After World War 2 (1939-1945), China and the Soviet Union were cooperating political powers. This naturally led to China being the recipient of modern technology developed by Soviet engineers. Ultimately, adoption of Soviet aircraft, tanks and small arms occurred and this allowed the Chinese to field Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 "Fagot" jet-powered fighters in the Korean War. In 1955, the Soviet government granted China license production of the MiG-17 jet fighter and these were produced locally in the hundreds. The intimate experience in producing advanced jet aircraft ultimately allowed a burgeoning Chinese aero industry to develop centering on ordnance, airframes and powerplants. Reverse engineering of military weapons would prove a certain Chinese-held talent over the decades - a trait that continues even today. Wholly-indigenous two-seat trainers were eventually designed, developed and produced, all in-house. License production of the MiG-19 then followed into the 1960s though this period was soon hampered by the Sino-Soviet Split of 1960-1989 which saw a deterioration of the political and military partnership.
Despite the differences, relations seemingly thawed some during that span, enough to open the door for the Soviet Union to introduce the Chinese to their new MiG-21 "Fishbed" interceptor. License production was granted in 1962 and the local concern of Shenyang was charged with copying the MiG-21F-13 "Fishbed-C" and its RD-11F-300 series engine. The Soviets assisted through personnel, aeronautical agencies and kits, the latter intended for local Chinese assembly. Under the Chinese initiative, the MiG-21F was bestowed the designation of "J-7" and its foreign export counterpart would become the "F-7" (subsequently given the unflattering NATO codename of "Fishcan" with exports named "Airguard"). The corresponding engine copy was the localized "WP-7" offering. Initial engine trials occurred in October of 1965 and the prototype was finalized in November of that year. First flight of a Chinese F-7 was on January 17th, 1966. The type proved a serviceable copy and serial production was ordered though slow, beginning in June of 1967. Production, hampered by the arrival of the "Cultural Revolution" (1966-1976), was then allocated to Chengdu facilities. The Revolution undoubtedly hurt the J-7 in the early going as disruptions delayed full operational status of the system until the early 1980s. From there, many kinks were apparent as the Chinese product proved subpar when compared to its Soviet version. Issues were not resolved until 1985.
At its core, the F-7 can be considered a fair copy of the excellent and widely popular 1960s-era MiG-21. The fuselage is of a largely tubular design with low-set delta-shaped main wings and well-swept tail planes. The aircraft relies on a single vertical tail fin. The cockpit is set well-forward in the design with a lightly framed canopy. There is no traditional nosecone as the nose is left open to aspirate the single engine fitting. The undercarriage is wholly retractable and consists of two single-wheeled main legs and a single-wheeled nose leg.
Chinese production allowed Chengdu to sell their aircraft version to budget conscious shoppers worldwide and many parties took the Chinese up on their offers. The type proved exceedingly popular with elements in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia where a capable interceptor with added strike capabilities could finally be had at cost. Further developments in the J-7 lines added to the type's effectiveness though it was nearly always a decade or so behind the Western competition.
Initial production batch models were known simply as J-7 (export models were the F-7) and appeared from Shengyang in 1966 through a 12-strong commitment. These versions fielded only one 30mm NR-30 cannon and two underwing hardpoints allowed for air-to-air ordnance to be fitted as normal. The J-7I was an improved J-7 now handled by Chendgu and revealed in the 1970s. A variable intake was installed over the fixed type of the original and 2 x 30mm guns completed the standard armament installation. This then led to the improved J-7I("modified") with improved hydraulics (a definitive problem area of earlier mounts). From there, the J-7 emerged in a plethora of workable fighter, interception and strike mounts and these proved ever popular in far-off places of the world. Albania and Tanzania became some of the first F-7 operators receiving their export-minded F-7A variants. Pakistan became a large supporter of the F-7 line and a principle, recurring Chinese customer in other areas as well. Egypt operated the F-7 in number as did North Korea and Bangladesh. Iraq became a former operator after the US-led invasion in 2003, eighty of the type being retired permanently. The improved J-7II was worked on beginning in 1975 and featured a more maintenance-efficient, powerful engine. These saw service with both Egypt and Iraq (as the F-7B) beginning in the 1980s.
The F-7M "Airguard" variant was an improved J-7II model intended for export sale and fitted with Western-centric avionics for broader mass market appeal. Extra hardpoints were added as were internal British and American systems. A more powerful engine worked in concert with a new cranked delta wing design for improved performance and handling. The J-III followed and this was largely based on the MiG-21MF, believed by way of Egypt, and reverse-engineered by Chinese engineers for reproduction and eventual resale. These new mounts offered an all-weather attack radar with in a new radome assembly, a capability lacking in many earlier models. The local concern of Guizhou managed production of twin-seat trainer variants in the JJ-7 and FT-7 and similar.
Other J-7/F-8 models exist (see variants listing below for a complete list). Many offer only subtle changes to design (HUD support, in-cockpit MFD, HOTAS, etc...) and functionality while others were heavy revisions or complete rewrites that never came to pass. At any rate, the F-7 has more or less seen its best days behind it and, for all intents and purposes, is an outclassed fighter mount by modern standards. However, it has proven relatively inexpensive to procure in number and allowed many-a-nation to provide its air services with a capable reach, particularly when a 1960's era fighter was enough to subdue a weaker neighbor.