by DAVID AXE
If Iran and the U.S. ever come to blows over Tehran’s nuclear program, U.S. warplanes could face an Iranian aerial arsenal that, while old, has been heavily upgraded. China is helping Iran add new sensors and weapons to U.S.-built F-4 Phantoms that are nearly 50 years old.
The upgrades don’t mean the Vietnam War-vintage F-4s are equal to American F-15s, F-16s and F/A-18s — to say nothing of the stealthy F-22s. Nor should the U.S. underestimate Iran’s aerial capabilities. Enhancements can significantly boost the combat potential of older planes.
Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, arms embargoes and U.S. pressure on supplier nations have made it all but impossible for Tehran to acquire new foreign-made military aircraft. Only China has been willing to defy the embargoes.
Iran is reportedly building new copies of the Saeqeh fighter, a reverse-engineered version of the U.S. F-5. But most of the fleet — including Russian-built Su-24s and MiG-29s; Mirage F.1s from France; Chinese J-6s and F-7s; and F-4s, F-5s and F-14s acquired from the U.S. — is 1960s- and ’70s-vintage. The newest foreign fighters in Iranian service are former Iraqi planes flown to safety in Iran during the U.S.-led aerial onslaught in 1991.
Iran acquired 32 F-4Ds along with 180 F-4Es from the U.S. starting in 1970. (The F-4D carries only missiles and bombs; the later F-4E is fitted with a 20-millimeter gun.) Accidents and losses during the war with Iraq in the 1980s steadily reduced the Phantom force to just 10 F-4Ds and 18 F-4Es, according to Flight Global‘s 2013 warplane database; the U.S. embargo following the revolution led to a shortage of spares that curtailed flying hours for the surviving jets.
It wasn’t until the early 2000s that Tehran made serious investment in the F-4s, as detailed by Babak Taghvaee in the latest issue of Combat Aircraft magazine. The first step was to repair the planes’ existing systems. In March 2010 the state-owned Iranian Aircraft Industries began upgrade work on the first F-4D, replacing the wiring and, with the help of Chinese technicians, adding new Chinese-made radar, radios, flat-screen displays and moving map with embedded GPS.
The updated F-4D flew for the first time in February; testing of the new systems is ongoing. Further planned updates include a new Chinese Head-Up Display, radar warning receiver, chaff and flare dispensers and PL-7 infrared- and PL-12 radar-guided air-to-air missiles.
The enhanced F-4s are slated to remain in service until at least 2025.