Tehran’s Top Guns: F-14s in the Iran-Iraq War

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16 September, 1986. Fereidoun Ali-Mazandarani’s radar intercept officer (RIO), bundled into the seat behind him, confirmed the lock on the enemy Iraqi Éntendard bearing down on them from 20 miles out. This was the first test of the Sedjil, ground-launched missiles which had forced into the air-to-air role out of the demands of wartime scarcity. Fereidoun was the guinea pig. He grimaced as he imagined the consequences of what would be a mere “unfortunate accident during the proving stage” to the eggheads who had jerry-rigged the things. He squeezed the trigger, sending a ridiculously oversized rocket barrelling wildly over his nose and screaming down to the desert floor. It was a dud. No time to curse the technicians who had installed the treacherous firework. The second Sedjil flew true off the opposite wing, destroying the intended target. Ali-Mazandarani retired from the engagement as one of the top F-14 aces of all time, with eleven confirmed kills and five probable ones.

The American F-14 Tomcat burst into 80’s pop culture when Tom Cruise strapped into the pilot’s seat in Top Gun. The craze faded away yet later re-emerged in 2022’s Top Gun: Maverick. Yet, for all the heart-wrenchingly handsome rogue’s dogfights with an unidentifiable enemy on screen, American F-14 pilots have experienced very little air-to-air combat. The only foreign operator of the platform has been America’s sworn enemy, the Islamic Republic of Iran. There have been no American Tomcat aces (pilots who have shot down at least five enemy aircraft), but at least thirteen Iranian ones. Told here is the story of how the aircraft made their way into the country, their role during the Iran-Iraq war, and their status today.

Iran began reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union in the late 1950s, with the Soviets responding in kind. Soviet MiG-25s had altitude ceilings and top speeds far in excess of Iran’s interceptors, the F-4 Phantoms. The time had come to upgrade. The Iranian Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, aircraft enthusiast and qualified pilot, had purchased those aircraft from the United States as part of his martial modernization program in which the Imperial Iranian Air Force (IIAF), queen of the services, was awarded a bigger budget than any other. For his next aircraft, he would again turn to the US, who happily obliged him, having recognised the Shah as an ally by instigating a 1953 coup on his behalf.

The Air Force’s F-15 Eagle was an attractive model; it would go on to become America’s air-superiority heavyweight champion, combining manoeuvrability with impressive payload which could dominate the battlefield. However, the Eagle was too reliant on ground-based infrastructure to be useful to the IIAF. Iran, being highly mountainous, could not realistically be covered by a network of ground-based radars beaming intelligence to friendly aircraft. Israel, by contrast, being in a relatively flat region, happily ordered more than a hundred F-15s.

The Navy’s F-14, designed to extend far away from US carrier groups and neutralise Soviet bombers before they could touch the fleet, carried all its equipment on board. Consequently, its AWG-9 radar was the most powerful radar installed on any combat aircraft of the time. So powerful, in fact, that F-14 pilots succumb to cancer at rates far higher than usual. In 1974, the Shah made a deal for an initial 30 F-14s, that was later increased to 80. Included were a training program for Iranian pilots and ground crews, 714 AIM-54 long-range air-to-air missiles, and spare parts.

The 1979 Iranian Revolution, which deposed the Shah, and the subsequent US embassy hostage crisis, antagonised Iranian-American relations and halted weapons deliveries. In total, 79 F-14s and 274 missiles had been delivered. Being the most Westernised and closest to the Shah, the air force (renamed to the IRIAF) endured the harshest purges, losing half of its manpower as hundreds of personnel were imprisoned on the charge of being involved in a failed coup. The worst losses were among Tomcat pilots, who tended to be members of the old elite and personally connected to the Shah. Their RIOs tended to be unprivileged, and thus were targeted less often.

The Iran-Iraq war began in September 1980 with the Iraqi invasion of Khuzestan province. Out of wartime necessity, many pilots were released from prison and thrust back into their cockpits. The Tomcat fleet opened the war by participating in an all-out retaliatory strike on the second day of the war, Operation Kaman 99. 60 F-14s were held back guarding against an Iraqi counterattack, while the more dispensable F-4s and F-5s bombed Iraqi air bases. That day, between 17-55% of the Iraqi air force was destroyed on the ground. The IRIAF avoided a similar fate the day before as its aircraft were stored in hardened concrete shelters.

The lack of spare parts quickly whittled down the fleet. Only 10 to 20 F-14s could be kept airworthy by cannibalising grounded aircraft at any one time. The F-14’s radar and scarcity meant that it became too valuable to often risk in combat. It was mainly used in the airborne warning and control (AWACS) role, painting enemy aircraft with radar signatures to pick them out for allied aircraft actually committed to battle, while staying outside combat range itself. Nevertheless, it saw more than its share of fighting. Iran used the F-14s offensively to escort strike aircraft and installed bomb racks to allow them to carry out close air support.

Iraqi Mirages downed multiple Tomcats by stealthily clinging to the ground before ‘popping up’ to attack the unsuspecting aircraft. This came to an end with the combination of high-flying F-14s with low-flying F-4s and F-5s as escorts.

Iran claimed their F-14s shot down 160 Iraqi aircraft for the loss of 16 F-14s. Western sources were able to verify 55 of these. This kill ratio of at least 3.4:1 has been credited to superior American training, the obsolescence of Iraqi aircraft, and the ability of Iranian pilots to linger in Iranian airspace while launching long-range AIM-54 missiles deep into Iraqi territory. F-14 losses crept up as Iraqi tactics adapted and with the return to close-range combat with the use of the last AIM-54s left over from the 1974 arms deal.

The Tomcat remains the most capable aircraft in the IRIAF inventory. Since the US no longer operates the plane, all Tomcats have been grounded and stripped of much of their internals to prevent spare parts falling into Iranian hands. US authorities have monitored the illegal spare parts trade since 1998. In 2003, Iranian national Serzhik Avasappian was arrested after admitting ICE agents posing as interested sellers that he planned to ship F-14 parts to Iran. It is unknown how many remain airworthy, but Tomcats were spotted escorting Russian bombers in Syria in 2015. One was even seen during Iran’s Armed Forces Day parade in April this year, taking pride of place overhead.