When it comes to defending the sovereignty of its national airspace and the related air-defence identification zone (ADIZ), the Islamic Republic of Iran has, since mid-2004, been undertaking a mammoth upgradation of its hierarchical air-defence system with the help of Russia, China and North Korea. Command, control and communications of Iran’s air-defence networks s is split into three institutions.
The Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) controls manned airborne platforms and air-traffic management, while the Air-Defence Force (IRIADF) or Khatam al-Anbiya Air-Defence HQ, which split off from the IRIAF in 2008, commands and controls all ground-based air-defence systems. The Revolutionary Guard Corps (PASDARAN) is responsible for strategic air-defence and ADIZ monitoring, plus the operations of ballistic missile early warning systems.
Between 2009 and 2016, the PASDARAN and IRIADF have worked together to commission four different VHF-band long-range over-the-horizon radars (OTHR) throughout Iran.
The first 1,500km-range Ghadir OTHR was commissioned at Garmsar in Semnan province on June 2, 2014, while the second OTHR was commissioned in Ahvaz in Khuzestan province on July 4, 2015).
The third followed last year, this being located between the towns of Andisheh and Qods just west of Teheran. It faces southeast at approximately 151 degrees and is thus able to cover most of central Iran and the Persian Gulf. The Garmsar-based OTHR features four horizontal phased-arrays placed along a square and a central vertical array. The four primary arrays are approximately 39 metres in width and together form a square with sides measuring approximately 55 metres. This configuration provides 360-degree coverage of nearly all Iran and Iraq, the far southeast of Turkey and parts of northeast Saudi Arabia. All three Ghadir OTHRs are in fact Russia-supplied Rezonans-NE OTHRs.
Iran’s latest OTHR is the 3,000km-range Sepehr OTHR that is located in a mountainous part of the Kordestan province in western Iran. The site is 27km north of the city of Bijar.
Construction work began in mid-2012 and was complete by October 2013. This OTHR provides 360-degree coverage of all Iran as well as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, Turkey and Pakistan. It also provides partial coverage of Eastern Europe, southwest Russia (including Moscow), western India and most of the Arabian Sea.
The Sepehr is in fact Russia’s Voronezh-M VHF-band OTHR, whose first field-trials were conducted in March 2007, and the first such OTHR in Russia was commissioned on February 11, 2012. The Sepehr and Voronezh-M both use planar phased-aeeay antennae that cover in the azimuth from 245 to 355 degrees, and in the elevation from 2 to 70 degrees. The radars’ blind range is 100km, and the maximum target altitude is about 4,000km.
In addition to these OTHRs, the IRIADF has commissioned into service a number of Russia-supplied tactical air-defence radars like the 1L119 Nebo SVU VHF-band system, Fath-14 VHF-band system, Kasta-2KE2E VHF-band radar, Matla-ol-Fajr VHF-band system, and the Kayhan UHF-band radar.
Days Of Imperial Glory
In the period between 1967 and 1979, Iran was the custodian of the world’s fifth largest fleet of military aircraft. The Imperial Iranian Air Force’s (IIAF) 1 Tactical Air Base at Teheran’s Mehrabad Airport comprised of the 11 Tactical Fighter Squadron operating McDonnell DouglasF-4E Phantom-2 M-MRCAs, 12 Tactical Fighter Squadron flying F-4Es, 13 Combat Instructor School with F-4Es, 11 Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron with RF-4Es, Northrop RF-5s and Lockheed RT-33s, 11 Tactical Transport Squadron with Lockheed C-130E/H Hercules transports, 12 Tactical Transport Squadron with C-130E/Hs, one MRTT squadron with Boeing B.707s and B.747s (the IIAF was the world’s sole operator of KC-747 MRTTs), one Fokker Friendship F-27 Transport Squadron, 11 Search & Rescue Squadron and one Support Squadron with F-33s and L-20s; the 2 Tactical Air Base at Tabriz that comprised the 21 Tactical Fighter Squadron with F-5E Tiger-2 L-MRCAs, 22 Tactical Fighter Squadron with F-5Es, 23 Tactical Fighter Squadron with F-5Es, 21 Counter Insurgency Squadron with Grumman O–2As, 21 Search & Rescue Squadron, and one Support Squadron with F-33s; the 3 Tactical Air Base at Hamadan (Shahrokhi) housing the 31 Tactical Fighter Squadron with F-4Es, 32 Tactical Fighter Squadron with F-4Es, 33 Tactical Fighter Squadron with F-4Es, 34 Tactical Fighter Squadron with F-4Es, 31 Search & Rescue Squadron and one Support Squadron with F-33s; 4 Tactical Air Base at Dezfull (Vahdati) comprising the 41 Tactical Fighter Squadron with F-5Es, 42 Tactical Fighter Squadron with F-5Es, 43 Tactical Fighter Training Squadron with F-5Es, 41 Search & Rescue Squadron and one Support Squadron with F-33s and L-20s; 5 Tactical Air Base at Agha Jari (Omidieh) with its 51 Tactical Fighter Squadron flying F-5Es, 52 Tactical Fighter Squadron with F-5Es, 53 Tactical Fighter Squadron with F-5Es, 51 Search & Rescue Squadron and one F-33 Support Squadron; 6 Tactical Air Base at Bushehr comprising the 61 Tactical Fighter Training Squadron with F-4Es, 62 Tactical Fighter Squadron with F-4Es, 63 Tactical Fighter Squadron with F-4Ds, the 61 Search & Rescue Squadron and one F-33 Support Squadron; the 7 Tactical Air Base at Shiraz comprising the 71 Tactical Fighter Squadron with F-4Es, 72 Tactical Fighter Squadron with Grumman F-14 Tomcats, 73 Tactical Fighter Training Squadron with F-14s, 71 Tactical Transport Squadron with C-130E/H, 72 Tactical Transport Squadron with C-130E/H, 71 Search & Rescue Squadron and one F-33 Support Squadron; the 8 Tactical Air Base at Isfahan ( Khatami ) comprising the 81 Tactical Fighter Squadron with F-14s, 82 Tactical Fighter Training Squadron with F-14s, 81 Search & Rescue Squadron, and one F-33 Support Squadron; 9 Tactical Air Base in Bandar Abbas with its 91 Tactical Fighter Squadron flying F-4Es, 92 Tactical Squadron with P-3F Orion LRMR/AQSW platforms, 91 Search & Rescue Squadron and one F-33 Support Squadron; and the 10 Tactical Air Base at Chabahar comprising the 101 Tactical Fighter Squadron with F-5Es, 102 Tactical Fighter Squadron with F-4Es, 103 Tactical Fighter Squadron with F-4Es, the 101 Search & Rescue Squadron, and one F-33 Support Squadron.
The IIAF’s first squadron of 13 F-5A/B Freedom Fighter L-MRCAs entered service on on February 1, 1965. On that date, 11 F-5As and two F-5Bs arrived at the 1 Tactical Air Base at Mehrabad. These F-5s were declared operational in June 1965. The 12 RF-5As were ordered in October 1967. Subsequently, Iran in 1972 purchased a total of 104 F-5As, RF-5As and 23 F-5Bs.
This was followed by the procurement of 166 F-5Es and F-5Fs, plus 15 RF-5E tactical reconnaissance platforms between 1974 and 1976, enough to equip eight squadrons. The first F-5E/F tranche was delivered in January 1974, when 28 F-5Fs were received for operational conversion training. By this time, IIAF had disposed of virtually all of its earlier-model F-5A/B aircraft, selling them to Greece, Turkey, Ethiopia, South Vietnam, and Jordan, although some F-5Bs were retained for flying training purposes.
The order for 16 F-4Ds for the IIAF was placed in 1967. A second batch of 16 F-4Ds was ordered later. The first batch of F-4Ds arrived in Iran on September 8, 1968, with a total of 32 F-4Ds being ultimately delivered. Iran had ordered a total of 208 F-4Es and 32 RF-4Es. The first tranche of these were delivered in March 1971. A total of 177 F-4Es (plus eight F-4Es borrowed from the USAF and subsequently returned) and 16 RF-4E were delivered between 1971 and 1979. On February 28, 1979 the US government placed an embargo on further arms deliveries to Iran. Consequently, the remaining 31 F-4Es and 16 RF-4E were never delivered.
In August 1973, the IIAF selected the F-14 Tomcat as its new-generation air dominance combat aircraft, following which the initial contract was signed in January 1974 for 30 F-14s, but in June 50 more were added to the contract. At the same time, Iran’s state-owned Bank-e-Melli stepped in, and agreed to loan Grumman US$75 million to partially make up for a US government loan of $200 million to Grumman, which had just been cancelled. This loan saved the F-14’s R & DTE programme and enabled Grumman to secure a further loan of $125 million from a consortium of US banks, ensuring at least for the moment that the F-14 R & DTE programme would continue.
