Arabian Peninsula & Persian Gulf Database
Since pre-history, the Sultan of Oman has been known to the region’s fiercely independent tribesmen as the “Lord of the Green Mountains”. To any foreign visitor of this country that stretches along something like 1.600km of southern Arabian Peninsula coast – from Ras Dharbat Ali (on the Yemeni border) to the Sheikhdom of Ras al-Khaimah (inside the Persian Gulf) – this might be a quite estranging nick-name. Then, the predominant colours in this barren country, with key features consisting of jagged peaks and desert, are ash brown, moonrock grey and white. Nevertheless, in the high area around Jebel Akdhar the hills are indeed green and there was (and still is) considerable cultivation.
Physically, Oman consists of three areas: the coastal plain, some 16km deep in the area near Suwaiq but non-existing near Muscat (where the hills descend directly into the sea); a stretched range of hills, reaching the greatest height of 2.745m in the Jebel Akdhar region; and a plateau at an average height of 300m above the sea level, where there is almost no vegetation.
Most of Oman was completely unexplored until after the WWII, and even tactical pilotage charts from the early 1970s were still peppered with commentary like, “relief data incomplete”, or “maximum elevation believed to be….” The temperatures reach up to 57°C in summer and most of the country receives hardly any rain: thermal wings carry fine sand as high up as 6.000m. The south, however, gets some monsoon from the east: when this happens the humidity can reach saturation points, with solid cloud covers from 90m upwards! Sometimes during the monsoon season an interesting mix of such circumstances is occurring, when seaspray and rain can blank the sight completely out. Poor visibility that prevails for most of the year, compounded by mainly featureless terrain or complexity of hill and mountain ranges, thus creates immense problems for any kind of navigation.
Clearly, under such circumstances no significant civilizations could develop in this area, and no developments significant for the history of mankind occurred until relatively recently. In the 18th Century, however, the British – recognizing the strategic position of the desert nation positioned on the entrance to the Hormuz Straits and thus the Persian Gulf - established good contacts with the Sultanate of Oman. Ever since, British troops were supporting the local government by putting down a number of uprisings or
Oman has only relatively recently started producing greater amounts of oil. But, the Omani oil is much sought for, then it is so thin and sulphur-free that it can be poured directly into fuel tanks of diesel vehicles. In the early 20th Century the Britain sought to protect her interests in oil and sea routes through a succession of treaties.
Quarrels with Saudis
The early conflicts in Oman after 1945 were mainly caused by the Saudi contests of the border, especially in the key crossroads of Buraimi Oasis.
When the area was felt to have potential oil reserves, on 31 August 1952, a Saudi Arabian party of some 80 settled in the village of Hamasa. The British government immediately protested and there was a swift reaction on the part of British military. While a force of Trucial Oman Levies (TOL) was dispatched to the village, three Vampire FB.Mk.5s of the No.6 Squadron, supported by some Valetta transports, were deployed to Sharjah. After these planes made several low passes over the Saudis, dropping leaflets in the process, and some negotiations with Ryad, the situation was solved – for the time being.
However, Saudi Arabia was not satisfied, and as further negotiations dragged on, in 1953 the British imposed a blockade of Saudi investment, while the RAF returned Vampires Sharjah. As the local runway was soon ruined through jet efflux, they were then replaced by four Meteor FR.Mk.9s of No.208 Squadron and, from April 1953, by two Lancaster GR.Mk.3s from Malta and Habbaniyah, in Iraq. Eventually, NATO commitments for the Lancasters forced the British to replace them with smaller Valetta transports.
The British were very careful to make the presence of their reconnaissance planes known, however, they were also interested in avoiding an open conflict with Saudi Arabia, as the American interest in that country was much too large to risk a war. At the time the Saudis actually had no serious military, but the Arab-American Oil Company (ARAMCO), which was controlling the oil production in Saudi Arabia, maintained an own air arm consisting of C-46 Transports and B-26 Invader medium bombers. The highly experienced pilots of these planes were all veterans of the WWII and knew how to defend themselves. Additionally the Americans signed a contract that secured them the use of the airfield at Dhahran for five years from 1951. This contract was extended for another five years in 1956. It was therefore clear that an open conflict with Saudi Arabia would also mean a war with the USA, and this was out of question.
