The Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force – IRIAF History
Shah's air force had more than 450 modern combat aircraft, including top-of-the-line F-14 Tomcat fighters and about 5,000 well-trained pilots. By 1979 the air force, numbering close to 100,000 personnel, was by far the most advanced of the three services and among the most impressive air forces in the developing world. Reliable information on the air force after the Revolution was difficult to obtain, but it seems that by 1987 a fairly large number of aircraft had been cannibalized for spare parts.
A total of 14 air bases are currently operational: Ahvaz, Bandar Abbas, Bushehr, Chan Bahar, Dezful, Doshan Tapeh (Tehran), Ghaleh Morghi (Tehran), Hamadan, Isfahan, Mashhad, Mehrabad (Tehran), Shiraz, Tabriz and Zahedan. Soviet-made aircraft are distributed throughout the country to fufill mission roles of ground attack, transport, training and interception. Bandar Abbas, Bushehr, Dezful, Hamadan, Tabriz and Mehrabad are the centers for ground attack squadrons. Shiraz is the home of the interceptor squadron. It also provides training along with, Mehrabad, Doshan Tapeh and Isfahan. Shiraz also houses the transport squadron.
Before the Revolution, the air force was organized into fifteen squadrons with fighter and fighter-bomber capabilities and one reconnaissance squadron. In addition, one tanker squadron, and four medium and one light transport squadron provided impressive logistical backup. By 1986 desertions and depletions led to a reorganization of the air force into eight squadrons with fighter and fighter-bomber capabilities and one reconnaissance squadron. This reduced force was supported by two joint tanker-transport squadrons and five light transport squadrons. Some seventy-six helicopters and five surface-to-air missile (SAM) squadrons supplemented this capability.
Air force headquarters was located at Doshan Tapeh Air Base, near Tehran. Iran's largest air base, Mehrabad, outside Tehran, was also the country's major civil airport. Other major operational air bases were at Tabriz, Bandar-e Abbas, Hamadan (Shahroki Air Base), Dezful (Vahdati Air Base), Shiraz, and Bushehr. Since 1980 air bases at Ahvaz, Esfahan (Khatami Air Base), and Bandar Beheshti have also become operational.
Throughout the 1970s, Iran purchased sophisticated aircraft for the air force. The acquisition of 77 F-14A Tomcat fighters added to 166 F-5 fighters and 190 F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers, gave Iran a strong defensive and a potential offensive capability. Before the end of his reign, the shah placed orders for F-16 fighters and even contemplated the sharing of development costs for the United States Navy's new F-18 fighter. Both of these combat aircraft have been dropped from the revolutionary regime's military acquisitions list, however.
From its inception, the air force also assumed responsibility for air defense. The existing early warning systems, built in the 1950s under the auspices of CENTO, were upgraded in the 1970s with a modern air defense radar network. To complement the ground radar component and provide a blanket coverage of the Gulf region, the United States agreed to sell Iran seven Boeing 707 airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft in late 1977. Because of the Revolution, Washington canceled the AWACS sale, claiming that this sensitive equipment might be compromised. Finally, the air force's three SAM battalions and eight improved Hawk battalions were reorganized in the mid-1980s (in a project involving more than 1,800 missiles) into five squadrons that also contained Rapiers and Tigercats. Washington's sale of Hawk spare parts and missiles in 1985 and 1986 may have enhanced this capability.
The air force's primary maintenance facility was located at Mehrabad Air Base. The nearby Iran Aircraft Industries, in addition to providing main overhaul backup for the maintenance unit, has been active in manufacturing spare parts.
When the Iran-Iraq War started in 1980, Iran's F-14s, equipped with Phoenix missiles, capable of identifying and destroying six targets simultaneously from a range of eighty kilometers or more, inflicted heavy casualties on the Iraqi air force, which was forced to disperse its aircraft to Jordan and Oman. The capability of the F-14s and F-4s was enhanced by the earlier acquisition of a squadron of Boeing 707 tankers, thereby extending their combat radius to 2,500 kilometers with in-flight refueling.
