The US-trained Iranian Imperial Air Force was widely regarded as second only to Israel's in the Middle East - more than a match for Iraq and a serious adversary for even the Soviet Union. At its peak the Imperial Iranian Air Force, that of the Shah, had more than 450 modern combat aircraft, including then state of the art F-14A Tomcat fighters and about 5,000 well-trained pilots. On the eve of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 the Air Force, numbering close to 100,000 personnel, was by far the most advanced of the three Iranian military services and among the most impressive air forces in the developing world. Reliable information on the Air Force after the Revolution was difficult to obtain, but it seemed clear that by 1987 a fairly large number of the existing fleet had been cannibalized for spare parts.
A total of 14 air bases were operational: Ahvaz, Bandar Abbas, Bushehr, Chan Bahar, Dezful, Doshan Tapeh (Tehran), Ghaleh Morghi (Tehran), Hamadan, Isfahan, Mashhad, Mehrabad (Tehran), Shiraz, Tabriz and Zahedan. Soviet and Chinese-made aircraft, obtained following the Iranian Revolution were distributed throughout the country to fufill mission roles of ground attack, transport, training and interception. Bandar Abbas, Bushehr, Dezful, Hamadan, Tabriz and Mehrabad became the centers for ground attack squadrons. Shiraz was the home of the interceptor squadron. It also provided training along with, Mehrabad, Doshan Tapeh and Isfahan. Shiraz also housed the transport squadron.
Air Force headquarters was located at Doshan Tapeh Air Base, near Tehran. Iran's largest air base, Mehrabad, outside Tehran, was also the country's major civil airport. Other major operational air bases were at Tabriz, Bandar-e Abbas, Hamadan (Shahroki Air Base), Dezful (Vahdati Air Base), Shiraz, and Bushehr. Since 1980 air bases at Ahvaz, Esfahan (Khatami Air Base), and Bandar Beheshti had also become operational. The Air Force's primary maintenance facility was located at Mehrabad Air Base. The nearby Iran Aircraft Industries, in addition to providing main overhaul backup for the maintenance unit, was active in manufacturing spare parts.
Before the Revolution, the Air Force was organized into 15 squadrons with fighter and fighter-bomber capabilities and a single reconnaissance squadron. In addition, 1 tanker squadron, and 4 medium and 1 light transport squadron provided impressive logistical support. By 1986 desertions and depletions led to a reorganization of the Air Force into 8 squadrons again with fighter and fighter-bomber capabilities and 1 reconnaissance squadron. This reduced force was supported by 2 joint tanker-transport squadrons and 5 light transport squadrons. Some 76 helicopters and 5 surface-to-air missile (SAM) squadrons supplemented this capability.
From its inception, the Air Force also assumed responsibility for air defense. The existing early warning systems, built in the 1950s under the auspices of Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), were upgraded in the 1970s with a modern air defense radar network. To complement the ground radar component and provide a blanket coverage of the Gulf region, the United States also agreed to sell Iran 7 Boeing 707 airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft in late 1977. Following the Revolution, Washington canceled the AWACS sale, claiming that this sensitive equipment might be compromised. Finally, the Air Force's 3 SAM battalions and 8 Improved HAWK battalions were reorganized in the mid-1980s (in a project involving more than 1,800 missiles) into 5 squadrons that also contained Rapiers and Tigercats of British origin. Washington's sale of HAWK spare parts and missiles in 1985 and 1986 may have enhanced this capability.
The Iranian air force never fully recovered from the effects of the 1979 revolution. At the beginning of the war, pilots were in short supply and flying proficiency was markedly lower than before the revolution. U.S. technicians who left Iran during the days preceding the fall of the Shah succeeded in erasing inventory records, ripping avionics packages out of F-14 aircraft, and destroying caches of repair parts at bases around Iran.
The clerics purged a large part of the conventional military structure after the 1979 revolution leaving the military broken and barely able to defend Iran from the initial Iraqi ground invasion in 1980. After Khomeini seized power on 11 February 1979, the revolutionary regime regarded the Air Force as a waste of money that rightfully belonged to the mostazafin (poor oppressed masses). One of the new government's first acts was a purge of the armed forces, particularly the officer corps, which was (probably correctly) thought to be a hotbed of monarchist sentiment. The Air Force, where virtually the entire fighting element - the combat pilots - was composed of officers, was especially hard hit. To make matters worse, Iran's best combat pilots had been trained in the United States and Israel, making them particularly suspect.
