Air University Review, January-February 1986

The Air War in The Persian Gulf

David Segal

AFTER nearly five years of fighting, the Iraqi Air Force has finally come into its own as an important—some say decisive—factor in the Gulf War with Iran. It now shows a previously unseen effectiveness in ground support and tactical operations and has undertaken its first real strategic bombing campaign with at least moderate success.

Three factors have combined to bring about this air power enhancement: newer and better tactics, largely due to combat experience and French training; a recent massive influx of Soviet aircraft and ordnance; and, above all, Iran’s destruction of its own Air Force through political purges and lack of proper maintenance.

Iran Murders Its Own Air Force

Before Khomeini seized power on 11 February 1979, the U.S.-trained Iranian Imperial Air Force was widely regarded as second only to Israel's in the Middle East—more than a match for Iraq and a serious adversary for even the Soviet Union. The Khomeini regime, however, regarded it as a waste of money that rightfully belonged to the mostazafin (poor oppressed masses).

One of the new government's first acts was a purge of the armed forces, particularly the officer corps, which was (probably correctly) thought to be a hotbed of monarchist sentiment. The Air Force, where virtually the entire fighting element—the combat pilots—is composed of officers, was especially hard hit. To make matters worse, Iran's best combat pilots had been trained in the United States and Israel, making them particularly suspect.

After the Iraqi invasion of 22 September 1980, skilled pilots in Iran were hastily rehabilitated—some going directly from prison cells, where they had been awaiting execution, to the cockpits of F-4s and F-5s to defend the regime that had been about to shoot them. One such case, Colonel Mohammed Mo'ezi, became Iran's most distinguished combat pilot and most famous early war hero. However, in June 1981, Mo'ezi took his leave of the Islamic Republic for good, taking his F-4 and deposed President Abol Hasan Bani-Sadr with him.

By July 1981, the Iranian regulars, backed by hordes of Revolutionary Guards, had stopped the Iraqis cold and driven them back behind the old borders. In a stunning display of ingratitude, once the immediate danger had passed, the mullahs resumed their purge of the armed forces.

That purge, which still goes on, has been the most devastating destruction of a military force by its own government since Stalin's Red Army purges of 1936-38. According to various Israeli, Iraqi, Amnesty International, State Department, and Iranian exile sources, more than 5000 Iranian officers have been imprisoned, executed, or forced into exile. Those who remain are supervised by "spiritual guidance officers" in much the same way that the post-purge Red Army line officers were subordinated to political commissars. Last year, the process was completed when all Iranian armed forces were subordinated to Mohsen Rezaie, Khomeini's handpicked Revolutionary Guards Commander, better known for blind obedience than for military prowess.

Under this kind of strain, the Air Force’s command structure and morale have totally collapsed. Since January 1984, Iran has had three different Air Force commanders (Major Mo'inifar, Colonel Sadiri and, now, Colonel Sadiq), while the current Deputy Commander of the service, who represented the Air Force at the 11 February 1985 Revolution Day celebrations, is Airman Bazargan.

Iran's aircraft are, if anything, in even worse shape than its unintelligible command structure and organization. Khomeini's virulently anti-Western policies provoked an ongoing Western arms embargo, and one former close friend, France, is now a major Iraqi arms supplier.

The consequent shortage of replacement parts for American equipment is hurting Iran very badly, especially in the Air Force. Early in the war, Israel provided some spare parts and technical assistance to prevent an outright Iraqi victory, but this aid came to a halt by 1983, Israeli sources say. Iran, of course, is buying whatever U.S. parts it can illegally, but these purchases are not even enough for ordinary maintenance, let alone active combat.

