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Iraqi Air Force Equipment - Introduction

Most of Iraq's Air Force was destroyed during Operation Iraqi Freedom during early 2003, and all remaining equipment was junked in the immediate aftermath of the war. None of the aircraft acquired during Saddam's time remained in service.

The status of the Iraqi Air Force was poorly documented in the open literature. According to various estimates, Iraq probably had at least 100 combat aircraft in service, though some estimates suggest that as many as 300 combat aircraft remained in service. This wide variation in estimates probably reflects some underlying uncertainty in classified Western intelligence estimates, as well as a general absence of public reporting of such estimates in recent years. The higher estimates appear to account for all existing airframes, regardless of operational status, while the lower estimates appear to account for the cannibalization of some airframes to provide spare parts to keep at least some aircraft in flyable condition.

Some published estimates suggest that there were as many as 750 combat aircraft in the Iraqi Air Force at the time of the 1991 Gulf War. Other estimates suggest that the actual number of fighter and ground attack aircraft was closer to 500. One problem with the higher number is that it is apparently derived from calculating aircraft deliveries during the 1980s, without accounting for combat and other losses during the decade of war with Iran. While most sources report that over 90 of the 113 one-seat Mirage F.1s from France remained in service as of 1991, other estimates suggest that the number was far lower. And while Iraq received over 200 MiG-21s and F-7s during the 1980s, by some accounts over half of these had been lost by the time of the 1991 Gulf War.

The UN and Kuwait say Iraq did not return extensive Kuwaiti military equipment, including eight Mirage F-1 aircraft.

The equipment of the air force and the army's air corps, like that of the other services, was primarily of Soviet manufacture. After 1980, however, in an effort to diversify its sources of advanced armaments, Iraq turned to France for Mirage fighters and for attack helicopters. Between 1982 and 1987, Iraq received or ordered a variety of equipment from France, including more than 100 Mirage F-1s, about 100 Gazelle, Super-Frelon, and Alouette helicopters, and a variety of air-to-surface and air-to-air missiles, including Exocets. Other attack helicopters purchased included the Soviet Hind equipped with AT-2 Swatter, and BO-105s equipped with AS-11 antitank guided weapons. In addition, Iraq bought seventy F-7 (Chinese version of the MiG-21) fighters, assembled in Egypt. Thus Iraq's overall airpower was considerable.

Between 1977 and 1987, Paris contracted to sell a total of 133 Mirage F-1 fighters to Iraq. The first transfer occurred in 1978, when France supplied eighteen Mirage F-1 interceptors and thirty helicopters, and even agreed to an Iraqi share in the production of the Mirage 2000 in a US$2 billion arms deal. In 1983 another twenty-nine Mirage F-1s were exported to Baghdad. And in an unprecedented move, France "loaned" Iraq five SuperEtendard attack aircraft, equipped with Exocet AM39 air-to- surface missiles, from its own naval inventory. The SuperEtendards were used extensively in the 1984 tanker war before being replaced by several F-1s. The final batch of twenty-nine F1s was ordered in September 1985 at a cost of more than US$500 million, a part of which was paid in crude oil. Iraq also bought more than 400 Exocet AM39 air-to-surface missiles and at least 200 AS30 laser-guided missiles between 1983 and 1986.

While maintaining official neutrality in the Iran-Iraq War, the Soviet Union had provided extensive military assistance to Iraq, and at the same time, continued its efforts to gain leverage on Iran. In early 1987, Moscow delivered a squadron of twenty-four MiG-29 Fulcrums to Baghdad. Considered the most advanced fighter in the Soviet arsenal, the MiG-29 previously had been provided only to Syria and India. The decision to export the MiG-29 to Iraq, also assured Iraq a more advantageous payment schedule than any offered by the West and it reflected Soviet support for one of its traditional allies in the Middle East. In May 1987 the Soviets provided Iraq with better financial terms in a successful effort to prevent Iraq from buying sixty French Mirage 2000 fighters for an estimated US$3 billion. Caught in a financial crisis, Baghdad welcomed the low-interest loans Moscow extended for this equipment.

Iraqi Su-22 FITTERs and MiG-23 FLOGGERs conducted most air-launched chemical attacks during the Iran-Iraq War. Iraq also utilized several other airframes, fixed and rotary-wing, for the delivery of chemical weapons. The preferred chemical ordnance delivered by Iraqi aircraft during the war were 250 and 500-kg bombs. During the war, mustard- and Tabun-filled 250-kg bombs were delivered by FLOGGER F and FITTER. Also, 500-kg mustard-filled bombs were delivered by FITTER aircraft, and probably by FLOGGERs as well. Iraq may have developed the capability to also use cluster bombs, some of which may have been filled with chemicals since the end of the Iran-Iraq War. In addition to bombs, 55-gallon drums filled with unknown chemical agents (probably mustard) were dropped onto forces from altitudes of 3,000-4,000 feet by Iraqi helicopters. Spray systems mounted on the Mi-8 HIP helicopters were also used against troop concentrations. An unknown number of HIPs were outfitted with two spray tanks on their underside, each with a volume of 1000 liters. A B0-105 reportedly observed near Basrah in April 1988 carried a probable chemical spray tank attached to the exterior near the cockpit, although there is no confirmed use of this helicopter delivering chemical ordnance. Finally, 90-mm air-to-surface rockets filled with chemical agent, possibly fired by Mi-24/25 HINDs, were used against Iranian troops.