Iranian F-14 Tomcats were used like miniature AWACS, reporting Iraqi fighter operations to Iranian air defense commanders with their powerful radars. In response, Iraqi Mirage F1-EQ fighters flew high-speed, low-altitude profiles, well below the Tomcat's radar limits. The F1-EQ would pop up directly beneath the Tomcat's orbit, briefly illuminate the F-14 with its radar, and fire one or two air-to-air missiles at it. Iran lost several Tomcats this way.
Iran began the war with Hawk surface-to-air missile defenses, though these were largely for the defense of fixed military facilities. Iran's doctrine emphasized air defense using aircraft like the F-14A. Iran failed to use its Hawks effectively during the war, failing even to mount an effective point defense of key oil facilities. This may have been affected by the disruption following the Shah's fall. There were only a few confirmed Iranian Hawk kills of Iraqi aircraft.
By 1987, however, the air force faced an acute shortage of spare parts and replacement equipment. Perhaps 35 of the 190 Phantoms were serviceable in 1986. One F-4 had been shot down by Saudi F-15s, and two pilots had defected to Iraq with their F-4s in 1984. The number of F-5s dwindled from 166 to perhaps 45, and the F-14 Tomcats from 77 to perhaps 10. The latter were hardest hit because maintenance posed special difficulties after the United States embargo on military sales.
China and North Korea with their "independent" policies on arms sales, were the only countries willing to sell Iran combat airplanes. Iran had acquired two Chinese-made Shenyang J-6 trainers in 1986. Unconfirmed reports in 1987 indicated that Iran was receiving Shenyang F-6s (Chinese-built MiG-19SFs), and that Iranian pilots were receiving training in North Korea. The reconnaissance squadron has also struggled to perform its duties with limited equipment. Once flying close to thirty-four aircraft, by late 1987 it may have been reduced to eight, having converted five Tomcats to serve in a noncombat role. It was not clear whether these five airplanes were in addition to the ten in the interceptor squadrons. Given the technical sophistication of reconnaissance aircraft, it was almost impossible to acquire from non-Western sources new ones capable of performing to Iranian standards. The only substantial acquisition was the purchase of forty-six Pilatus PC-7s from Switzerland. Iran requested three Kawasaki C-1 transports and a 3D air defense radar system from Japan, but this transaction did not appear to have materialized by 1987. Reports also indicated that Iran had placed with Argentina an order for thirty Hughes 500D helicopters.
Around FY91, with the onset of Desert Storm, more than 350 advanced aircraft were bought or made operational including, Russian MiG-27s, -29s, -31s, TU-22M3 Backfires, Russian Su24s, -25s, -27s, IL-76 transports, and French Mirage F-1s. In this period close to $2 billion was spent on foreign weapons systems.
At least 115 combat aircraft flew to Iran, out of the total of 137-149 aircraft flown to Iran or crashed enroute [including 15 Il-76s and some number of civilian airliners]. According to an official Iraqi statement, the aircraft included 115 combat aircraft, among them 24 Mirage F1s, 4 Su-20 Fitters, 40 Su-22 Fitters, 24 Su-24 Fencers, seven Su-25 Frogfoots, nine MiG-23 Floggers, and four MiG-29 Fulcrums. Reports that Saddam Hussein ordered 20 Tu-22 bombers to Iran appear unfounded. In 1993 it was reported that Russia was to provide Iran with spare parts, armaments, and operating manuals for the Iraqi jets that flew to Iran during the Gulf War. In 1993 it was reported that China had bought an unknown number of these MiG-29s from Iran, in exchange for Chinese missile technology and a nuclear power station. The two countries had reportedly reached agreement on the exchange in late 1992, with Iran having delivered some of the MiG-29s by the end of 1992. In 1998 Iraq and Iran had high-level meetings to discuss ending their state of war and other matters, including Iraq's request to have its airplanes back. Iran denied it had used any of the Iraqi fighter planes. If Iran had kept the Iraqi planes grounded for the entire time, they are probably nonfunctional -- the Iranians may not be able to start the engines or operate the hydraulics. Other reports suggest that some Su-24s have been added to Iran's existing inventory, some Su-20/22s were in Revolutionary Guard service. The Iraqi Su-25s, MiG-23s and Mirage F1s were thought by some to be not in service, due to age, low capability (MiG-23s) or too few numbers (Su-25). Other reports suggest that Iran had overhauled Iraq's fleet of 24 Mirage F-1B fighters and placed them into service.