Given the difficulty of obtaining hard information from Iran these days, even the best estimates of Iranian air strength are "scientifically calculated guesses." However, a quick comparison of present and prewar figures clearly shows Iran's dramatic deteriorations.1

Before the war, Iran had an estimated 456 American-made combat aircraft, including seventy-seven F-14 Tomcats with Phoenix missile systems. Only about seventy U.S. aircraft still appear to be operational, including three Tomcats. These were shown in the 1985 Revolution Day fly-by, which is widely believed to have included every Iranian F-4, F-5, and F-14 still capable of flying.

Soviet-type equipment has become dominant in Iran's ground forces, however, and rumors abound that the Air Force has several hundred MiG-19 and MiG-21 types, provided by China, North Korea, Libya, and Syria. Most of these are said to be Chinese F-6s (improved MiG-19 clones).

Reliable sources say that Iran signed a $1.45 billion oil-for-arms agreement with China in March 1984, with deliveries starting April 1985, and that speaker of the Iranian Majlis (Parliament) Hashemi Rafsanjani and Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati were in Beijing more recently to negotiate further agreements. Additionally, Iran signed a $133.3 million agreement with East Germany in May 1985, trading oil for "technical assistance," while Revolutionary Guards commanders and Iranian pilots reportedly have received training in East Germany and Bulgaria.

The Chinese firmly deny having any arms deal "with Iran or anybody else," but, while Iranian diplomats will not confirm reports of a Chinese arms deal, they also refuse to deny them. One Iranian spokesman used the preposterous dodge that Iran leaves all official comment on trade with China to the Chinese.

Whatever the denials, Chinese T-59/69 tanks are showing up in Iranian units, but there is no sign of any F-6s yet. Iraq, however, has broken diplomatic relations with both Libya and North Korea for supplying weapons, including aircraft, to Iran. That Iraq has not broken with China too, may have something to do with the fact that Iraq buys Chinese small arms and T-54/55, MiG-19, and MiG-21 clones.

The absence of Iranian F-6s from the battlefields can easily be explained by a lack of trained pilots (hence, the training in East Germany and Bulgaria). If Iran really has these Chinese MiG-19 copies, they should not be sneered at, even though the original design is thirty-two-years old. With Chinese improvements, the F-6 has outstanding dogfight maneuverability, and its 30-mm NR-30 guns have more than twice the kinetic energy of the Aden or DEFA of similar caliber. It carries the Atoll air-to-air missile, while two 551-pound bombs or weapons pods make it extremely effective in the ground-support role.

Still, this plane (particularly when flown and maintained by Iranians) is not about to wrest air superiority from Iraq's MiG-23s, MiG-25s, and Mirage F-s. Iran's Air Force, unable to seriously contest Iraq's recent massive bombing of Iranian cities, has been virtually out of the war this year.

Iraq's Air Blockade

In contrast, by strangling Iran's vulnerable economy and destroying civilian morale, the Iraqi Air Force has recently become Iraq's most potent tool for ending the five-year-long war. Serious economic warfare began in March 1984 when Iraq proclaimed a blockade of shipping and the vital Kharg Island oil terminal, which accounts for 80 percent of Iran's exports. One unusual feature of this war is that both sides get most of their hard currency for arms and military supplies from a single major source, oil exports; and a reduction of these exports can seriously impair either side's fighting ability.

Early in the war, Iraqi oil exports plummeted from 1.5 million barrels a day to a mere 700,000, as the Gulf was closed to Iraqi shipping, while Iran's Arab ally, Syria, shut Iraq's main export pipeline, which ran through Syrian territory. At that time, when Iran's Air Force was still functional and its Navy dominated the Gulf (as it still does), Iran boosted daily oil shipments to more than two million barrels. Iraq got by on aid from the Arab Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Since then, the Iraqis have more than doubled the capacity of their Turkish pipeline and are transshipping oil through Saudi ports, boosting their exports to nearly two million barrels per day. Meanwhile, their blockade has cut Iran's exports to a mere 500,000 barrels daily.