In January 1955 the British became aware that Saudi Arabian planes were operating in the northern Dhofar region of Oman. Aden-based Valettas spent four months patrolling the area, but never encountered any other airplanes. In September 1955 however, Saudi Arabian transports were caught while inserting agents into the region. With the help of British Valetta-, Anson-, and Pembroke transports the British therefore inserted another TOL unit into the region. The Saudi Arabian agents were quickly caught and expelled to Bahrain: the operation was over by 27 October 1955.
However, the Saudis were not to be stopped. They courted the Imam Ghalib ibn-Ali, based in Nizwa, because he accepted the authority of (Omani) Sultan Said ibn-Taimur. This time the Sultan of Oman decided to react and on 15 December 1955 a TOL and Muskat and Oman Field Force (MOFF) task force was airlifted by Valetta transports of No.1417 Flight RAF to occupy Nizwa. Imam’s brother Talib, who supported the Saudi claims, then escaped to Saudi Arabia, where – obviously with ARAMCO help – he formed the Omani Liberation Army (OLA).
For the following two years the British regularly patrolled the disputed area, but nothing significant happened until June 1957, when Talib led OLA to an attack on Muscat. Within only a month, the OLA occupied most of the area. Confronted with a likelihood of losing most of central Oman, Sultan Said requested help from Britain and the government in London ordered an intervention. This time the RAF deployed Venom FB.Mk.4s of No.6 Sqn and the No.249 Sqn to Sharjah. From 24 July onwards the fighter-bombers flew strikes against desert forts in several locations, including Nizwa, Tanuf, and Firq. The OLA’s situation was soon quite concerning: all movement by day-light was subjected to air strikes, and soon stopped. By 30th of July the Venoms were reinforced by Meteor FR.Mk.9s of No.208 Sqn, and Canberra PR.Mk.7s of No.38 Squadron, and air strikes even intensified. Finally, a week later, on 7 August, the ground forces moved into the area, occupying Firq and then Nizwa. This forced the OLA to withdraw to the barren Jebel Akhdar region, from where it was not able to operate offensively. Consequently, the British decided to send their troops home.
Naturally the rebels quickly regained the initiative and the RAF and the Forces of Oman had to destroy them in a new war. The RAF was mainly focussing on controlling the borders with Saudi Arabia to keep down the weapons smuggling to the rebels. When needed, however, the RAF would fly close air support (CAS) missions for troops on the ground.
This conflict went on for several years longer. In 1959 there was increased activity by the RAF Shackeltons, and eventually the British decided to destroy the rebellion. The Royal Navy carrier HMS Bulwark was deployed in the area, and in July a day-long air offensive against OLA was launched, with Sea Hawk and Sea Venom fighter-bombers flying some 77 combat sorties. The British then deployed the A and D Squadrons of 22 SAS regiment and some Kenyan trackers, and in the night from 26 to 27 January 1959 launched an assault on Jebel Akhdar plateau. Resistance wsa broken within only three days later all the key villages in the area – including Saiq, Habib and Sharayah – were captured, and the rebellion crushed.
The RAF and SAS pulled out of Oman already by mid-February 1959, even if the British actually decided not to completely withdraw this time. On the contrary, a limited Army contingent was left in the country, and the Sultan Said was compelled to establish also an own air force, which would take over the role of “air-policing” the country.
Old Flying Club Days
The process of establishing the Sultan of Oman’s Air Force (SOAF) was actually launched already in 1958, and culminated in March 1959, when this service was officially founded.
The first aircraft to wear the Omani national insignia of crossed “kunjas” (daggers) and swords were a pair of Scottish Aviation Pioneer CC.Mk.1 STOL monoplanes, transferred from No.78 Squadron RAF, then based at Khormaksar, in what was then Aden (today South Yemen). These were soon joined by three Hunting Provost T.Mk.52s, armed with Browning machine-guns, capable of carrying two 120kg bombs and six unguided rockets. Two additional Provosts, a third Pioneer, and – a year later – four DHC-2 Beavers formed the SOAF inventory for several following years. The principal SOAF base was established at Bait-al-Falaj, near Muscat, the capital. Pilots and technical personnel were all British; the first CO SOAF was Wg.Cdr. B. Atkison, and all the pilots were seconded from RAF or (later) from British Army. Maintenance and technical support was carried out by civilian technicians under contract by Airwork Ltd. Such extensive British involvement was necessary as few Omanis had enjoyed a good education and so only very few were suited as candidates for any kind of technical professions.