As of 1996 air defense forces included about 18,000 military personnel. The tradition of aircraft-based air defense, derived from the US-trained air force from before the 1978-79 revolution, was giving way to a ground-based air defense missile systems. But Iran was unable to construct a nationwide, integrated air defense network, and continued to rely on point defense of key locations with surface-to-air missile batteries.
By the mid-1990s Iran reportedly had small numbers of Chinese SA-2s, along with SA-5 and SA-6 SAMs. Total holdings seem to include 30 Improved Hawk fire units (12 battalions/150+ launchers), 45-60 SA-2 and HQ-2J/23 (CSA-1 Chinese equivalents of the SA-2) launchers. Some sources claim that Iran might have 25 SA-6 launchers, but other sources are doubtful. There are reports of the transfer of eight SA-6 launchers to Iran from Russia in 1995/1996. In January 1996 US Navy Vice Admiral Scott Redd said had recently added Russian-built SA/6 missile defense systems.
In 1997 the Iranian Air Defense forces declared the Almaz S-200 Angara (SA-5 'Gammon') low-to high-altitude surface-to-air missile (SAM) operational. The missile has a comparatively modest acceleration rate, and relies on its small wings for maneuverability. Furthermore, the mechanically steered radars used by the SA-5 are vulnerable to saturation by decoys. Sources disagree on the number deployed, with some claiming four batteries, while others claim ten. Another source reports that the Air Force had three Soviet-made long-range SA-5 units, with a total of 10-15 launchers -- enough for six sites.
There were reports that Iran was considering purchases of the highly capable SA-10 [S-300] missile system. The SA-10 is a highly capable long-range all-altitude SAM. As early as 1994 it was reported that Iran had six SA-10 batteries [96 missiles] on order from Russia [but as of early 2006 no deliveries had taken place]. In February 1997 a $90 million sale of 36 missiles to Iran and three older SA-10 SAM systems, made up of components from Russia, Croatia, and Kazakhstan, fell through. On 30 December 2000 an announcement was made in Russia that Iran had informed Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev about Iran's desire to purchase the S-300 anti-missile system. In March 2001 there were reports tha the Russians are close to cutting a deal with Iran on advanced missiles. Itar-Tass reported that Iran would soon close the deal on the Russian Tor-M1, Tor-M1T, and the S-300 surface-to-air missiles. After this report, there were no subsequent reports of Iranian interest in the SA-10.
In December 2005 Iran entered into a contract to purchase 29 TOR M1 [SA-15 GAUNTLET] mobile surface-to-air missile defence systems from Russia worth more than USD 700 million (EUR 600 million). The TOR-M1 is a mobile system designed for operation at medium- and low-altitude levels against aircraft and guided missiles. Each unit consists of a vehicle armed with eight missiles and a radar that can track 48 targets and engage two simultaneously. The TOR-M1 systems have medium-range capabilities for intercepting planes and missiles and are not designed for ground operations.
There is no dispositive source of information on Iranian air defense deployment. Key SAM-defended areas include Tehran and centers involved in nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs. Iran appears to have deployed the SA-5 batteries to defend Tehran, major ports, and oil facilities, providing long-range medium-to-high altitude coverage of vital coastal installations. The I-Hawk and SA-2 batteries are reportedly located around Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, Bandar Abbas, Kharg Island, Bushehr, Bandar Khomeini, Ahwaz, Dezful, Kermanshah, Hamadan, and Tabriz, providing point defense for key bases and facilities. Some of these sites lack sufficient missile launchers to be fully effective.