The Iraqi Navy, never a match for Iran's, has been virtually inactive since the war broke out, and the Iraqi blockade is, perhaps, the only example of a successful economic blockade carried out by air power alone. Since March 1984, Iranian oil exports have fallen nearly 55 percent, as the Iraqi Air Force hit more than 130 "naval targets" (a euphemism for oil tankers) and launched several damaging air raids on Kharg Island, Iran's most vital target. Kharg Island is heavily defended by potent concentrations of antiaircraft guns, including the deadly Soviet ZSU-23-4, and surface-to-air missiles, mainly U.S.-made Hawks and Soviet SA-7 Strelas. It is one of the few places that the Iranian Air Force still actively defends, flying from bases in Büshehr, in Shiraz, and on Kharg itself. Without Kharg's oil revenues, Iran cannot hope to finance its own defense, let alone invade Iraq.

The War of the Cities:
Iraq's First
Strategic Bombing Effort

A unilateral cease-fire in the Iraqi Air Force's first real strategic bombing campaign, the so-called war of the cities, which aimed at breaking civilian morale and disrupting military targets, expired on 30 June 1985. Another, more intense, effort is in the offing.

Iraq's two efforts early in 1985, from 14 March to 7 April and 25 May to 15 June, were reportedly very effective. Opposition from the Iranian Air Force was negligible to nonexistent, as the Iraqis hit air bases and military and industrial targets all over Iran (in Tabriz, Urmia, Rasht, Bakhteran, Hamadan, Tehran, Isfahan, Dezful, Ahvaz, Kharg, Bushehr, and Shiraz).

Even Iraq's lumbering old Tu-16 bombers were getting through, presumably with MiG-25 and Mirage F-1 escorts, as the Iraqis hit targets as far away as Kashan, more than 360 miles from their own bases. Iran's official Kayhan daily confirmed this, reporting that Tehran was being bombed by "Tupolevs (Tu-16 Badger and Tu-22 Blinder bombers) flying at very high altitudes."

Both Tupolevs can carry about nine tons of bombs or AS-5 Kelt and AS-4 Kitchen air-to-surface missiles with standoff ranges of more than 100 and 185 miles, respectively. The "large rockets " that hit Tehran during the last two Iraqi blitzes were probably Kelts and Kitchens, delivered by Iraq's Badgers and Blinders operating with impunity for the first time in this war.

There are no reliable figures on the size of the Iraq's bomber force, but Military Balance estimates in 1985 (seven Tu-22s and eight Tu-16s) were almost certainly too low. Reliable sources report that new Soviet Tu-22 deliveries to Iraq started in March 1984. A total of thirty serviceable Iraqi Tupolevs would not be an impossible estimate.

The brunt of Iraq's bombing offensive, borne by nearly 600 smaller Iraqi combat planes, has fallen on Tehran in an effort to crush Iranian morale. One source in Tehran said that he could see twenty Iraqi planes at one time just in his area of the city, while the Iraqis boasted of 180-plane raids on the Iranian capital. Whatever the real numbers, antiwar feeling in Tehran was at an all-time high, as the Iraqis hit the city an average of twice a day and, on two occasions, six times.

Tehran's military and economic targets, however, were by no means overlooked. Among the areas hit were the Bagh-e Saba Revolutionary Guard Barracks, Tehran's main power station, the Military Staff College, the Military Academy, the main army barracks, and the Abbas Abbad Army Base. Southern Tehran's locomotive works and the heavy industrial area near Javadieh were also hit, and even the three military airfields that were supposed to protect the city—Mehrabad, Jey, and Qual'eh Murgeh—were repeatedly attacked with impunity. The only real opposition came from the city's antiaircraft guns, and that was ineffective, sources in the city say.

According to local residents, conditions in Tehran during the Iraqi bombings were very difficult. Fires blazed out of control as firefighters struggled with low pressure from broken water mains. Bombed streets, power failures, and nonworking traffic signals made Tehran traffic—difficult at the best of times—nearly impossible, and automobile collisions were frequent. Tehran’s hospitals overflowed with casualties. The daily toll was reckoned "in the hundreds," and there were frequent emergency radio appeals for blood donors. For the first time in the war, Tehran suffered serious food shortages because of the collapse of transportation and food distribution facilities. Food spoiled as refrigeration failed during power outages, and, in some areas, even water was scarce, as water mains burst and electric pumps failed.