Conditions under which the British had to work were terrible: during the Omani summer, temperatures were soaring up to 42°C in shade, and cockpit temperatures as high as 84.5°C were recorded. Manufacturer’s specifications for aircraft, oil and lubricants had to be modified, and padding on all metal aircraft surfaces was essential in order to prevent serious burns as a result of inadvertently touching metal skins exposed to the sun.
Initially, the Beavers were the most important aircraft of what was by some British personnel referred as “Atkinson’s Air Force” during “the old flying club days” – as the early period of the SOAF was sometimes called. Oman at the time had no road net: with a growing tribal unrest, there was an urgent need for troop transportation and logistic support fo the Army and Police outposts, many of which had rudimentary airstrips of sand, gravel, crushed rock and dust laid nearby (most usually not longer but 300m). Pilots were flying from one outpost to the other, as required, frequently performing own servicing and refuelling, sleeping beneath the aircraft, and navigating
Troubles in Dhofar
In 1965, the Dhofar Liberation Front (DLF) was formed in the southernmost province of Oman, in opposition to the rule of Sultan bin Taimur. Dhofar had a population of only some 40.000 at the time (out of a total of 750.000 Omanis), and the revolutionary movement received considerable support from the locals aggrieved by their poor living conditions: the country was at the time still living in the 14th Century. Initially, frustrated DLF insurgents were supported by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iraq, but with the time a strong Sino-Communist influence was to have established itself, and even those tribesmen willing to cease fighting were firmly discouraged from doing so.
The DLF launched operations against the local Police and Army outposts on 9 June 1965 and quickly gained control of all except the coastal areas in Dhofar. Even the RAF base at Salalah was threatened and had to be fortified. The Omani troops had considerable problems during operations in jagged mountain areas and the Provosts of the SOAF failed to provide adequate support. The situation worsened in 1967, when the British vacated Aden, and the DLF established a number of bases inside what became South Yemen. The South Yemenis were soon providing plenty of support to the Dhofari rebels, which in the same year were organized into the “Popular Front for the Liberation of the occupied Arabian Gulf” (PFLOAG).
The British working with the SOAF were sufficiently concerned by such developments that they convinced the Sultan to follow the Saudi example and, in May 1967, place an initial order for four BAC 167 Strikemaster Mk.82 trainers and light tactical support aircraft. In April 1968, before the first of these aircraft was delivered, the planning began for establishing of a whole Strike Squadron within the SOAF, and this order was increased to 12 as a consequence.
|SOAF Strikemaster T.Mk.82 seen with full underwing ordnance, and ready for the next mission, at Salalah AB, in 1972. (AirInternational)|
On 7 August the insurgents launched their first significant operation, attacking the British base at Salalah – old capital of Dhofar, some 110km from the South Yemeni border – with mortars, damaging one Provost in the process. Arab claims about the success of this operation were slightly more enthusiastic: according to radio Baghdad 49 British soldiers were killed and one “RAF Hunter shot down”. Surely enough, by 1969 the PFLOAG advanced towards the coast and captured the city of Rakhyut. Due to rebel air defences proving increasingly dangerous, the SOAF was forced to move the centre of operations to Salalah, even if the HQs remained at Muscat, some 970km to the north. An increased number of British troops was now deployed in Oman as well, including one SAS squadron, the first operation of which was to chase away Iraqi volunteers that had infiltrated the Musandam peninsula. For their support in 1968 the first of several refurbished Douglas C-47 transports was acquired in the UK.
Despite increasing problems, and the fact that by the time the PFLOAG was in control of all of the Dhofar Province, the Sultan of Oman was still hesitant to increase the defence spending, although the problems as well as income from oil exports were growing. The British knew that they would loose their position in Oman, if they would not be able to reverse the military situation: on 23 July 1970 a coup was staged and the Prince Qaboos ibn-Said brought to power. A new era for Oman was about to begin.
