experience both the strengths and weaknesses of the F-7 firsthand as this aircraft was used liberally by their Iraqi enemies.

In 1982 Jordan, one of Iraq's main supporters during the conflict, gave Saddam Hussein 20 F-7s belonging to the F-7B version. The F-7Bs were an improved variant of the F-7IICs that China had just supplied to Egypt at that time. The improvements in question concerned a new camera Hangjia-10-11 associated with the gun, a new LSC-16C type landing gear, a DH-1030-24-1200-CS-IIB static converter supplied by the American Phoenix Aerospace and a new WP-7IIB(M) propeller by double operating life compared to previous models and characterized by a continuous injection system. While earlier versions of the J-7/F-7 used gasoline-based fuel, the F-7B switched to the much more reliable kerosene (the latter being much less logistically problematic). Like the F-7IIC, the F-7B version could also carry a 720-litre auxiliary tank attached to the ventral section and was approved for launching R.550 missiles Magic of French origin, very popular and easy to find in the Middle East at that time.

The F-7B prototype made its maiden flight on May 16, 1982 with test pilot Liu Jianzhong at the controls and at the end of the tests, the standard aircraft were shipped in November of the same year disassembled in kit to the Arab Organization for Industrialization /Aircraft Factory (AOI/ACF) located at Helwan el Hammamat, Egypt. There they were reassembled and shipped to Jordan, which then turned over to Iraq there in 1983.

The Iraqis were very satisfied with the product, so much so that they ordered another 90 specimens directly from China. Subsequently, the Jordanians and Iraqis also began to pay attention to the updated version of the aircraft, called the F-7M, which China had developed with the decisive impetus of Pakistan. Compared to previous models, the F-7M variant was distinguished by its avionics largely of Western origin (later copied by the Chinese) which included among others:

- a range radar of British origin Sky Ranger 7M;

- a HUDAWAC (Head-Up Display And Weapon Aiming Computer) Type 956 of British origin;

- a new system of electronic countermeasures of British origin renamed MADS-7;

- a digitized flight computer Type 50-048-02 of British origin;

- a new British-origin Type 2032 camera associated with the gun and linked to the HUD and with the ability to change rolls (each lasting 2 minutes) while the aircraft was still in the air;

- a converter of American origin 30% more efficient than the original Chinese one;

- a Type 0101-HRA/2 radar altimeter of American origin;

- an AD-3400 encrypted radio of British origin;

- a new CW-1002 air data sensor developed in China in conjunction with Western avionics.

In addition to these notable improvements in avionics, the F-7M also featured improvements in the fuselage being built of stronger materials and being equipped with an armored bird-proof windshield, as well as a new British-made canopy that opened to the rear. 'backwards. The aircraft had a VHF antenna located on the ventral stabilizer, a fixed pitot probe on the upper right side of the nose section, and was powered by a WP-7B/WP-7BM thruster. Two additional pylons could be installed on the F-7M, under the wings, capable of carrying as many auxiliary tanks with a capacity of 480 liters; moreover, the aircraft was approved for the transport and drop of the same panoply of weapons of French origin that Iraq used on its Mirage F1EQ/BQ.

On August 30, 1983, the first of two prototypes made its maiden flight under test pilot Yu Mingwen, and Jordan immediately placed an order worth $200 million for 60 aircraft for Iraq.

In late 1984 the Iraqis obtained the first 30 fighters, to then receive the rest by May 1985. It is not clear if the 60 F-7Ms of the original order were the only ones that Iraq obtained or if it was followed by others orders as happened for the F-7B variant. In any case, by that time the Iranians had also begun to lay their eyes on war material of Chinese origin, and given that Beijing exported arsenals of all types and in large quantities to each of the two belligerents without much hesitation, they too entered in talks to obtain the F-7M variant of the Chengdu fighter.

As the negotiations progressed, the Iranians learned that China and Pakistan had developed a new and improved variant to meet the wishes of the Bangladesh Air Force called the F-7MB. Improvements to this variant included:

- a new WP-7IIC engine to replace the previous one;

- a new radar warning system (RWR) LJ-2;

- the possibility of installing pods for electronic reconnaissance on the wing pylons;

- the possibility of carrying a Type 3A air target on the pylon located under the central part of the fuselage.

Realizing the fact that this version was the one that could meet their operational needs, the Iranians concluded an agreement in 1986 for the supply of 140 aircraft after obtaining in turn a series of modifications such as:

- the navigation system was replaced with a new TACAN (Tactical Air Navigation System) AD2780;

- onboard computer systems were adapted to use American weapons, such as the 7 mm (2.75-inch) unguided rockets, the Mk 82 and Mk 83 unguided bombs and the Mk 82SE (Snake Eye) parachute bombs . For air-to-air missions, both the French R550 Magic and their Chinese PL-7C copies could be used, as well as the PL-2 and PL-5 missiles inspired by the American AIM-9 Sidewinder;

- all on-board systems displays were also reprogrammed to use British units of measurement instead of metric ones (exactly like the aircraft of American origin that Iran already had in service).

The end result of all these modifications was a new version of the Chengdu aircraft that became known as the F-7N and received the codename of "Airguard". Based on the agreements reached between Tehran and Beijing, the 140 single-seat F-7Ns and two-seat FT-7N trainers (also with full operational capability) were to be delivered in 3 tranches of 20, 40 and 80 aircraft respectively.