Obviously, the Iraqis hope that strategic bombing alone will shatter Iranian morale and force Khomeini to negotiate. In fact, when the bombing started in March 1985, Iraqi President Saddam Hassein said that it would continue until Iran agreed to stop the war. Since then, however, there have been two bombing halts for no clear military reason, such as air losses or failure to hit the targets. It is anybody's guess whether the bombing was stopped as a propaganda ploy (it has certainly been used as such) or because of logistic considerations.

It is, however, already quite clear that Iraqi Air Force Commander Air-Marshal Hamid Sha'aban's April 1985 statement that the Iraqi Air Force could strike "anywhere deep inside Iranian territory" was no boast.

The Missile War

Iran's only reply to Iraq's bombing campaign has been to fire about a dozen Soviet Scud-B SSMs, presumed to be of Libyan origin, at Baghdad—not exactly a missile blitz. Iranian claims that Iran is manufacturing its own long-range SSMs are dismissed by most experts.

Even in this field, the Iranians are outclassed by Iraq, which has a few Scud Bs of its own and an apparently limitless supply of Frog-7s, which have been unleashed on Iran's border towns and troop concentrations. The Iraqis also have an ace-in-the-hole in the form of fifteen Soviet-made Scaleboard missiles.

The Scaleboard has a 560-mile range, which places it in the "near-strategic" category, and, in the Soviet version, it is thought to carry a one-megaton nuclear warhead. There is no known conventional warhead, and there is something of a mystery about what the Iraqis are arming their Scaleboards with. If Iraq decides to launch them, it will be the first time the formidable Soviet missile has been used in actual combat.

The Iraqi Buildup

However interesting these missiles may be, their destructive potential does not begin to compare with the sheer destructive power of Iraq's estimated 330 MiG-23, Su-7, Su-20, and Super Etendard attack planes and 300 MiG-19/21/25, and Mirage F-1 interceptors. This formidable buildup of air power appears to be the result of a February 1984 Soviet decision to actively help Iraq win the war, even though the Soviets know as well as anyone else that Iran is the strategic prize in the region. After five years of having every overture for an alliance rejected emphatically by Iran's anti-Communist theocracy, the Soviets appear to have decided that they cannot have any real influence in Iran as long as the mullahs rule. That unfortunate situation, of course, can be remedied by an Iraqi victory, which would leave the Soviets free to manipulate the resulting power vacuum in neighboring Iran.

Among the items reportedly shipped to Iraq in February and March of 1984 were Tu-22 Blinder bombers, MiG-23 Flogger ground-attack planes, SS-12 Scaleboard SSMs, Mi-24 helicopter gunships, large numbers of tanks, armored vehicles, and huge quantities of munitions. These shipments still continue on a reduced scale.

Additionally, informed sources say that Iraq has obtained Soviet fuel-air explosives. These munitions release a fine aerosol of volatile chemicals over a wide area, which is then ignited by a second charge, causing lethal shock waves. Jane's Defense Weekly reported the Soviets using 500-kilo fuel-air bombs, delivered by Su-17 fighter bombers, on Afghan resistance fighters. These reportedly left craters thirty feet in diameter and eighteen feet deep, killing people and animals in a quarter-mile radius. A 1000-pound bomb could blow down a high-rise building, and one or two large ones could destroy an airfield and kill everyone on it.