|The SOAF acquired three DHC Caribous, one of which was damaged beyond repair in rough landing soon after entering service. This was the first example supplied to Oman in 1970. (Tom Cooper collection)|
The SAS began training the Omani troops. Simultaneously, a campaign for improving the standard of living and more social equity within the local society bought over many of the rebels. Meanwhile, additional new aircraft were ordered in the UK for SOAF: Short Skyvan 3Ms and DHC-4 Caribous replaced the old and tired C-47s; the order for the Strikemasters was increased to 24 examples. A helicopter component was established as well when a total of four Agusta-Bell AB.206s, eight AB.205s, and two AB.212s, as well as five Bell 214s were purchased from the Italy and the USA, respectively. Initially, these were mainly used by the police, but later some of them entered service with the SOAF which deployed them in support of the Omani Army, by then mainly equipped with weapons purchased via Saudi Arabia. Finally, the Imperial Iranian Army Aviation (IIAF) also put two squadrons of Bell 205s together with crews to Omani disposal.
|One from the early batch of IIAA Bell 214As deployed to Oman, seen under repairs, in 1972. (Tom Cooper collection)|
In attempt to recover and secure areas east of Salalah and to stop the flow of arms and supplies from Yemen, the British troops launched an offensive, on 21 February 1971. The SAS, supported by Strikemasters, freed the town of Sudh. In October the Operation “Jaguar” followed, in which additional fortified bases were established in Jibjat and Medinat. The British SAS excelled in fighting, but it was the Air Force of Oman, which secured the victory by the splendid service of their Skyvans, Strikemasters and helicopters. The Skyvans provided support to small outposts that otherwise would have been totally isolated. This was made possible by the excellent short and rough field capabilities of the type. The AB.204 helicopters were used (like in Vietnam) to transport troops, supplies and to evacuate the wounded. For example a regiment of Omani Army was deployed to the city of Sarfait: once there they were encircled and completely isolated from their supply line, but helicopters and the Skyvans kept the troops supplied until the siege was lifted.
The next problem was artillery firing from within South Yemen. This made the deployment of Skyvans and helicopters on airstrips along the border problematic and risky, and had to be responded by SOAF strikes: Strikemasters bombed and rocketed targets in or near Hauf, Jaadib and Habarut. The government of South Yemen was quick to protest about the strikes, claiming that British planes had attacked targets as far as Sokotra.
|The real workhorse of the SOAF in the late 1960s and early 1970s was the Skyvan 3M. Operated by British personnel under what were probably the most punishing conditions in the world, Omani Skyvans flew up to 2.200 hours a month! Except for military support role, they became the principal part of a "hearts-and-minds" campaign, which required not only simplicity and sturdiness, but also excellent serviceability under most extreme conditions. (Tom Cooper collection)|
Battle of Mirabat
The PFLOAG remained inactive at the start of the government offensive, with its fighters well-supplied and hidden. As air strikes began to take toll of their supply depots, however, they prepared a major operation. Exploiting the monsoon season some 250 fighters attacked the city of Mirbat in the night from the 18 to 19 July 1972. Supported by heavy machine guns, mortars, recoilless 75mm rifles, and Carl Gustav anti-tank rocket system the rebels approached their target but were observed by a patrol of local police and lost the element of surprise. The Omani and British troops and police officers organized three points of resistance in the city. These were the BATT House (British Army Training Team), with eight SAS operators, the base of 30 Askars (para military force from the North of Oman), and the police station with a vintage WWII-25pdr howitzer. For the first few hours of the battle, this 25pdr piece was the most powerful weapon, but as the initial insurgent onslaught failed and the fighting continued in the morning as well, air support was called in as well. The SAS soldiers recognised the importance of this gun and one trooper dashed over to the police compound to help man the weapon. Other SAS soldiers engaged the enemy with 50.cal and general purpose machine guns from the roof of their base, as well as a light mortar in the backyard.
The rebels also recognised the importance of the big gun and concentrated their efforts on the police station, ignoring precise flank fire directed at them from the SAS outpost. At the culmination of the fighting for police station three additional SAS troops dashed over to secure the 25pdr gun. By the morning two SAS operators were killed, but meanwhile the rest of the team was able to call in air strikes. The insurgents expected no air threat because of low clouds. However, British pilots assigned to SOAF were of an entirely different calibre than South Yemeni fliers: braving the weather they flew below the clouds to hit the rebel troops. Repeated close air support missions eventually stopped the rebel attack, while strikes against their supply depots and heavy weapons positions neutralized their ability to continue the battle. Besides, the SOAF used the opportunity to fly in 23 additional SAS operators to Mirabat. After suffering devastating losses, the insurgents retreated: they were never again to stage an operation of this size.