By the summer of 1990, the IQAF constituted the sixth largest air force in the world, with 750 fighter, bomber, and armed trainer aircraft, supported by 200 miscellaneous types, including an Iraqi-built airborne early warning aircraft derived from the Soviet IL-76 transport. Iraq's air force included the modern MiG-29 Fulcrum interceptor and air superiority fighter, the MiG-27 Flogger strike fighter, the MiG-25 Foxbat interceptor, the MiG-23 Flogger fighter-bomber, the MiG-21 Fishbed fighter, the Sukhoi Su-25 Frogfoot ground attack airplane, the Sukhoi Su-24 Fencer strike aircraft, the Sukhoi Su -7, -20 and -22 Fitter family of fighter-bombers, and the Tupolev Tu-16 Badger and Tu-22 Blinder bombers. Additionally, it had Chinese-made H-6 and J-7 aircraft, the Czech L-39 armed trainer, and French Mirage F-1 fighters. These carried a variety of Soviet and European air-to-air missiles, bombs, bomblet dispensers, and smart weapons such as the French-built AS-30L laser-guided weapon.

Fewer than half of these aircraft were either third generation (comparable to the US F-4) or fourth generation (comparable to US F-15 technology), and were flown by pilots of marginal quality, compared with US aviators. These aircraft included the Soviet MiG-29 and Su-24 (both fourth generation) as well as the MiG-23, MiG-25, and the French Mirage F-1 (third generation). The rest of the aircraft were 1950s and 1960s Soviet and Chinese technology, and were flown by poorly trained personnel. Nevertheless, under the proper conditions, even the older aircraft models were effective.

The 65 French-built Mirage F-1s and their pilots were the Iraqi Air Force elite. Iraq had acquired a wide range of weapons and electronic warfare gear for the F-1, including laser-guided air-to-surface missiles. French-trained pilots exhibited a high degree of skill and determination when attacking Iranian surface targets, and were more willing to engage in air-to-air combat than their colleagues flying Soviet-built aircraft. It was an Iraqi F-1 that fired two Exocet antiship missiles at the USS Stark (FFG-31) in 1987. During the Iraqi offensives of 1988, F-1s equipped with PGMs attacked Iranian armaments factories, oil refineries and facilities, bridges and causeways, as well as merchant shipping in the Gulf.

Shot DownTo Iran
924Mirage F-1
1Mi-8 Hip
1observation helicopter
4U/I helicopter

During Operation Desert Storm the Iraqi Air Force did not seek to challenge Coalition air forces, and nearly half the Iraqi Air Force fled to Iran to escape destruction. Why the IQAF fled to Iran is not precisely known, and the answer may never be fully known. In any case, Iraqi fighters and support aircraft fled for the border -- more than 120 left. Over 200 aircraft were destroyed on Iraqi airfields, and hardened laser-guided bombs devastated Iraq's hardened aircraft shelters. Eventually day-and-night air strikes destroyed or seriously damaged 375 shelters out of a total of 594.

According to the US Department of Defense, Iraq lost 90 aircraft of all types [including helicopters] to coalition air forces during Operation Desert Storm. Of these, 39 were shot down in air-to-air combat [the details remain somewhat obscure, since a total of as many as 42 aircraft were claimed to have been destroyed in action]. Another six were lost in accidents and 16 were captured or destroyed by coalition ground forces. Additionally, another 122-137 were flown to Iran [estimates range from 115 to 140], bringing the total confirmed loss to at least 234 aircraft. In addition to confirmed losses, of Iraq's 594 hardened aircraft shelters, 375 were damaged or destroyed by coalition bombing. According to one estimated as many as 141 aircraft were destroyed in these shelters. By another estimate, 81 aircraft had been destroyed on the ground.

Following Desert Storm, by one estimate the Iraqi Air Force included:

  • 15 MiG-29 ground-attack aircraft
  • 30 Mirage F1 ground-attack aircraft
  • 50 MiG-23 multi-role fighters
  • 20 Su-25 ground-attack aircraft
  • 30 Su-20/-22 ground-attack aircraft
  • 7 Tu-16 and B-6D bombers
  • 10 Tu-22 supersonic bombers

Iran retained the 15 Il-76, 40 Su-20/22, 24 Mirage F1, 7-12 MiG-23, seven MiG-25 and four MiG-29 combat aircraft that fled Iraq to escape the Coalition air campaign in 1991. As of early 2000 Iraq claimed it flew more than 100 military planes and 33 civilian airliners to Iran, though the Iranians said the numbers are lower.

In the Air Force Equipment table , the figures for 1990 and 1995 reflect estimated total aircraft inventory, and during this timeframe most of these aircraft could be assumed to be operable. From 2000 on, the figures reflect operational aircraft only. Thus, the change from 1995 to 2000 reflects a reduction in the estimated number of operable aircraft, rather than the total number of extant airframes, which is probably largely unchanged.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, testified before the House Armed Services Committee on 18 September 2002 that Iraq's air force operates more than 50 key air defense radars and has about 300 jet aircraft, including a few Mirage F-1s and MiG-29 Fulcrums, but less than half of those aircraft are mission capable.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:47:10 ZULU