The Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) is the aviation branch of the Islamic Republic of Iran Army. The present Air Force came into being in the early 1980s when the former Imperial Iranian Air Force was renamed.
The Air Force has attempted with some success to maintain in service the large number of American-built aircraft which Iran acquired during the Shah’s regime. The Air Force has turned to purchases of Soviet and Chinese aircraft, as well as pressing ex-Iraqi aircraft into service, and indigenously built aircraft, in order to maintain a capable force.
The IRIAF came into being when the former Imperial Iranian Air Force (IIAF) was renamed following the Islamic Revolution in Iran, in February 1979.
This “new” Iranian air force largely inherited the equipment and structure of the former IIAF, even losing most of its leading officers in the course of post-revolutionary chaos, as well as due to the prosecution of those considered as loyal to the Shah, pro-U.S. or elsewhere by the new government in Tehran.
Due to strained relations with the west, Iran had to procure new equipment from Brazil, Russia and the People’s Republic of China. Since the Revolution, the exact composition of the IRIAF is hard to determine, but estimates do exist. Many aircraft belonging to the Iraqi Air Force took refuge in Iran during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, and many were put into service with the IRIAF or taken apart for spare parts. Due to the continuous spare parts shortages faced by the air force, a decision was made in the late 1980s to develop a local aerospace industry to support the air force.
In 2002, Iran with the co-operation of Ukraine, successfully started the manufacture of the Iran-140; a licence-built version of the Antonov An-140 transport aircraft. Simultaneously, Iran began construction of two domestically produced fighters, upgraded using technology from the F-14 Tomcat and the F-5 Tiger II. The fighters have been named the Azarakhsh and the Shafaq.
Since then the country has also become self-sufficient in the manufacture of helicopters. The country claims that it is capable of producing the old U.S. AH-1 Cobra gunship. Additionally, Iran also produces Bell Helicopter Bell 212 and Bell 206 helicopters in serial production. These are known respectively as the Shabaviz 2-75 and the Shabaviz 206.
Immediately after the end of the Iran–Iraq War, the IRIAF was partially rebuilt through limited purchases of MiG-29 fighters and Su-24 bombers from the Soviet Union, as well as F-7M and FT-7 fighters from China. While providing needed reinforcement to the Iranian Air Force, these types never replaced the older, U.S.-built F-4 Phantoms, F-14s (the IRIAF is now the only air arm in the world using the fighter), or F-5s. Instead, the IRIAF continued its efforts to keep these types in service, and began a number of projects to refurbish and upgrade them.
During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, numerous Iraqi pilots flew Iraqi Air Force aircraft to Iran to avoid destruction by coalition forces. The Iranians impounded these aircraft and never returned them, putting them in service in the IRIAF and claiming them as reparations for the Iran–Iraq War. The aircraft included several Mirage F1s, MiG-23s, MiG-29s, Su-20s, Su-22Ms, Su-24s, Su-25s and a number of Il-76s, including the secret, one-off AEW-AWACS Il-76 “ADNAN 1” prototype.
Even after the cease-fire with Iraq, the IRIAF carried out several air raids against Kurdish separatist’s bases in Northern Iraq. The first of such raids was conducted using eight F-4s armed with rockets and cluster bombs on 6 April 1992 against People’s Mujahedin of Iran’s Camp Ashraf. During this event one F-4 was shot down by either insurgent or Iraqi military AAA and both pilots (Lt. Col Amini and Cpt. Sharifi) were captured and not freed until 1998. Despite threats of response, Iraq wasn’t able to retaliate due to its own fight against Kurdish separatist guerillas and the Western-imposed no-fly zones that crippled and limited its air force’s operations.
In 2006, after Iranian media published a series of reports suggesting that Venezuela was interested in selling its 21 F-16 Fighting Falcons to Iran, a Hugo Chavez adviser confirmed to the Associated Press that “Venezuela’s military is considering selling its fleet of U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets to another country, possibly Iran, in response to a U.S. ban on arms sales to President Hugo Chávez’s government”. In response, Sean McCormack, a U.S. State Department spokesperson, warned Venezuela that “without the written consent of the United States, Venezuela can’t transfer these defence articles, and in this case F-16s, to a third country”.
According to Moscow Defence Brief, Russia delivered 6 Su-25UBK ground attack fighter-trainers, 12 Mi-171Sh military transport helicopters, 21 Mi-171 transport helicopters, and 3 Mi-17B-5 medical helicopters to Iran between 2000 and 2006. A $700 million repair and modernization program of the IRIAF MiG-29 and Su-24 fighters was also completed.
At the end of 2014, there were some evidence that the IRIAF was involved in 2014 military intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. In a video released by Aljazeera, Iranian F-4 Phantom II bombed some buildings of ISIS in Diyala Governorate.
Iran–Iraq War (1980–88)
The IRIAF composition had changed very little since 1979. The first, very limited re-location of several units—including disbandment of some, and establishing of new squadrons—occurred in autumn 1980, when the F-4D-fleet was concentrated at Shiraz, two squadrons of F-4Es moved from Shiraz to Hamedan, and a squadron of F-14 Tomcats deployed to Mehrabad. Other deployments during the war with Iraq were mainly of temporary character, even if a major re-organization of existing air-defense assets—foremost SAM and AAA units—was undertaken in 1985.
