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Iran's New Fighter By: Reuben F. Johnson
The Weekly Standard | Thursday, September 27, 2007

Beijing: In the midst of recriminations over Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech at Columbia, the Iranian head of state has sent signals this past week that rather than trying to find a diplomatic solution with Washington and its European allies he will continue to maintain a defiant and belligerent stance over Teheran's weapons programs.

The new Iranian-designed and produced fighter aircraft, the Sa'eqeh.

The latest in a series of "messages" being sent to the West is the news reported this past week of Ahmadinejad presiding over a military parade that featured a cornucopia of weapon systems now in the hands of the Iranian armed forces. Among these was a new Iranian-designed and produced fighter aircraft, the Sa'eqeh (Lightning), which had just begun series-production in August according to Iran's official state news outlets.

Amadinejad told the crowd, which was assembled to commemorate the 27th anniversary of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, that "those (countries) who assume that decaying methods such as psychological war, political propaganda and the so-called economic sanctions would work and prevent Iran's fast drive toward progress are mistaken."

His statements were in reference to the embargo on Teheran for all sales of arms, spare parts, or any other military technology--sanctions that have existed since the overthrow of the Shah's government by the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Since that time Iran's armed forces have struggled to keep an ever-aging arsenal of U.S. weaponry functioning, almost all of which was purchased under the Shah more than three decades ago.

Being cut off from any legal means of supporting this military hardware put Iran in a difficult spot when Iraq decided to wage war on the new Islamic Republic, and forced its defence industry to become as self-sufficient as possible. The Sa'eqeh is the culmination of almost 30 years of effort to achieve that self-sufficiency.

The Iranian president boasted that "those who prevented Iran, at the height of the war [with Iraq] from getting even barbed wire must see now that all the equipment on display today has been built by the mighty hands and brains of experts at Iran's armed forces."

However, do not rush to write your congressional representatives to suggest that Washington respond to this new threat by doubling the U.S. Air Force's buy of Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor fighter jets. A closer look at the aircraft shows that its primary significance is symbolic--the first military aircraft to ever be designed and produced in Iran--and that it is not a modern-age weapon system.

The Sa'eqeh is based almost entirely on the old Northrop F-5 fighter aircraft, the chief U.S. export fighter of the 1960s and 70s, 166 of which were sold to Iran before the revolution. After the embargo was initiated the Iranian armed forces were able to purchase spares through illegal channels and on the arms black market since the F-5 had been widely exported to numerous nations friendly to the United States and there were any number of parts depots around the world.

In one case Iran was able to purchase F-5s and a large stock of spare parts from Ethiopia. The African nation had initially purchased the aircraft from Vietnam. The communist government in Hanoi had captured these aircraft from the South Vietnamese air force when they took Saigon, but had no use for them since the new, re-united Vietnam's arsenal was almost all of Soviet make and design.

However, Ethiopia could not sustain the aircraft's operation and sold 18 of them--along with several spare parts sets--to Iran through a British front company, which camouflaged the sale by making it a transaction not to the Islamic Republic's MoD but instead to the National Iranian Oil Company.

The ability to obtain parts, spare engines, and other components for the F-5 despite the embargo, plus the facilities to overhaul the aircraft that had been established in Iran in the previous decade, gave Iranian industry a full-spectrum education on the design and operation of this aircraft. The F-5 became the basis of a program to develop a new, "indigenous" fighter, which has produced several prototypes under different designators until arriving at the configuration of the Sa'eqeh.

The aircraft is outwardly a copy of the F-5 that has been enlarged proportionally by 10-15 percent, with the other chief difference being that Iranian engineers have changed the aircraft's single vertical tail into twin verticals that are canted outward in the same style as the Boeing F/A-18 Hornet. The internal systems of the aircraft are reported to be a mix of copies of older-generation U.S. technology and 1980s/early 1990s Russian avionics.

But despite its rather humble origins and two-generations ago technology, Iranian officials have spared no hyperbole in public statements about the Sa'eqeh.

Defence Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar told Iranian state TV that the "two Sa'eqeh jets were tested successfully by air force pilots ... The test scared Iran's enemies." He later said that the two jets would officially join the country's fleet of warplanes to be on guard against a possible U.S. attack. "We have reached the cutting edge of designing new generation fighter jets."

The chief of Iran's armed forces, Ataollah Salehi. said the test flights proved that "Iran, with its advanced equipment and capabilities, is fully prepared for any possible aggression." He and others also rate the Sa'eqeh as being "more powerful" than the U.S. F/A-18.

But, cursory analysis shows these proclamations to be short on reality and long on propaganda. The Sa'eqeh--aside from being a copy of yesterday's military technology and less powerful than the oldest fighter in the U.S. or Israeli air forces--is entirely for show. Nothing makes that clearer than how the aircraft that flew during the parade were painted. Instead of sporting some combat-ready camouflage they were instead decked out in a bright blue and yellow color scheme that itself seemed to mimic that of the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels demonstration team. In other words, perfect for wooing a crowd of spectators on the Ayatollah's birthday, but useless for combat operations.

Sadly, the aircraft itself and the official statements about it are symbols not only of the regime's continued isolation, but how much that isolation has cost the country and its people in terms of economic development.

To proclaim that a replica of a 40-plus year old American aeroplane is a technological marvel shows just how far behind Iran is compared with the rest of the world--and how difficult it will be to catch up once it does re-integrate itself with the community of civilized nations. Ahmadinejad and those around him need to change course before his entire country becomes just like the nation's defence industrial base: a museum of manufactured obsolescence.

Reuben Johnson is a regular contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.

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