The principal air base for IIAF F-14 operations was at Isfahan’s Khatami Air Force Base and 1 Squadron at Shiraz Tactical Fighter Base. The first two of 79 F-14s arrived in Iran in January 1976. By May 1977, when Iran celebrated its 50th anniversary of the Pahlavi Dynasty, 12 had been delivered. The last F-14 bought by Iran was retained in the US for use as a test-bed. Iran had also ordered 714 Hughes AIM-54A Phoenix LRAAMs, but only 284 had been delivered by 1979. A follow-on order for 400 AIM-54As was never executed by the US.
On October 27, 1976, Iran placed orders for 160 General Dynamics F-16A/B Block 15 M-MRCAs, and this was followed by a follow-on order for another 140 F-16s. MRO-related equipment for the F-16s had arrived in Iran as early as 1978 (these were later sold to Pakistan in the early 1980s). However, the entire F-16 procurement contract was cancelled in 1979 at a time when the first 75 F-16s were already being prepared for delivery. Consequently, these F-16s were sold by the US to Israel’s IDF-AF.
By 1979, the IIAF was also operating 60 C-130E/H Hercules transports, 30 T-33A basic jet trainers, 40 Boeing CH-47C Chinook transport helicopters, 12 Fokker Friendship F-27 transports, two KC-747 MRTTs (out of the 10 that were ordered), 12 KC-135 MRTTs, six Sikorsky RH-53D Sea Stallions and 20 Agusta-Sikorsky AS-61A helicopters. The Imperial Iranian Navy was operating six Lockheed P-3F Orions, while the Imperial Iranian Army was operating 70 Bell 214A and 50 Bell 212 utility helicopters, plus 204 Bell AH-1J attack helicopters.
The IIAF’s airspace surveillance radar stations were located at Teheran (UK-supplied radar at Doushan Tapeh), Karadj (US-supplied radar), Tabriz (UK-supplied radar), Mashhad (UK-supplied radar), ShahrAbad (UK-supplied radar), Dezful (US-supplied radar at Dehlooran), Hamadan (US-supplied radar at Soobashi), Bushehr (UK-supplied radar), Isfahan (US-supplied radar), Bandar Abbas (US-supplied radar), Bandar Jask (US-supplied radar), Kish Island (US-supplied radar), and Chabahar (US-supplied radar).
In addition, the IIAF procured eight Westinghouse TPS-43E gapfiller radars for installation at sites like Bandar Lengeh, Bandar Taheri, Kohkilooyeh near Behbahan, Abdanaan near Dezful, and Kerend near Ghasre Shirin. More than 90% of the hardware had been delivered by 1979. All these 19 radar sites and facilities were built in less than 15 years (between 1962 and 1977). The IIAF’s Air-Defence Command, in addition to these radar sites, also had six combat aircraft from each air base on alert (2 aircraft on 5-minute alert, two on 15-minute alert and two on 30-minute alert)—a total of 60 combat aircraft at any time on any given day.
The US-supplied radars did not perform well in the hot and humid weather of the Persian Gulf. Several attempts by Westinghouse and Allied Signal/Bendix to upgrade the radars did not correct the problem. Those radars installed along the Persian Gulf and Kish Island could achieve only ‘Zero Detection’. In 1972 an extensive radar coverage optimisation study was carried out by the IIAF with the help of the USAF, FAA, and US universities and industries. A thorough search for more suitable radar sites and extensive meteorological investigations of the Persian Gulf region’s weather behavior patterns, from zero feet to 10,000 feet ASL, and inter-operability and suitability of yielding the desired interlaced-meshed radar coverage of Iranian airspace by various radar systems were conducted, which eventually led to further analysis regarding the automation of ADIZ/ADGES networks, and the deployment of AEW & C platforms. The IIAF eventually zeroed in on the E-3 AEW & CS platform, with the requirement being for eight platforms. However, only five were contracted for and the first three were ready for delivery in 1979. Unlike ground-based radars, the rotodome-mounted radars of bthe E-3 were not troubled by the ‘ducting’ phenomenon prevalent in Persian Gulf region. The E-3 order was eventually cancelled by Teheran after the Islamic Revolution and these E-3s were consequently sold by the US to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The IIAF’s ADGES network—which mixed GE-supplied FPS-88s and Marconi-supplied S-330s with a semi-automated air-defence system called ‘Seek Sentry’—was incomplete by 1979. Long-range FPS-100 and FPS-113 radars were deployed on mountain-tops and Westinghouse TPS-43 and ADS-4 radars were scattered throughout Iran. Individual sites were active, but they never became operational as a unified system, or to have played a significant role in guiding air intercepts. The ineffectiveness of Iran’s MIM-23 Hawk MR-SAMs and other related ground-based air-defence sensors had a great deal to do with the over-complexity of the original design for the Seek Sentry/Peace Ruby C3 systems.