By 1972 the composition of the SOAF was as follows (note: the SOAF at the time was commanded by Wg.Cdr. P. J. Hirst, on secondment from the RAF, but overall command of Sultan of Oman’s Armed Forces had Brig. John. D. C. Graham, who also controlled all the six Army battalions, what was there of the Navy, and all supporting services):
- Strike Squadron: 12 BAC 167 Strikemaster Mk.82s, based at Bait-al-Falaj/Muscat (later moving to Azaiba, west of Muscat)
- Helicopter Squadron: eight AB.205s, four AB.206s, based at Bait-al-Falaj/Muscat
- Air Support Squadron (split in two flights): two Caribous, eight Skyvan 3Ms, based at Salalah (CO of the Skyvan Flight was Flt.Lt. George Paul).
- Viscount Flight, based at Bait-al-Falaj/Muscat
These units were under overall command of Sqn.Ldr. Peter Hulme, commander of the Tactical Air Command SOAF.
|Strikemasters were the backbone of the SOAF combat capability during the 1970s. Flown exclusively by contracted RAF pilots, they proved highly efficient in COIN warfare in the desert. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)|
|SOAF AB.206 (foreground) seen accompanied by Bell 205, over Oman, in 1975. The first batch of these helicopters was acquired with Iranian financial support. Subsequently, Iran also donated a whole Squadron of Bell 205s to Oman. (Photo: Agusta-Bell)|
By the time of the battle at Mirabat the British have already pulled out most of their troops from the Middle East. The British were actually reluctant to become deeper involved in Oman: their main actual interest was the safety of a very important base at Masirah Island, which was also used by US forces, and where an important telecommunication facility was established. Besides, after experiencing what the British influence did to his father, the new Sultan Qaboos was not especially enthusiastic about Oman’s continued dependence on the British. Therefore, he requested help from other friendly nations. Pakistan deployed a company of some 100 officers and NCOs, while Jordan sent a battalion of special forces. By far the largest and most influential foreign contingent to become involved in this war, however, came from Iran: in fact, the Iranian reaction to Sultan Qaboos’ request was as powerful as if the Dhofari rebels have occupied the whole southern Iran!
Already in May 1971 the Shah Mohammed Reza Pakhlavi of Iran declared, that Iran would not tolerate any „subversive activity which might endanger the freedom of passage through the Persian Gulf, the Sea of Oman, and the Straits of Hormuz”. As the passage through the last takes place almost entirely in Omani territorial waters, from the Iranian standpoint there was obviously a need for an operation which would reinforce this declaration. Therefore, the Imperial Iranian Navy (IIN) was ordered to establish a new base at Bandar Abbas, and move most of its assets from Khorramshahr. Simultaneously, the Imperial Iranian Air Force (IIAF) was ordered to finish construction of its Tactical Air Base 9 (TFB.9) near Bandar Abbas, and also to establish a new one near Chah Bahar (this was finished only in the late 1970s and became TAB.10). The Iranian intention was to station enough air force and naval assets on these two installations to secure the defence of the whole area between Bahrain and the Pakistani border.
The Shah, calling the Hormuz Straits the „Jugular Vein“ of Iran, was determined to defend it at all cost, and all these preparations were done just in time for his next move. On 30 November 1971, on the same day the last British troops pulled out of the Persian Gulf, a combined task force of the Imperial Iranian Armed Services (IIAS) executed a swift operation in which a group of islands inside the Hormuz Straits was secured, including the Lesser and Greater Tumbs, and Abu Musa. Together with Qeshm, Larak, and Hormuz, which were already in Iranian possession, these islands form a crescent, which covers the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz. Iranian ruler ignored the British warnings against such expansion of the area under his control, while the IIAF assured that the UAE forces would not attempt any counterattacks by intensive demonstration flights of its F-4Ds.
While the Iranians were consolidating their grip of the Persian Gulf and the Hormuz Straits, Sultan Qaboos consolidated his hold over Oman, and now the two rulers brought a decision not only to stop the spread of the rebellion in Dhofar, but also to put it down. The Sultan knew he could not win the war without more massive support from the British: his whole military was completely commanded and controlled by the British officers. Therefore, his politics sought for a slow and careful replacement of the British by the regional troops, as well as increased dependence on neighbours and other friendly nations.
