Revealed: Iran's Vaunted Saeqeh "Thunderbolt" Fighter Is Not What It Seems

Sebastien Roblin

Key point: An arms embargo is preventing Iran's military from buying many modern military platforms.

Tehran is keen to produce its own jet fighters—but designing and manufacturing advanced combat jets poses formidable technological challenges difficult for an isolated industrial base to resolve on its own. Nonetheless, the Iranian air force has prominently showcased its development of several domestic fighter jets since the turn of the century, most notably the HESA Saeqeh (“Thunderbolt”), which Iranian media have claimed to be superior to the F-18 Hornet.

But performance specifications and technical details for these aircraft have remained either vague or nonexistent. This may be less due to secrecy than because additional details would likely be unimpressive, because the Saeqeh is a reverse-engineered American F-5 Freedom Fighter with a new tail and upgraded avionics.

The F-5 Freedom Fighter traces it lineage to a 1950s-era Northrop project that yielded the two-seat T-38 Talon trainer still serving in the U.S. Air Force today. A single-seat variant, however, evolved into the F-5, a lightweight supersonic fighter for export to less wealthy military allies of the United States. Initially priced at just $756,000 per plane (around $6 million, adjusted for inflation), the elegant little fighter could carry more than six thousand pounds of bombs on five hardpoints, as well as two Sidewinder heat-seeking air-to-air missiles on the wingtips. The later F-5E Tiger II variant added radar, lengthened the fuselage to carry additional fuel, enlarged the stubby wings for improved maneuverability and upgraded the J85 turbojets, boosting maximum speed to Mach 1.6. Freedom Fighters went on to see extensive combat over the skies of Vietnam, Ethiopia, Iran, Kuwait and Yemen—and are actively being used in ground-attack missions today by the air forces of Tunisia and Kenya.

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