Guided-weapons procured for the IIAF had included 125 AIM-7C Sparrow BVRAAMs in 1968-1969 for the F-4Ds, 700 AIM-7E Sparrow BVRAAMs from 1971 till 1976 for the F-4Es, 516 AIM-7E Sparrow BVRAAMs from 1976 till 1978 (a follow-on order for 380 more was cancelled in 1979), 400 AIM-9E Sidewinder SRAAMs in 1968-1969 for the F-4Ds, 700 AIM-9J Sidewinder SRAAMs from 1971 till 1977 for the F-4Es, 1,000 AIM-9J Sidewinder SRAAMs from 1973 till 1977 for the F-5E/F fleet, 288 AIM-9J Sidewinder SRAAMs from 1976 till 1979 for the F-14As (a follow-on order for 362 more was cancelled in 1979), 2,500 AGM-65 Maverick ASMs from 1973 till 1976 under a $57 million deal, 300 Paveway-3 LGBs in 1977-1978 and 25 AGM-45A Shrike ARMs in 1978 1979 (a follow-on order for 1,000 more was cancelled in 1979).
Throughout the late 1860s and mid-1970s, Imperial Iran had built up its forces without creating a clear concept for how it would employ them in war. Between 1975 and 1980, Iran had imported $15.5 billion worth of weapons. Ironically, it did have a fairly clear set of well-exercised plans for naval or air combat against the USSR’s armed forces to the north and west, but it had no clear plans for attacking any of its immediate neighbours to the west or south. Iran was still transitioning to a force structure that mixed highly mobile armoured forces with attack helicopters, but it had acquired equipment for which it still lacked the training, plans, and operational exercise experiences to use--particularly without massive amounts of Western support and advice.
To make matters worse, the Shah of Iran had constantly overruled his High Command, arbitrarily dismissed commanders who disagreed with his orders and force-expansion plans, and had surrounded himself with political survivors that often pandered to his authority. Though the IIAF had effective individual squadrons (a strength of roughly 100,000 men for operating/supporting 18 fighter-ground attack squadrons, four interceptor squadrons and one reconnaissance squadron), nothing approaching an effective Air Staff that could plan large-scale strategic air campaigns, or which could effectively organise a regional air-defence network, existed.
The IIAF’s computerised logistics system that the US was helping set up had only reached the point where stocks were computer-coded and logged, and the computers were installed. Most of the software necessary to operate the system was not in place when the monarchy was ousted from power, and critical types of spare parts were still awaiting delivery (each combat aircraft on average has 20,000 critical parts). The near-total collapse of the logistics system created a situation where it could not assemble all the spare parts it needed to maintain readiness without cannibalising or ‘vulturizing’ its aircraft fleets, and this created a vicious cycle where more and more aircraft had to be stripped of a few key parts to keep the others flying.
The Imperial Iranian Army had about 285,000 men, including some 300,000 active reserves, but most of this force lacked the training needed to operate modern weapons in any kind of offensive combat. Only one of its three Armoured Divisions, and two of its three Infantry Divisions were effectively organised for modern combat. Iran had about 10 Division equivalents in its force structure, including its reserve Brigades, but many of these units existed only as cadre formations and had little military effectiveness.
From the beginning of 1979 to the day that Iraq invaded (on September 22, 1980), Ayatollah Khomeini’s new revolutionary elite was engaged in a struggle for control of the country’s armed forces, which it generally resolved by weakening the capability of the army, navy, and air force. Khomeini triggered an initial wave of desertions when he called upon Iranian servicemen to join the revolution on January 17, 1979. Consequently, the Army’s standing strength dropped from 285,000 men to 150,000, while that of the Air Force dropped from 100,000 to 65,000, and that of the Navy from 28,000 to 20,000. The Gendarmerie and other paramilitary forces virtually collapsed and dropped from around 74,000 men to roughly one-third of their original strength.
Khomeini also purged and executed members of the General Officer Corps beginning in February 1979, and more than 550 senior officers had left the military or been killed by the end of March. Disagreements over the use of the armed forces against Iran’s separatist Kurds led to additional purges at the High Command-level, and these were reinforced when the armed forces were used to fire on separatist Iranian Arab demonstrators in ‘Arabistan’ (Khuzestan province) in April and May. These events also led to the rise of revolutionary forces as a substitute for the armed forces, and to the creation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (Pasdaran e-Inqilal e-Islami) on June 16, 1979. At the same time, the ruling Shi’ite clergy created its own military action arm, called the Party of God (Hezbollah).