In accordance of an agreement between Sultan Qaboos and the Shah, on 10 November 1972 the first 340 Iranian troops landed in Oman to set up a base for a brigade of the Imperial Iranian Army Aviation, equipped with 32 Bell 205 and 206 helicopters, which followed on 16 January 1973. From that moment the number of Iranian troops in Oman was permanently growing, until there were over 3.200 troops – including a brigade of 2.400 Marines - permanently stationed in the country: before their withdrawal, in January 1977, no less but 14.682 members of the IIAS rotated through Oman – including 488 personnel of the IIAF. With their support, however, the Omani Army was soon able to consolidate its positions in Dhofar.
|At one point in the mid-1970s the IIAA deployed to Oman also a squadron of OH-58 helicopters, equipped with General Electric GAU-2B/A 7.62mm Minigun, mounted on flexible Emerson "Mini-Tat" mounting bellow the fuselage. (Tom Cooper archive)|
IIAF in Oman
Until recently, almost nothing was known in the public about the involvement of the Iranian air force in the Dhofar War. Some older publications mention that Iran had a squadron of McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom IIs stationed there during the 1970s, and hardly anything else. Specific newer publications completely ignore the Iranian involvement in this war whatsoever.
In fact, the IIAF became active in Oman already on 18 January 1978, when the first four F-4Ds landed at Bair al-Falaj AB, near Muscat, followed by two Lockheed C-130E transports, which brought in ground crews, spares, and weapons for four Phantoms. On the following day the other four F-4Ds landed at Sultan Qaboos Air Academy, at Masirah, where also two C-130Es were temporarily deployed for their support. From that moment on for the next five years, the IIAF was to share Omani facilities with RAF-personnel, and air defence duties with the SOAF. Over the time the IIAF rotated numerous F-4D- and F-4E-units in and out of Oman on temporary basis. Expensive and much vaunted IIAF RF-4C/Es reconnaissance Phantoms also became involved in the war, flying up to four missions over Dhofar and South Yemen every week, and providing valuable intelligence information.
On average, the IIAF had between six and ten Phantoms in Oman at any time: although this number appears small the fact was that a single F-4D or F-4E had a larger attack capability than all 12 Strikemasters in service with the SOAF at the time. Usually, at least four Phantoms were held on alert +5 status, armed with Mk.82 bombs and 20mm guns (the F-4Ds always carried the SUU-23/A gun pods), and two AIM-7E-2 Sparrow air-to-air missiles (always mounted in front bays). The SOAF and IIAF expected from Iranian Phantom-crews to respond to any request for air support within 15 minutes.
The high speed and long range of the F-4 were extremely well-suited to the war in Oman, as they could fly two times as fast as SOAF Strikemasters and deliver exceptionally heavy war loads. Nevertheless, the insurgents usually operated in very small groups, and dropping up to 12 Mk.82s from a high-performance jet on two or four rebels underway along an old goat trail was considered completely ineffective. Because of this the IIAF F-4s were pulling very long alerts, as their participation would usually only be required for attacks against high-value or heavily defended targets, like larger concentrations of insurgents, AAA-sites, camps, supply dumps, artillery and rocket positions. Capt. Nusran, former IIAF F-4E-pilot with a tour of duty in Oman, recalled about the situation with IIAF-pilots:
-We had a mix of older and newer hands on the flight stick in Oman and knew that some of our pilots weren't perfect, but we worked on improvements and trained intensively. The Omanis called our F-4's "Sand Cobras" due to their camouflage, but this term did not catch on with our crews as a Phantom will always be Phantom in the Iranian air force. In exchange, we called the rebels “Adoos”.