Iran imported surveillance radars from the China National Electronics Import-Export Corporation. The radar can detect targets up to 300 km away and is now part of Iran's air defense system. But even with China's help, Iran's air defenses remained porous, perhaps on par with Iraqi capabilities demonstrated in the 1991 Gulf war. The launchers are scattered too widely prevent relatively rapid suppression. Iran lacks the low altitude radar coverage, overlapping radar network, command and control integration, sensors, and resistance to jamming and electronic countermeasures needed for an effective air defense net. The defenses operate a point defense mode.
As of 2000 it was estimated that only 40 of the 132 F-4Ds, 177 F-4Es and 16 RF-4E. Phantoms delivered before 1979 remained in service. At that time, approximately 45 of the 169 F-5E/Fs delivered are still flying, while perhaps 20 F-14A Tomcats of the 79 initially delivered were airworthy. Another 30 F-4s, 30 F-5s and 35 F-14s have been cannibalized for spare parts. One report suggested that the IRIAF can get no more than seven F-14s airborne at any one time. Iran claims to have fitted F-14s with I-Hawk missiles adapted to the air-to-air role.
Russia and Iran enjoy a close military sales relationship, and have taken steps for the Russians to sell modernized air defense systems to Iran. In February 2001 a spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry stated that "Iran hopes for ongoing military-technical cooperation with Russia. Our country plans to modernize Iranian Air Defense and it will ask Russia to sell some air defense systems in support of that."
An unknown number of "new" Su-25s were delivered to the Iranian Revolution Guards Corps Air Force (IRGCAF) in 2003. Where these Frogfoots originate from is unclear.
In July 2003 Chengdu Aircraft Industrial Corporation (CAIC) unveiled the new ‘Super-7' or Chao Qi fighter plane to the public. The new Super-7 is “an all-purpose light fighter, required to have all-weather operation capabilities, be capable of performing the dual tasks of dogfight and air-to-ground attack, and have the ability to launch medium-range missiles. Mass production of the fighter will not begin until two and a half years of research are completed. The plane is being produced to be sold abroad to developing nations. China already has received orders from Iran and some African countries.
There have been reports of some 10 F-8Ms "Finback", 7 Tu-22Ms, 19 MIG-27s, and several MIG-31s (Russia's most modern fighter aircraft, US$40 million ) being present in Iran, but these are not confirmed.
Air Fields and Bases
Air force headquarters is located at Doshan Tapeh Air Base, near Tehran. Iran's largest air base, Mehrabad, outside Tehran, was also the country's major civil airport. Other major operational air bases are at Tabriz, Bandar-e Abbas, Hamadan (Shahroki Air Base), Dezful (Vahdati Air Base), Shiraz, and Bushehr. Since 1980 air bases at Ahvaz, Esfahan (Khatami Air Base), and Bandar Beheshti have also become operational. The air force's primary maintenance facility is located at Mehrabad Air Base. The nearby Iran Aircraft Industries, in addition to providing main overhaul backup for the maintenance unit, has been active in manufacturing spare parts.
There are 26 domestic airports in Iran which operate round-the-clock, six international airports, and six airfields for the National Iranian Oil Company. Another eight airports are being built in various parts of Iran by private investors. The international airports are: Tehran Mehrabad Airport, Isfahan, Shiraz, Mashad, Tabriz, Bandar Abbas. Others are in Bushehr, Bandar Lengeh, Kish Island, Kerman, Rasht, Chahbahar, Ahvaz, Urumieh, Baakhtaran, Birjand, Zabol, Iranshahr, Laar, Khorramabad, Hamedan, Sanandaj, Raamsar and Noshahr.
The Iranian Air Force is broken into three command areas: Western, Southern, and Eastern. The Western Area Command consists of: Tehran (Mehrabad and Doshan-Tappeh), Tabriz, Hamadan, Dezful, Umidiyeh, Shiraz, and Isfahan. The Southern Area Command consists of: Bushehr, Bandar Abbas, and Chah Bahar. The Eastern Area Command consists of: Zahedan, Tehran (Ghale Morghi), and Shiraz's training squadron.