Debates over the role of regular and revolutionary forces in suppressing the Kurds and Arab separatists, and in providing security for the revolution, led to constant changes in the High Command throughout the rest of 1979. At the same time, the new revolutionary government cut the conscription period in half, and allowed some 60% of the military manpower to leave the armed forces through a mix of desertions, purges, resignations, and re-assignments to revolutionary forces. Khomeini’s new government also cancelled most of the military contracts. The situation grew even worse after Iranian students seized the US Embassy in Teheran on November 4, 1979 and took its occupants hostage. While the US had arranged for a spare parts shipment in October, the Iranians failed to take delivery, and the US then suspended all spare parts deliveries and imposed an embargo. All remaining US technicians also left the country. The UK, which had been Iran’s second largest weapons supplier, also stopped most military deliveries.
Virtually all advanced training and maintenance activities came to near-halt, combined arms and joint services exercises were halted or degenerated to nearly farcical levels, and 30% of Iran’s land force equipment, 60% of its aircraft, and 60% of its helicopters were not operational when the Iran-Iraq War began. Repeated purges and reviews led to the loss of 50% of the junior officers and field-grade Staff officers in the army and air force by February 1980, and thousands of skilled technicians left the armed services. The new Minister of Defence-cum-Commander of the Navy, Admiral Ahmad Madani, was forced to cut the annual defence budget by one-third, reduce the conscription period to 12 months and allow conscripts to serve in their home provinces—a concession that ensured that Iran’s combat units in the forward area could not get even a proper proportion of the limited number of conscripts that actually showed up under the new mobilisation system.
While Iran acquired a new Commander-in-Chief when it elected Aboll Hassan Bani-Sadr President on February 3, 1980 this immediately added a struggle for political power between Khomeini’s secular and religious supporters to the other convulsions in Iran’s armed forces military. Senior Command-level shake-ups continued during June, and the July 1980 coup attempt led to further purges and executions. There was no agreement in Iran as to what--if anything--should replace the armed forces. The Communist movements—like the Tudeh, Mujahideen e-Khalq, and Mujahideen e-Fedayeen—opposed the idea of maintaining regular armed forces. Leaders like Prime Minister Massoud Rajai wanted revolutionary militias that depended on mass mobilisation and guerrilla warfare. Khomeini and Bani-Sadr, however, were more cautious, but their detailed goals and intentions were then still totally unclear. Khomeini had authorised attempts to reintroduce an effective conscription programme before the war began, but these were still far from operational. Iran’s mobilisation system—which had never been particularly well thought-out—had become largely inoperable. The PASDARAN then only totalled about 30,000 men in lightly armed and organised units, and was concentrating on internal security missions. The untrained volunteer militias, or BASEEJ, may have constituted an ‘arm of 20 million’ in speeches, but they had little military meaning in September 1980. While President Bani-Sadr was nominally Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, no true High Command was functional within the armed forces, and the revolutionary forces lacked any coherent command structure or direction. Bani-Sadr and Rajai could not agree on the need for imported product support, how to re-establish and manage conscription, or even the need to man skilled positions like military product-support and operational logistics. Leaders like Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani and other senior members of the new Islamic Revolutionary Council (IRC) and Islamic Republican Party (IRP) openly stated that they would rather lose much of the country than see a secular government under Bani-Sadr restore professional military forces. In fact, the IRP was still committed to this position to the extent that it help sabotage the agreement that the US would resume some weapons shipments that came in 1981, as a result of the Algiers Accord on the hostage crisis.
Despite all this, Iran was able to fly some 100 sorties against Iraq on September 23, 1980. While these sorties were not particularly effective, and Iran’s sortie generation capability rapidly dropped to less than 50 per day, the attacks still came as a considerable shock to Iraq. Iran was also able to win most air-to-air duels during the early period of the war, and while it could only fly limited numbers, it occasionally proved highly successful in delivering very low-altitude air attacks against Iraqi targets. All this was only possible after the IRC and IRP decided to release up to 100 experienced IIAF pilots who were earlier arbitrarily imprisoned. However, Iran lacked both the numbers and battle management capability to deploy an effective air screen. The F-4D/E fleets presented serviceability maintenance problems as each such aircraft needed 35 man-hours of maintenance per flight hour.