The purges of the Iranian Airforce left the IRIAF ill-prepared for the Iran–Iraq War (also called the “1st Persian Gulf War”). The sudden Iraqi air strikes against eight major Iranian airbases and four other military installations, launched on the afternoon of 22 September 1980, came as a complete surprise and caused a shock in the IRIAF.
The Iranians retaliated with operation Kaman-99 which involved 206 F-4, F-5 and F-14 aircraft. 23 September 1980, Iran launched Operation Kaman 99 as 40 F-4 Phantoms, armed with Mark 82, Mark 83 and Mark 84 bombs and AGM-65 Maverick missiles, took off from Hamadan. After refueling in mid-air the Phantoms reached the Iraqi capital Baghdad, where they attacked: al-Rashid, al-Habbaniyah and al-Kut airbases. Meanwhile, eight More F-4s took off from Tehran and launched a second attack on the al-Rashid airbase.
Iran launched 58 F-5E Tiger IIs from Tabriz, which were sent to attack Mosul Airbase. After the attack on Mosul Airbase, 50 F-5Es attacked Nasiriyah Airbase, which was heavily damaged.
As all 146 Iranian F-4s and F-5s had been sent for a bombing raid on Iraq, 60 F-14 Tomcats were scrambled to defend Iranian airspace against a possible Iraqi retaliation. Iranian F-14s managed to down 2 Iraqi MiG-21s (1 MiG-21RF and 1 MiG-21MF) and 3 Iraqi MiG-23s (MiG-23MS), an Iranian F-5E also shot down an Iraqi Su-20 during the operation. Iraqi MiG-23s managed to down 2 F-5Es, while Iraqi MiG-21s also downed 2 F-5Es. Iraqis also by mistake shot down one of their own Il-76MD strategic airlifters with a SA-3 SAM.
The Iraqis however were well prepared for the attack and had flown over most of their air force to other Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, this made sure that most of the Iraqi Air Force survived the operation.
Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi military were dealt a heavy blow when Iranian Air Force vulnerabilities failed to materialize. All Iraqi airbases near Iran were out of order for weeks and, according to Iran, Iraq’s aerial efficiency was reduced by 55%. This allowed Iranians to regroup and prepare for the upcoming Iraqi invasion.
Although the readiness rates of the IRIAF significantly increased in the following months, its overall role and influence declined, as the clerical government prioritized resources for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) militias and simultaneously attempted to develop a separate air arm for this service.
After the successful liberation of most Iranian areas captured by the Iraqis in the first half of 1982, the situation of the IRIAF changed completely. From an air arm that was offensive by nature, it was largely relegated to air defense and relatively infrequent bombing attacks against targets of industrial and military significance inside Iraq. Simultaneously, the IRIAF had to learn how to maintain and keep operational its large fleet of U.S.-built aircraft and helicopters without outside help, due to American sanctions. Relying primarily on antiquated equipment purchased from the U.S.A. in the 1970s, the Iranians began establishing their own aerospace industry; their efforts in this remained largely unrecognized until recently.
During 1984 and 1985, the IRIAF found itself confronted by an ever better organized and equipped opponent, as the Iraqi Air force—reinforced by deliveries of advanced fighter-bombers from France and the Soviet Union—launched numerous offensives against Iranian population centres, industrial infrastructures, power plants, and oil-export hubs. These became better known as “The Tanker War” and “The War of the Cities”. To defend against an increasing number of Iraqi air strikes, the IRIAF leaned heavily on its large fleet of Grumman F-14 Tomcat air superiority fighters. Tomcats were mainly deployed in defence of the strategically important Khark Island (main hub for Iranian oil exports), and Tehran. Over 300 air-to-air engagements against IQAF fighters, fighter-bombers, and bombers, were fought in these areas alone between 1980 and 1988.
Confronted with the fact that it could not obtain replacements for equipment lost in what became a war of attrition against Iraq, the IRIAF remained defence-orientated for the rest of the conflict, conserving its surviving assets as a “force in being”. From mid 1987, the IRIAF found itself confronted also with U.S. Navy fighters over the Persian Gulf. A number of confrontations that occurred between July 1987 and August 1988 stretched available IRIAF assets to the limit, exhausting its capability to defend Iranian air space against Iraqi air strikes.
The Iranian Air Force (IRIAF) F-14A Tomcat
There is no information about any significant combat for Iranian F-14s during the 1970s, as the main reason that Iran had purchased F-14s was to intercept Soviet aircraft flying into Iranian airspace. In October 1978, two IIAF F-14As intercepted a high-and-fast–flying Soviet MiG-25 over the Caspian sea, forcing it to abort a reconnaissance run over Iran, in turn possibly ending similar Soviet operations over the country.
By September 1980, the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) managed to make an increasing number of airframes operational, despite immense problems due to repeated purges of its officers. Some of those officers were executed; others were imprisoned, forced into exile, or forced to take early retirement. The IRIAF survived these times, and its Tomcats were to become involved in the war against Iraq, scoring their first kill on 7 September 1980.
