American-Made Fighter Jets Still Flying in Iranian Air Force 40 Years Later

US warplanes sold to the country in the 1970s get homegrown hacks to keep them operational.

An Iranian F-5 jet fighter takes off in Chabahar city, south of Iran during a military exercise on June 23, 2009. (EBRAHIM NOROUZI/AFP/Getty Images)
AFP/Getty Images

Back in the 1970s, when the United States was still friendly with Iran, the U.S. government sold 166 Northrop F-5E/F Tiger II jets to the oil-rich country. Now, those decades-old warplanes are still flying, but now require a tune up to keep them aloft for decades more.

According to Popular Mechanics, 44 American-made F-5Es (single-seat jets) and 15 F-5Fs (two-seat, combat-ready trainers) are still in operation.

Iran’s government instigated a Tiger II upgrade program that involved “10 top Iranian universities, 72 privately run companies, 44 suppliers and 63 science and research foundations,” Aviation Week & Space Technology reports.

Although the Iranian upgrade team has been able to replicate a vast majority of the Tiger II’s General Electric J85-GE-21 afterburning turbojet engines, 20 percent of the parts are the original, American-made, GE stock, most of which are 40-plus years old.

These American-made planes are part of a broader array of cobbled together airframe technology Iran is using to maintain these fighters. The planes’ radar system is an Iranian copy of a Chinese copy of an Italian radar system. Likewise, the jets are using both GPS and the Russian GLONASS system to navigate. The short-range missiles deployed on the Tiger IIs are decades old AIM-9J Sidewinders and Chinese air-to-air missiles.

Until Iran’s political standing improves with the rest of the world and the vast complex of Western embargoes are lifted, the regime will have to do make do with Russian and Chinese systems and whatever copies of 1970s-era American tech it can muster.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.