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Iran’s first indigenously developed fighter jet looks a lot like the American F-5

Iran on Tuesday unveiled the “Kowsar,” it’s first domestic fighter jet that President Hassan Rouhani said was designed to create a “lasting peace.”

In a speech shortly after sitting in the cockpit of the fourth-generation fighter at the National Defence Industry exhibition, Rouhani said: “When I speak of our readiness to defend, it means we seek lasting peace. If we lack readiness, we welcome war.”

Defense Minister Amir Hatami first announced the jet last week, saying that Iran’s moves to boost its defense program was motivated by the eight-year Iran-Iraq war and threats from the United States and Israel.

State news agency Tasnim said the two-seat Kowsar had an advanced avionics system and “multi-purpose radar” and stressed that it was “100 percent” domestically produced.

Commentators quickly noted that the Kowsar, despite state media assertions, looked familiar.

“An hour ago, a 42 yrs old U.S. made F-5F which is just a testbed for avionic of Iranian Air Force future training jet (Kowsar-88) was unveiled & claimed to be a 4th Generation Fighter jet completely designed & manufactured in Iran,” Iranian aviation historian Babak Taghvaee tweeted.

Joseph H. Dempsey, Research Associate for Defence and Military Analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, noted the physical similarities between the two planes:

“It is possible that Iran has reversed engineered the F-5 design and can produce their own versions locally – as opposed to using existing airframes. There remains some questions over this, particularly in respect of building engines and sourcing updated avionics independently,” Dempsey told The Defense Post.

“Whilst the Kowsar shown today is externally an F-5F it is not going to be identical to the ones received from the U.S.,” he added. “For example, interior images portray a more modern digital cockpit display and ejection seats based upon the Russian K-36, as used on the Mig-29.”

Iran’s F-5 fleet

Iran purchased more than 200 F-5A and F-5B variants from Northrop Grumman in the 1960s and 1970s, many of which were sold off or destroyed during the Iran-Iraq war in the following decade.

The Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force, created after the 1979 revolution, kept its remaining aircraft in decent shape with spare parts from outside the U.S., as the F-5A is inexpensive and easy to maintain.

Iran F-5
Iranian F-5s in the Iran-Iraq war. Image: iranmilitaryforum.net/Public Domain

The Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company (HSEA) was tasked in the last decade with converting the remaining F-5A one-seater into F-5B two-seater jets, and successfully remodeled the single-seat F-5E, now called the Saeqeh (Thunderbolt). A second Saeqeh variation with two seats was introduced in 2015.

Overhauled F-5s were still entering the IRIAF as late as August 5.

The plane displayed on Tuesday appears similar to the two-seat F-5F Tiger, a training variant of the F-5E.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani sits in the cockpit of the 'Kowsar' fighter jet
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani sits in the cockpit of the ‘Kowsar’ fighter jet on August 21, 2018. Image: Iranian President’s Office

Iran first announced the Kowsar in 2012, saying that it was one of two new trainer jets under development. General Manouchehr Yazdani, then the Iran Air Force Deputy Commander for Training, said at the time that the Kowsar-88 would be similar to the Saeqeh.

The semi-official Fars News Agency published a video of the aircraft last year, and again said it would be used for training.

European Defence Review reported earlier this year that the Kowsar trainer was still incomplete during that ceremony due to budget constrains and the impact of Western sanctions on Iran. The magazine reported that the aircraft will use F-5A/B components from the remains of the IRIAF’s fleet.

Taghvaee suggested the Kowsar could be an upgraded Azaraksh (Lightning), a modified F-5E that was under development in the late 1990s but never seems to have reached full production. He told The Defense Post that the Kowsar simply wasn’t ready to fly.

“The real Kowsar-88 is a training jet,” Taghvaee said.

“That was just a Northop F-5F Tiger II, but its fuselage was produced by the Iranian Aircraft Manufacturing company. Its J85-GE-21 [engine]s and other components are U.S. made.”

“Despite all the lies, the true achievement in this Azarakhsh II is its modern and domestically manufactured avionic systems,” he added.

Whatever the aircraft really is, there is no proof it can fly. AFP noted that the live feed of the Kowsar taxing down the runway was cut before the plane took off.

Iran’s defense technology pronouncements are almost uniquely scrutinized, and subjected to skepticism that most other countries’ advances are not, but the Islamic Republic has a history of boasting about military developments that don’t quite ring true.

Last month, Reza Mozaffarinia, the Deputy Defense Minister for Armed Forces Logstics, said the Iranian Army and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps could receive up to 800 domestically manufactured tanks, including the Karrar battle tank..

But the Karrar, unveiled in March 2017, bears a striking resemblance to the Russian third-generation T-90 tank.

Even the “100 percent domestically-made” Fatah Mobin ballistic missile, announced just last week, looks similar to the Fatah-110 missile, in service since 2002.

The fact is, most of Iran’s domestic military development programs are suffering from Western sanctions – sanctions on its ballistic missile program weren’t included in the 2015 nuclear deal, so many defense manufacturers and procurement agencies, including the Iranian Aviation Industries Organization to which HSEA belongs, are still unable to do business with most of the world.

“The wider picture is an Air Force that has a large number of ageing aircraft, including those delivered pre-1979 revolution. Capability is based on keeping these flying and integration on newer technology and will likely remain so until sanctions lift and it can import more modern platforms, most likely from Russia,” Dempsey said.

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