When the Iran-Iraq War commenced on September 22, 1980 the IIAF had morphed into the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) and was facing a total US-imposed embargo on the supply of ammunition, plus rotables and consumables for its combat aircraft and helicopter fleets. This is where countries like Greece and Israel stepped in to covertly provide such product-support hardware for the F-4D/E Phantoms and F-5E/F Tigers. In addition, Israel also stepped in to provide mission-oriented assistance to the IRIAF by way of sharing its Iraq-related targetting intelligence (for those were the days when Teheran had not yet adopted an anti-Zionist posture). And the IRIAF always paid back such favours in kind. One such instance was Operation Scorch Sword—the air-strike carried out by the IRIAF on September 30, 1980, that damaged the almost-complete Iraqi OSIRAK nuclear reactor. Eight days into the Iran-Iraq War, this operation was launched at dawn when four IRIAF F-4Es refuelled in mid-air near the Iran-Iraq border. After crossing into Iraq, the F-4Es climbed to a higher altitude to be detectable by Iraqi radar. Moments later, two of the F-4Es peeled off and dropped to a lower altitude again to avoid radar detection. They flew stealthily to El Tuwaitha, a city 17km southeast of Baghdad, home to the OSIRAK. This was the first-ever airborne attack on a nuclear reactor and only the third on a nuclear facility in history. The attack itself caused only minor damage and wasn't successful in impeding the Iraqi nuclear programme. Two bombs hit the dome of the reactor and bounced off. The water-cooling facility was also damaged, as were the facilities for storing and treating liquid radioactive waste. This attack did stop the reactor from enriching fissile material. Approximately 400 French scientists, technicians, and engineers who had been working on the reactor at the time of the attack left the country in response to the bombing. Then, on November 30, 1980, three IRIAF F-4Es again entered Iraqi airspace. Two entered first, drawing the attention of Iraqi AAA. Soon after, the third—an RF-4E—approached to the south of the target at low level, then turned back towards the east and made a single pass over OSIRAK while being fired at by several surrounding Iraqi AAA sites. Once out of the target area, the two F-4Es joined up again and escorted the RF-4E safely out of Iraq. On December 2, 1980 an unmarked Boeing B.707 from Israel landed under cover of darkness in Mehrabad Airport, Teheran. There, a crew-member was handed a small metal briefcase, with the instructions ‘Do Not X-Ray’ painted in English on the outside. Inside were the photo-recon images photographed by the IRIAF RF-4E. The OSIRAK was finally destroyed about eight months later by Israel’s IDF-AF that conducted Operation Opera on June 7, 1981 by eight F-16A, belonging to both 117 and 110 Squadrons both based at Ramat David, which were escorted by six F-15As.
In 1981 itself, the IRIAF’s operational aircraft strength dropped to a peak level of less than 100, with less than one sortie per day of sustained capability, and Iran never was able to rise above this level until the end of the war. Similarly, the Army’s helicopter force of nearly 800 helicopters, which had 205 AH-1J attack helicopters organised to act as a ‘force multiplier’ (by possessing anti-armour capabilities equal to that of up to two Armoured Divisions), was nearly grounded. Despite covert spares-support being provided by Greece and Israel, the Air Force’s strength at the beginning of 1983 was close to 120 operational combat aircraft. Only 35 of its F-4Ds/F-4Es were serviceable, as were 65 of F-5E/F platforms, 15 F-14As, and five RF-4Es. By 1986 this had dropped to 15 F-5Es and 20 F-4Ds/F-4Es, seven F-14As, and no operational RF-4Es. Three C-130s were lost due to heavy cannibalisation, and only about 10% of its 17 B-707s, seven B-747s and the remaining C-130s were in operable condition.
The IRIAF lost most of its few air-to-air encounters after 1983, unless it used carefully planned ambush tactics against Iraqi attackers flying predictable paths of attack. The IRIAF also lost much of its strategic bombing capability after 1981. It launched some relatively accurate and well-planned attacks and exhibited good air-strike planning in attacking Iraqi electricity generation plants, and demonstrated considerable coordination in several attacks. Such proficiency and accuracy in delivering conventional attack ordnance, like rockets and bombs, owed a great deal to the fact that 100 USAF-trained pro-monarchy incarcerated Iranian pilots were freed from jail in the first days of the war. These pilots displayed considerable initiative and managed to use terrain-masking effectively on their approach to Iraqi targets. However, after 1983, the IRIAF not only lost its technical edge over Iraq, but the entire IRIAF could not generate more than 60 sorties per day under surge conditions. At the time the ceasefire was agreed to in 1988, the IRIAF also only had 35,000 men and its operational combat aircraft fleet then comprised 35 serviceable F-4D/E, 45 F-5E/F, 14 F-14s and three RF-4Es.