Iraq's New
Ground-Support Tactics

Iraq's impressive air power buildup cannot be fully used without a suitable tactical doctrine for its employment. Fortunately for the Iraqis, a suitable doctrine seems to have emerged last year, after nearly four years of combat. Thanks largely to Iran's military purges, shoddy maintenance, spare parts shortage, and unintelligible command structure, the Iraqis gained air superiority fairly early in the war, but they did not have the foggiest idea what to do with it. They had little combat experience and employed rigid Soviet-style tactics. Besides, until the massive influx of new Soviet equipment in 1984, the Iraqis had to conserve aircraft and ordnance.

Early war reports from experienced correspondents, such as Drew Middleton of the New York Times, indicated that Iraqi pilots were gun-shy in the face of Iranian SAMs and antiaircraft fire: their idea of close ground support was to drop bombs in the general direction of the enemy from high altitudes and run. Increased combat experience and the gradual disintegration of Iran's Air Force and air defenses, however, seem to have corrected this problem.

At first, interceptions and air strikes were rigidly coordinated by ground-based control officers, and individual pilot initiative was strongly discouraged. It was almost unheard of for Iraqi pilots to break formation or go after targets of opportunity, and, because targets of opportunity were verboten, effective supply interdiction and strikes on enemy ground formations were nearly impossible.

This situation has changed. The Iraqi Air Force's recent French training has made a big difference, proving to be of even greater value than its new French equipment. Pilot initiative is now encouraged, targets of opportunity are aggressively sought, interception tactics are up to the formation commander, and close ground support means just that.

It is perhaps ironic that the Iraqi Air Force achieved an impressive fighting ability by absorbing an enormous influx of Soviet equipment while abandoning Soviet doctrine.

The Iraqi Air Force and
Offensive Ground Operations

Besides its normal air superiority and ground-support missions, Iraq's Air Force plays an integral and vital role in the Iraqi Army's new combined-arms operations. While Iraqi ground operations are beyond the scope of this article, a brief outline might explain the Air Force’ s role in them.

In early 1984, the Iraqi Army was able to abandon its static hold-at-all-costs defensive tactics in favor of a more mobile defense in depth. The Iraqis now deliberately allow the enemy to penetrate a selected area of the front and pour in reserves. Then, while artillery pins them in place and air strikes interdict their reinforcements, the Iranian penetration forces are cut up and annihilated by hard-hitting Iraqi armored and mechanized units attacking from one or both flanks with air, artillery, and infantry support. So far, the new tactics have worked on the Iranians, mostly Revolutionary Guards, every time. U.S. estimates say that more than 23,000 Iranians were killed in their March 1985 Kheibar II attack.

These new Iraqi tactics can be used offensively also, with the Air Force providing protection from enemy air strikes and aerial reconnaissance and playing the role of flying artillery.

For reasons that cannot be detailed here, there is a general expectation in informed circles that the Iraqi Army is about to launch its first major offensive operation since 1982. If so, the Air Force's flying artillery role is particularly vital, since most of Iraq's artillery is not self-propelled and would be hard-pressed to keep up with any real breakthrough. This disadvantage can be offset only by close cooperation with the Iraqi Air Force.

In the event of a major Iraqi offensive, however, Iraq’s Air Force has a much more vital mission than just ground support: that of preventing or destroying Iranian troop concentrations and interdicting Iranian supplies and reinforcements. In fact, without the Iraqi Air Force’s unquestioned supremacy and demonstrated ability to perform those missions, an Iraqi offensive against Iran’s three-to-one numerical superiority would be completely unthinkable.

Denver, Colorado


  1. The base figures come from The Military Balance 1985, but I have modified them with more recent information from my own sources in Iran and elsewhere.


David Segal is an author, free-lance journalist, and lecturer on the Middle East and military/intelligence matters. He writes a monthly column on East Bloc military developments for Soldier of Fortune. For many years, he lived abroad in Germany and Israel, and he has served in the Israeli Defense Forces. Segal’s articles have appeared in the Denver Post, Newsweek, Combat Weapons, the English-language Times of Israel, and other publications. Currently, he is working on a book about the Iran-Iraq War.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.


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