There is limited information available about the service of F-14s in the Iran–Iraq War. Western intelligence indicates that the IRIAF was in decline at the onset of the war in September 1980, and it is rumoured that some level of sabotage was committed on the F-14s by either Americans or Iranians loyal to the Shah, during the Iranian Revolution.Following the overthrow of the Shah, most Iranian F-14 pilots and technicians trained in the United States fled from Iran, fearing their association with the Shah’s regime, and their time in the United States would endanger them. Only two pilots out of the original flight class chose to remain in Iran. Their fears proved correct, and many of the original Iranian F-14 crews and technicians who remained were jailed or executed by the new regime. Eventually, several jailed F-14 pilots were released when war broke out with Iraq.
The United States estimated that the IRIAF was able to keep between 15 and 20 F-14s operational by cannibalizing parts from other examples. The IRIAF claims a higher figure, and was able to assemble 25 aircraft for an 11 February 1985 fly-over of Tehran. Despite the embargo, Iran was able to acquire parts for its American aircraft, including the F-14, F-4, and F-5. Sources indicate these came via the Iran-Contra arms deal, collusion with Israel, or from domestic production. Iran has claimed that it has been able to produce all of the parts required, though US intelligence indicates that total is about 70 percent
In 2004, Tom Cooper published Iranian F-14 Tomcat Units in Combat, based mainly on primary interviews with Iranian pilots. The book makes many claims that contradict previous reports. In particular, Cooper claims that Iran’s F-14s had up to 159 kills, and that in one incident, four Iraqi aircraft were shot down with one AIM-54 (The missile’s warhead exploded between them and severely damaged them).
By 1980, with the prospect of war with Iraq becoming ever more likely, most of the 77 surviving F-14 airframes were found to be in non-operational condition, or at least had non-functioning radars. As a result, F-14 pilots were forced to rely on ground control for their first wartime patrol and intercept missions. Within a few days of the start of the war, a dozen or so F-14s were made operational.
The first confirmed kill by an F-14A during the Iran–Iraq War occurred before the formal start of hostilities: on 7 September 1980, an IRIAF F-14A destroyed an Iraqi Mil Mi-25 (export variant of the Mil Mi-24) Hind helicopter using its 20mm Vulcan cannon. Six days later, Major Mohammad-Reza Attaie shot down an Iraqi MiG-21 with an AIM-54 Phoenix while flying a border patrol. A single AIM-54 fired in July 1982 by Captain Hashemi may have destroyed two Iraqi MiG-23s flying in close formation.
The use of AIM-54s was only sporadic during the start of the war, most likely because of a shortage of qualified radar intercept officers, and then more frequently in 1981 and 1982—until the lack of thermal batteries suspended the missiles’ use in 1986.There were also rumours that suggested that Iran’s Tomcat fleet would be upgraded with avionics derived from the MiG-31 “Foxhound”. However, IRIAF officials and pilots insist that the Soviets were never allowed near the F-14s, and never received any F-14 or AIM-54 technology. Also, the AIM-54 missile was never out of service in the IRIAF, though the stocks of operational missiles were low at times. Clandestine deliveries from US sources and black market purchases supplied spares to top up the Phoenix reserves during the war, and spares deliveries from the USA in the 1990s have also helped. Furthermore, an attempt was made to adapt the MIM-23 Hawk surface-to-air missiles that were also a carry-over from the pre-revolution period, to be used as air-to-air missiles for the F-14; at least two F-14s have been successfully modified to carry the hybrid weaponry.
All in all, the IRIAF was said to have launched possibly 70 to 90 AIM-54A missiles, and 60–70 of those scored. Of those, almost 90 percent of the AIM-54A missiles fired were used against Iraqi fighters and fighter-bombers. Only about a dozen victories by AIM-54s were claimed to be against fast, high-flying targets such as the MiG-25 or Tu-22 ‘Blinder’.
By the close of the war, both sides were unable to obtain new aircraft or parts, and aerial combat had become rare, since neither side could afford to lose aircraft they could not replace. In particular, the IRIAF F-14 fleet suffered from a lack of trained technicians, and by 1984 only 40 F-14s were still in service. By 1986, that number had dropped to just 25. The F-14 was relegated to protecting Iran’s vital oil refining and export infrastructure; in this role, they often encountered French-built, Iraqi Dassault Mirage F1EQ fighters attempting to attack Iranian oil pipelines.
One IRIAF pilot distinguished himself in combat by becoming the all-time top scoring F-14 ace. Major Jalil Zandi is credited with shooting down eight Iraqi aircraft. He is additionally credited with three probable kills, bringing his total to 11 air victories. These include four MiG-23s, two Su-22s, two MiG-21 and three Mirage F1s.
Another notable Iranian pilot was Major Rahnavard, who on 16 February 1982 is reputed to have shot down four Iraqi fighter jets in two separate encounters over Kharg Island. Records indicate that two of his confirmed kills were Mirage F1s.
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