The IRIAF’s operational strength also had a very different meaning from that of Iraq. Iran could peak its strength to levels close to 100 aircraft for one day and 30 aircraft for a week, but this meant rapidly losing operational capability for a month or more. In addition, the IRIAF was never able to establish its reliability as a ‘loyal revolutionary’ force. Defections of both military and civil aircraft took place in late 1982, and at sporadic intervals throughout 1983. Unlike the regular Army, the IRIAF could not recruit and train ‘revolutionary’ leaders and remained under extremely tight surveillance and political suspicion. Arrests continued, as did the practice of holding the family of experienced aircrew/ground crew hostage, and restricting fuel to prevent defections. So many officers, pilots, and skilled personnel were imprisoned or lost that the IRIAF lost far more aircraft to accidents and poor maintenance than in combat. Throughout the war, therefore, the IRIAF served as a lesson that it is not equipment inventory that counts in war, but operational strength and sustainability.
For supporting its fleet of F-5E/F L-MRCAs, the IRIAF procured from Vietnam a total of 41 F-5E/F aircraft for cannibalising, while from Ethiopia came five F-5As and two F-5Bs along with three F-5Es and in 1985 at a cost of $95 million. Despite this, the IRIAF was unable to maintain high serviceability/availability rates of its F-4, F-5 and F-14 fleets because the US was not supplying the much-needed spares for the F-5’s General Electric J85-GE-21B turbojets and Emerson Electric’s APQ-159 radars, the F-4’s General Electric J79-GE-17A turbojets and Westinghouse APQ-100 and APQ-120 radars, and the F-14’s Pratt & Whitney TF30-P-414 engines and Hughes AWG-9 radars. Consequently, during the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 till 1988, while the IRIAF had possessed 458 combat aircraft of all types (138 F-5Es and 28 F-5Fs 32 F-4Ds 181 F-4Es and 79 F-14s), at any given time no more than 80 were flightworthy, with the rest being grounded either for cannibalisation, or for conserving their total technical service-lives (TTSL).
Despite this, Iran was determined to operate a sizeable number of F-4s and F-5s and to this end, from the early 1990s onwards, Iran began buying out all industrial machinery required for airframe/engine refurbishment from Taiwan’s Air Asia Group, South Korea’s Korean Aerospace Industries, Hellenic Aerospace Industries, and Israel Aerospace Industries. In 1997, Teheran announced that the state-owned Iranian Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company (HESA) was developing a domestically-produced L-MRCA called the Azarakhsh (Lightning) and six were built in the subsequent decade, out of a planned 30. The Azarakhsh, at least in its original form, was evidently a re-engineered F-5E, with uprated thrusters, reinforced wings, modified radar and improved weapons-launch capabilities. However, the Azarakhsh did not reach operational units, and the programme was terminated in 2010.
By 2004, the new Saeqeh-1 L-MRCA was unveilled. It was an F-5—but with two instead of one vertical tail stabilisers, canted outwards. The Saeqeh-1s also have additional wing-strakes, and some sport new square jet intakes. The Saeqeh-1’s twin-tail stabilisers give the better turning and takeoff performance than the F-5E, making it a superior ‘low-and-slow’ L-MRCA. The Saeqeh-1s could, however, be armed only with AIM-9J Sidewinders, unguided air-to-ground bombs and rocket pods. The APG-159 radar’s performance was improved under the Ofogh (Horizon) project in 1999, which doubled the target tracking range of the APQ-159 from 32km to 64km. The Saeqeh-1 has been deployed to an operational unit, this being the 23 Tactical Fighter Sqn based in Tabriz in northwest Iran, from where it has been conducting reconnaissance missions. Only nine aircraft out of a planned 24 have been built so far.
On February 9, 2015, the IRIAF unveiled the Saeqeh-2 tandem-seater variant. The HESA had previously converted 13 older F-5Es into Simorgh (Phoenix) tandem-seat OCU trainers by cannibalising parts from other F-5s. However the Saeqeh-2 is intended serve as both a lead-in fighter trainer and combat platform. The IRIAF also intends to modify its 17 remaining F-5Fs into Saeqeh-2.