The senior command echelon of the IIAF had been decapitated in 1979 and early 1980 by arrests, imprisonments, executions, purges, and forced exiles. A failed coup that originated on Shahrokhi Air Base in Hamadan in June 1980 brought about another sweeping purge. Many IIAF personnel were shot or jailed for suspected or real complicity in the coup attempt, and the purge of personnel whose ultimate loyalty was suspect continued at a faster pace.
The result of these actions was an Iranian air force which faced considerable problems maintaining its planes and combat capabilities. Iran husbanded the few air assets it had for strategic missions at the expense of tactical and operational fires. While suffering from poor maintenance and lack of spare parts, the Iranian Air Force was able to launch a surprising counterattack just days after Iraqi preemptive strikes on Iranian air fields. They also launched a major airlift using Boeing 747, 707, and C-130 aircraft to move conventional forces to the front.
The Iranian Air Force, equipped with Maverick missiles, proved critical during the initial defense by attacking Iraqi ground forces. The Iranian air force operated aggressively at the beginning of the war, providing both close air support and battlefield interdiction in support of Iranian ground forces. An example of this level of support occurred on October 3, 1981 when Iranian planes hit a large Iraqi armor formation massing in central Khuzistan.
Iran also made effective use of attack helicopters. Helicopters were the primary Iranian anti-armor system, and Iran scoured the international arms market for TOW missiles for its helicopter gunships. As the war progressed, Iran increasingly relied on army aviation to support ground operations, while the air force concentrated on strategic countervalue targets.
When the Iran-Iraq War started in 1980, Iran's F-14s, equipped with Phoenix missiles, capable of identifying and destroying six targets simultaneously from a range of 80 kilometers or more, inflicted heavy casualties on the Iraqi air force, which was forced to disperse its aircraft to Jordan and Oman. The capability of the F-14s and F-4s was enhanced by the earlier acquisition of a squadron of Boeing 707 tankers, thereby extending their combat radius to 2,500 kilometers with in-flight refueling.
Iranian F-14 Tomcats were also used like miniature AWACS, reporting Iraqi fighter operations to Iranian air defense commanders with their powerful radars. In response, Iraqi Mirage F-1EQ fighters flew high-speed, low-altitude profiles, well below the Tomcat's radar limits. The F-1EQ would pop up directly beneath the Tomcat's orbit, briefly illuminate the F-14 with its radar, and fire one or two air-to-air missiles at it. Iran lost several Tomcats to these tactics.
Iran began the war with HAWK surface-to-air missile defenses, though these were largely for the defense of fixed military facilities. Iran's doctrine emphasized active air defense using aircraft like the F-14. Iran failed to use its HAWKs effectively during the war, failing even to mount an effective point defense of key oil facilities. This may have been affected by the general disruption in the military establishment following the Shah's fall. There were only a few confirmed Iranian HAWK kills of Iraqi aircraft.
The Iraqi Air Force's first real strategic bombing campaign was the so-called war of the cities, which aimed at breaking civilian morale and disrupting military targets. Iraq's two efforts early in 1985, from 14 March to 7 April 1985 and 25 May to 15 June 1985, were reportedly very effective. Opposition from the Iranian Air Force was negligible to nonexistent, as the Iraqis hit air bases and military and industrial targets all over Iran (in Tabriz, Urmia, Rasht, Bakhteran, Hamadan, Tehran, Isfahan, Dezful, Ahvaz, Kharg, Bushehr, and Shiraz). Even Iraq's lumbering old Tu-16 bombers were getting through, presumably with MiG-25 and Mirage F-1 escorts, as the Iraqis hit targets as far away as Kashan, more than 360 miles from their own bases. According to local residents, conditions in Tehran during the Iraqi bombings were very difficult. Fires blazed out of control as firefighters struggled with low pressure from broken water mains. Tehran's hospitals overflowed with casualties. The daily toll was reckoned "in the hundreds," and there were frequent emergency radio appeals for blood donors.