At the end of 1986 the first 20 specimens (15 F-7N and 5 FT-7N) arrived in Iran and were destined for Tactical Fighter Base 5 (TFB 5) located at Omidiyeh, not far from Ahwaz. However, their introduction process was very slow and plagued by an infinite number of problems and accidents, so much so that the Pasdaran gave up the possibility of using them in their air branch and the IRIAF itself was repeatedly attempted to cancel the contract tout court. However, at that time Tehran was so short of aircraft that the commander of the IRIAF, Brigadier General Mansour Sattari, a war hero and respected strategist, gave the order to proceed despite everything.

Finally, in late 1988 and when the war had already been over for several months, the F-7s were finally declared operational. In 1990, the second batch of F-7N and FT-7N, including 40 aircraft, was also delivered, bringing the total number of Chinese jets in service with the IRIAF to 60. After this date, news of further F-7 arrivals complicate given that the sources are very divergent. According to some (actually few) even the last lot would have been delivered as foreseen in the original contract. According to others (the majority), Iran has decided to terminate the program and give up any further deliveries. However, this version is problematic because in reality the Iranians decided to interrupt most of the military programs in place with the People's Republic of China only in 1995.

On January 5, 1995, the aforementioned general Sattari died together with other members of the country's military leaders in the crash of an L-1329 Jet Star II ex-Iraqi forcibly reintroduced into service with the IRIAF and used as a VIP transport, and his successor Habib Baghaei immediately decided to interrupt military relations with China citing (actually not completely wrongly!) as a reason the poor quality of the products of Chinese defense industries. However, other sources state that before the actual interruption of the military channels between the Chinese and the Iranians, Tehran was able to obtain a further batch that some (but the sources who claim it do not agree!) quantify in 24 F-7N and 20 FT- 7N.

To better understand things and to make a leap to what was and still is the operational use of the F-7 in the ranks of the IRIAF, at this point it is essential to analyze the ORBAT (acronym which stands for "order of battle ” - order of battle) known of the Iranian Air Force.

Based on both official and unofficial sources, and net of the loss of 5 aircraft over the course of over 30 years of operational career) Iran has established no less than three squadrons (the 51sto, the 52o and 53o) on F-7Ns and FT-7Ns all based at Tactical Fighter Base 5 (TFB 5) of Omidiyeh, in the meantime renamed "Ardestani", in memory of Mostafa Ardestani, F-5 pilot and hero of the Iran-Iraq war who died in 1995 in the crash of the aircraft he was piloting. Given the adherence of the IRIAF to the organization and operational practices borrowed from the West, this force provides for the deployment of a number of aircraft between 54 and 72 overall available to the three departments. To these, however, must be added another 20 F-7s, all of the FT-7N variant (here the sources are strangely unique!), which are in service at the85o Advanced Weapons and Training Squadron stationed at the Tactical Fighter Base 8 (TFB 8) Baba'i of Isfahan, the same one that houses the training departments and the three squadrons equipped with F-14 Tomcat. This implies that overall Iran should have received a number of F-7s ranging from a minimum of 79 to a maximum of 97; in any case many less than the 140 covered by the initial contract. It should also be specified that to date it is not known whether among the large contingent of Iraqi aircraft that found refuge in Iran during Desert Storm there were also F-7s.

Originally purchased to serve as fighters for point defense and advanced training, the F-7N and FT-7N have over the years seen their role also expand to ground attack missions and the possibility of being equipped even with a reconnaissance pod it has increased its value in this sense too. The subsequent updating programs carried out by the Iranian defense industries then led to the integration of new avionics and weapon systems both of Western origin and locally developed. By way of example, in August 2019, Iran announced after two years of tests the integration on the F-7 fleet of three new "smart weapons" called "Yasin", "Balaban" and "Qaem" which should give aircraft of Chinese origin greater operational flexibility, a prelude to the integration of these devices also on other fighter-bombers in service with the IRIAF and AFAGIR.

Although, nowadays, the F-7s have fully occupied their place in the organization chart of the Persian state air forces, not everything has always gone so well and their entry into service has proved to be long and problematic and not there were no accidents, several of which were fatal. At the beginning the aircraft was scarcely appreciated by the pilots, who renamed it "Flying Kettle" ("Bollitore Volante") but with time and practice the original irreverent nickname was replaced by a much more edifying "Flying Dragon" ("Dragone Volante"). ”) and even if to date it does not appear that the F-7 has ever been used by the Iranians in war or anti-guerrilla actions, it has nevertheless contributed to the "hunt for drones" that have crowded the Persian skies since at least the early XNUMXs.

Today the F-7Ns and FT-7Ns continue to serve in the ranks of the IRIAF both in the three squadrons stationed in Omidiyeh (which fly an average of 1.440 operational sorties per year) and at the base in Isfahan (where carry out between 720 and 860 training sorties a year) and recently the country's military leaders approved a massive modernization plan, code-named "Project Shahid Erfanian" to keep them in service and make them competitive for the next twenty years.

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

Photo: tasnimnews - Mohammad Hassanzadeh