Accidents and losses during the war with Iraq in the 1980s had steadily reduced the IRIAF’s F-4D/E fleet to just 10 airworthy F-4Ds and 18 F-4Es, In March 2010 HESA began to re-life its first F-4D airframe, which involved extensive structural refurbishment and internal re-wiring. Such F-4s are slated to remain in service until at least 2025. With China’s technical assistance, the IRIAF has so far upgraded six F-4Ds by installing in each of them a new navigation-attack system comprising a HUD, ring-laser gyro-based inertial navigation system, twin AMLCD cockpit displays, and the KLJ-7 multi-mode radar, thereby enabling these F-4Ds to air-launch the China-supplied C-802A anti-ship cruise missiles.
Today the IRIAF possesses some 192 airworthy combat aircraft. These include the 10 F-4Ds and 18 F-4Es, 30 Azarakhsh (which are expected to remain in service till 2030), 20 F-7N and four FT-7Ns that were supplied by China along with 600 PL-2 SRAAMs between 1986 and 1988 and 400 PL-7 SRAAMs between 1986 and 1988; 24 Dassault Mirage F-1EQs and Mirage F-1BQs; 25 Saeqeh-2s; 24 Su-24MKs; and 25 MiG-29B-12s.
About 120 F-5E/F Tiger-2s continue to be cannibalised, as is also the case with the remaining 100 F-4E/F Phantom-2s. The F-14 fleet’s size too has shrunk from 44 airworthy F-14s in 1988 to less than 12 today. The ex-Iraqi Mirage F-1EQs and F-1BQs and their SNECMA Atar 09K50 engines are being supported by spares that have been procured from both Iraq and Libya.
From all this, it emerges that the IRIAF still prefers platforms of Western origin and it is for this very reason that it has so far acquired only 25 MiG-29B-12s between 1989 and 1991 along with 100 R-27R BVRAAMs and 300 R-73E SRAAMs, and 440 R-60T SRAAMs, 100 Kh-29Ts and 100 Kh-58 ARMs for its 24 Su-24MKs, six Su-25Ts and three Su-25UBKs. Also procured were 24 FILAT K/PZS-01H TLS-99 laser designator pods from China for the Azarakhsh and Saeqeh-1 L-MRCAs. Future plans of the IRIAF call for procuring close to 250 Su-30MK tandem-seat H-MRCAs from Russia.
Though the IRIAF claims to have indigenously developed standoff precision-guided munitions like the Ghassed/GBU-78, Asre-67, Yaser, Qadr, Zoobin, Kite 2000, Sattar-1 and the latest 700km-range Ya Ali air-launched LACM (unveilled on May 11, 2014), there is no evidence to suggest that any of them have entered service as of now. Instead, these are all experimental technology demonstrators and the IRIAF continues to import standoff PGMs of various types and their podded guidance systems from both China and Russia.
For flying training purposes, the IRIAF received 35 Pilatus PC-7 basic turboprop trainers from Switzerland in 1983. In addition, 25 EMB-312 Tucano basic turboprop trainers were acquired between 1989 and 1991. Between 2000 and 2001, the IRGC used these Tucanos against Taliban positions and in drug-busting operations along the Afghanistan-Iran borders. Also procured were 25 MFI-17 Mushshak piston-engined ab initio trainers from Pakistan between 1989 and 1991. Efforts are now underway to co-develop the Kowsar advanced jet trainer with Russian Aircraft Corp’s RAC-MiG subsidiary. This fleet of training aircraft indicates that the IRIAF is today capable of producing pilots for a fleet of not more than 120 operational combat aircraft.
The squadrons that today make up the IRIAF are assigned to a series of tactical-air-bases (TAB) spread across the country. These include the Shahid Lashkari Tactical Air Base (TAB-1) in Teheran, Shahid Fakoori Tactical Air Base (TAB-2) in Tabriz, Shahid Nojeh Tactical Air Base (TAB-3) in Hamedan, Shahid Vahdati Tactical Air Base (TAB-4) in Dezful, Shahid Ardestani Tactical Air Base (TAB-5) in Omidiyeh, Shahid Yassini Tactical Air Base (TAB-6) in Bushehr, Shahid Dowran Tactical Air Base (TAB-7) in Shiraz, Shahid Babei Tactical Air Base (TAB-8) in Isfahan, Shahid Abdulkarimi Tactical Air Base (TAB-9) in Bandar Abbas, Shahid Dol Hamed Tactical Air Base (TAB-10) in Konarak, Shahid Hosseini' Tactical Air Base (TAB-12) in Birjand (which became operational in October 2007), Shahid Babaei Tactical Air Base (TAB-14) in Mashhad, TAB-13 in Zahedan, TAB-15 in Kermanshah, TAB-16 in Kerman and TAB-17 in Masjed Suleiman.