Iran-Iraq War (in the air)

This almost decade-long conflict in military terms shaped the 1980s era. Although it was fought by these two countries, there was not a single, more important country in the world in that period that was left out of this conflict. That foreign support and in some cases lack of it mostly affected the combat of the two countries air forces IQAF (Iraqi Air Force) and IRIAF (Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force). The aircraft that will be mentioned played a crucial role over the skies of the two countries and even over the international waters in the straits of Hormuz, making this very important water way denied for shipping for almost a decade, because of the fear of air attacks, even using anti-ship missiles like Exocet and Harpoon in some cases.

 

Iraqi Air Force:

MIG-21

The aircraft served as the bulk of the Iraqi Air Force, usually more valuable in the terms of quantity than quality. It was inferior to Iranian Aircraft like F4 Phantom and F5 Tiger, not even to mention the outstanding and modern F14 Tomcat. The aircraft was obsolete by the time of the 80s conflict and its crews, characteristic of soviet designs, were lesser trained and had smaller amount of flight training hours. Nevertheless the aircraft was very easy to maintain, operate and reliable, and by sheer numbers played an important role in the conflict.

 

MiG-23

Although more modern than the MiG-21 it had a very low win to loss ratio, especially against more modern adversaries, giving it even a nickname Flogger. For the most of the conflict it served as a fighter-bomber, the role at which was successful, especially after being armed with guided Kh-29 air-to-ground missiles.

 

Sukhoi Su-20

Built primarily as a ground-attack aircraft, it served that role through the whole duration of the conflict. Although it was already obsolete even before the war erupted, it had a very high firepower using its arsenal of up to 4 30mm and 23mm autocannons, up to 12 unguided rocket pods and its capability to use guided missiles like Kh-23, Kh-25 and Kh-29 it was dreaded by the enemies world wide. The aircraft, because of its mission was very exposed to enemy fire. so some models were even equipped during the war with Soviet made ECM pods (Electronic Countermeasures) which made aircraft safe from radar-guided missiles.

 

Tupolev Tu-22

Built primarily as a bomber it had a very unfavorable reputation among its crew, who even nicknamed it a flying coffin. Although it had a very high speed of Mach 1.42 it was very vulnerable to enemy aircraft, especially the F-14 Tomcat armed with phoenix missiles. It had a long range strike power using Kh-22 cruise missiles, but the aircraft had a very unfavorable reputation especially in the aspect of crew safety, where ever it served.

 

MiG-25

As war went on the international support for Iraq proved to be the most valuable asset. In the initial stages, when the Iraqis fought with mainly obsolete models, newer ones like MiG-25 supplied by the Soviets and Mirage F1 supplied by the French quickly made an impact. It was the fastest aircraft Iraqis had flying at speeds up to Mach 3.2, it could fire the R-40 heavy air-to-air guided missile, along with powerful air-to-ground arsenal including Kh-25 and Kh-58 anti-radar missiles. The most efficient Iraqi fighter pilot of the war flew the MiG-25 scoring eight air-to-air kills using this model.

 

Mirage F1

This aircraft formed the elite of the Iraqi Air Force during the conflict. It had the best pilots, trained by the French, who relied more on pilot training than the Soviets. It even scored a couple of kills against the outstanding F-14 Tomcat. Using superior tactics with the combination of the excellent Matra R550 Magic and Super 530F missiles these aircraft were not cannon fodder for the enemy as the previous models of the Iraqi Air Force. It had even better air-to-ground capability using AS-30 surface-to-air missile and advanced Thomson-CSF electronic warfare equipment for protection. The appearance of these aircraft made the hugest impact on the course of the war in the air.

 

Super Etendard

Designed as a ground-attack aircraft it was very advanced aircraft for the time. Capable of launching sophisticated Exocet anti-ship missile it made quite an impact on shipping, making the gulf very dangerous for Iranian ships including oil tankers, which had a huge economic impact. It once hit an American destroyer in the gulf by mistake, causing damage and crew fatalities. Besides this conflict it was very successful in the Falklands War where it flew for the Argentinian side.

 

Iranian Air Force:

Iranians on the other hand had to rely on much less numbers and much less variety in models in their air force. While the Iraqi fleet was constantly upgraded by new and more advanced models as time went by, given their international support, Iranians had to rely on models bought during the Shahs Era, often cannibalizing other aircraft for spare parts making its air force flyable. There were some arms transfers during the war for Iran, but they had to be done covertly and in much lesser quantity. The luckiest thing for Iranian Air Force during the war was surviving the initial Iraqi invasion, aiming to destroy the Iranian aircraft on the ground. Its assets were mainly sheltered in concrete bunkers and Iraqi planes simply missed many times. In the following text we will go through the models in Iranian service.

 

F4 Phantom

This was the main work horse of the IRIAF during the conflict. It was the first aircraft to respond to the Iraqi invasion bombing Iraqi positions and oil infrastructure the same day. Flying hundreds of sorties they made a huge impact on situation in the initial stages of the war giving Iranians time to mobilize and even later on to counterattack. The majority of these aircraft were kept flyable by taking parts from the other aircraft. They were superior to Iraqi aircraft like the MiG-21 and MiG-23 but their luck changed as they faced newer models.

 

F5 Tiger

This simple and reliable aircraft was easy to maintain up until the later years of the war. It flew air-to-air and air-to-ground missions and was extensively used through the entire war. It was superior to models flown by the Iraqis at the beginning of the war using superior infra-red guided missiles, but later on it had it worse as Iraqis pushed newer models into service.

 

F-14 Tomcat

It was mentioned many times in the text, so here it comes. Arguably the best, the most modern and the most advanced aircraft in this conflict overall. Besides the United States of America, Iran was the sole operator of this aircraft, during the Shahs era Imperial Iranian Air Force acquired up to 80 of them. It was a wonder how these aircraft ended up in Iran at first, or let alone how were they exported anywhere outside the USA. Only the important geostrategic position of Iran, its enormous wealth and good western relations during the Shahs era made them have these aircraft. It had a very powerful radar able to track targets at long distances, enabling it to use the long range radar guided AIM-54 Phoenix missile, which it did with deadly effect. Its radar was so powerful that the Iranians sometimes used the as AWACS aircraft.  In the initial stages of the war they scored 50 kills without losses. Their presence was enough to make the Iraqi Air Force abort their missions. They were mainly assigned to protect the vital Iranian oil infrastructure, like the Kharg Island an the capital. Because of the embargo only 30 of them were in flyable condition at the end of the war. They are still in IRIAF service to this day. The main reason why USA scrapped their F-14 fleet and ceased the production was the fear that parts could fall into Iranian hands.

 

Conclusion:

Although being better equipped at first, embargo for the Iranians was the crucial factor in the loss of the air superiority, and by being forced to cannibalize their aircraft for spare parts they made their air force shrink from 445 combat aircraft in 1980 (100 were operable) to 65 serviceable combat aircraft in 1987. Iraqis on the other hand, being given enormous international support increased their fleet to over 500 combat aircraft in 1987 pushing into service newer and more advanced models.

However there was one important factor that was underestimated, the integration of air defenses. The Iranians were simply not technically and logistically able to do that, but the Iraqis despite their international support did not realize that, and did not even put air defenses on some strategically very important infrastructure like oil fields. This unawareness of the importance of integrating their air defenses into a network along with their air force, while they had the chance will come to haunt them in the later conflicts against the US-led coalition.