By 1987, the Air Force faced a new problem, one of an acute shortage of spare parts and replacement equipment. Perhaps 35 of the 190 Phantoms were serviceable in 1986. One F-4 had been shot down by Saudi F-15s, and two pilots had defected to Iraq with their F-4s in 1984. The number of F-5s dwindled from 166 to perhaps 45, and the F-14 Tomcats from 77 to perhaps 10. The latter were hardest hit because maintenance posed special difficulties after the United States embargo on military sales.
In the "Tanker War", Iran proved unable to protect Kharg Island and its other oil facilities from attack by the Iraqi air force. As a consequence, Iran responded by doing the only thing it could - mining the waters of the Persian Gulf and risking international ire by attacking neutral shipping.
Iran's national will was decisively engaged by Iraqi missile attacks on Tehran and other large Iranian population centers during the "War of the Cities." The Iranian people were demoralized by repeated Iraqi missile attacks on their cities. As an illustration of this, more than one million people fled Tehran during the second "War of the Cities" in 1988.
With the onset of Desert Storm in 1991, reports suggested that more than 350 advanced aircraft were bought or made operational including, Russian Mig-27s, -29s, -31s, Tu-22M3 Backfires, Russian Su-24s, -25s, -27s, Il-76 transports, and French Mirage F-1s. Iran purchased a number of Mig-29s (Mig-29A and Mig-29UB trainers) from what was then the Soviet Union, and aquired a number of others impounded after fleeing Iraq during Desert Storm. Su-24MKs, SU-25Ks, and a number of Il-76 were aquired in the same way.
At least 115 combat aircraft flew to Iran from Iraq during Desert Storm, out of the total of 137-149 aircraft flown to Iran or crashed enroute, including military transports and commerical airliners. According to an official Iraqi statement, the combat aircraft included 24 Mirage F-1s, 4 Su-20 Fitters, 40 Su-22 Fitters, 24 Su-24 Fencers, seven Su-25 Frogfoots, nine Mig-23 Floggers, and four Mig-29 Fulcrums. Reports that Saddam Hussein ordered 20 Tu-22 bombers to Iran appeared unfounded. The reported orders in 1992 for Mig-27, -31, Su-22, and Tu-22M aircraft were either in error or failed to come to fruition as those aircraft types did not subsequently appear in Iranian inventory. In this period close to $2 billion was reportedly spent on foreign weapons systems.
In 1993 it was reported that Russia was to provide Iran with spare parts, armaments, and operating manuals for the Iraqi jets that flew to Iran during the Gulf War. In 1993 it was also reported that China had bought an unknown number of these Mig-29s from Iran, in exchange for Chinese missile technology and a nuclear power station. The two countries had reportedly reached agreement on the exchange in late 1992, with Iran having delivered some of the Mig-29s by the end of 1992.
In 1998 Iraq and Iran had high-level meetings to discuss ending their state of war and other matters, including Iraq's request to have its airplanes returned. Iran denied it had used any of the Iraqi fighter planes. If Iran had kept the Iraqi planes grounded for the entire time, they were probably nonfunctional. It was also possible that the Iranians might not have been able to start the engines or operate the hydraulics. Other reports suggested that some Su-24s were added to Iran's existing inventory, some Su-20/22s were in Revolutionary Guard service. The Iraqi Su-25s, Mig-23s and Mirage F-1s were thought by some to be not in service, due to age, low capability (Mig-23s) or too few numbers (Su-25). Other reports suggested that Iran had overhauled Iraq's fleet of 24 Mirage F-1EQ fighters and placed them into service. By 2000 reports emerged suggesting that Iran had in fact not incorporated the Mig-23 or Su-20/22 aircraft (at least into their regular Air Force), but had taken the Iraqi Su-24MK, Su-25K, and Mirage F-1EQ aircraft into inventory.
On 05 August 2007 Lieutenant-General Kamal al-Barzanji, Iraq's air force commander, said he hoped Iran would return some of the Iraqi warplanes that fled to Iran ahead of the Gulf War in 1991. He conceded that many of them were probably beyond repair.
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