Iran's Air Force May Be Large, But Size Isn't Everything

Key Point: Most of Iran’s fighters are old and outdated.

The Iranian air force on paper is one of the biggest air arms in the world. Its order of battle includes around 350 fighters, more than twice as many as the Royal Air Force possesses.

But most of Iran’s fighters are old and outdated. The ones that aren’t old are just new copies of old designs. The air force’s squadrons fly American-made F-14s, F-5s and F-4s dating from the 1970s, some 1980s-vintage MiG-29s and Sukhoi fighter-bombers and a few J-7s that the Islamic Republic bought from China during the 1990s.

Iran’s only recent acquisitions are locally-made, reverse-engineered copies of the F-5. But the country repeatedly has tried to buy new fighters, if all the news reports and rumors are true. What follows is a list of fighters Iran reportedly wanted but couldn’t get.


In 1990 Tehran placed an order from Moscow for, among other weapons, 24 MiG-31 interceptors. The twin-engine MiG-31 was the Soviet Union’s successor to the Mach-three MiG-25. MiG-31s significantly could have improved Iran’s ability to patrol its air space and threaten its neighbors.

But the Soviet Union collapsed before it could fill Iran’s order. In 1992, Tehran tried again, ordering from a cash-hungry Russia a fresh batch of MiG-29s and well as Tu-22 bombers, MiG-27 fighter-bombers and 24 MiG-31s. This time around the United States successfully applied pressure on Russia to cancel the sale.

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