|Pair of IIAF F-4Ds in flight over Oman. The type played a crucial role in destroying a number of insurgent bases in Oman and South Yemen, but could not always be used for providing close-air-support because of the lack of suitable targets. Very often cannons of Iranian fighters proved far more effective than any other weapons, and for this reason the IIAF F-4Ds deployed in Oman were always carrying the SUU-23/A gun-pods under the centreline. (Tom Cooper collection)|
The First Loss
While the Iranians were still in the middle of their troop deployment into Oman, the war went on. On 9 July 1973 the SOAF suffered its first loss, when the Strikemaster “413” was shot down and a British pilot killed. As the South Yemen air force became involved in bombing targets in Oman several times, the IIAF became increasingly involved flying CAPs (Combat Air Patrols) along the border in addition to strikes against rebel supply routes. The PFLOAG soon noticed the Iranian presence and the capabilities of their Phantoms when these delivered a series of hefty strikes against a number of supply bases. Simultaneously, on the ground the Omani and other foreign troops established a number of strongpoints along the insurgent supply routes. These were built from Mughsayl, on the coast, towards north, until reaching some 50km inland, and effectively splitting the PFLOAG-controlled area in two. As the Iranian marines also positioned a task force, supported by artillery and helicopters, at “Midway” (Thumrait), the ring around the insurgents began to tighten.
From late 1973 the PFLOAG was increasingly supported by the Soviets, which meanwhile established their military presence in South Yemen. The Iranians, already under heavy Soviet pressure along their northern borders, were keen to confront their old enemy. However, although the IIAS members were in general proud of their participation in this war, and despite a number of minor successes already during mid-1973, their involvement also brought to light specific weaknesses within the Iranian military, as Maj. Nuzran recalled:
- The Iranian army made many mistakes, like planting minefields without accurately marking their positions on maps, and the IIA officers frequently refused to use cover under fire. They were also unable to coordinate artillery and air strikes in some cases: IIAF pilots used 1:100.000 scale maps, and IIA officers used 1:50.000 scale maps. Some of the new IIAF officers being sent to Oman as replacements were not being briefed by the officers they were replacing, and advanced gear - like ground radar units - was frequently not used by them due to the lack of training and experience. Nevertheless, with the time we gradually improved the briefings of new crews and cooperation with the Army.
- As for the IIAF most reports were favourable. Our – and IIAA – helicopters proved effective in Oman over and over again. Alert and combat ready rates of our Phantoms were above 80% at all times even when temperatures as high as 84° C were recorded inside the cockpits. Accuracy rates for ordnance delivery exceeded 50%, and combat loses in planes and crews were very low for operations conducted in areas where visibility was very poor for most of the year.
With increased number of Phantoms becoming available through additional deliveries from the USA, through the second half of 1973 the IIAF was able to increase its presence in Oman. By December 1973, a squadron each of F-4Ds and F-4Es were based at Midway. Together with Iranian Marines, these aircraft vaged one of the best-organized operations against insurgent supply routes, undertaken in the Mughsayl area. On the other side, in order to counter the new threat in early 1974 the Soviets supplied modern infantry weapons to PFLOAG, including the first batch of hand-held SA-7/Strela MANPADs. The IIAF pilots were some of the first to encounter these – then – fairly dangerous weapons in combat.
|An Omani Strikemaster as seen underway along the southern coast of Oman, armed with bombs and rockets, in 1972. In that year the South Yemeni government issued an official complain about SOAF fighters - all flown by British pilots - flying into its airspace for no less but 119 times. (Tom Cooper collection)|
Adoo Gun Runners
With their land connections being increasingly cut off, in the early 1974 the Adoos began using “dhows” – characteristic merchant and fishing ships widespread in use in the area until today – for transportation of supplies. These were moving along the coast of the Indian Ocean and, although slow, proved immensely problematic to hunt down as the area was full of similar vessels that were not involved in the war. During many of search and destroy operations against ships moving supplies for insurgents, the Iranian flying crews flew some of their most exciting and dangerous missions during this war. Maj. Nuzran recalled:
- It was 5 June 1974, and two F-4Es of the Raven Flight were deployed at the Midway AB. Conditions were hot, dry, and dusty, but the good news was that we would not be there longer than it would take to fly one mission. Our task was to attack and sink three Arab dhows, which our RF-4E's had detected heading north along the Omani coast line from South Yemen - loaded with weapons for the Communist rebels. The dhows would only be armed with small arms (AK-47s) at best, we were said by the Omani intelligence, and as we were to attack them off the Kuria islands. The mission thus considered as low risk.
- As we had learned from past, this “low risk“ usually meant a low risk for intelligence: much too often such missions in Oman could easily end with the crew hanging under its parachutes…
- Due to the nature of our targets for that day, we decided to go after these three ships with 20mm cannon only. To give us enough fuel to search for them, our Phantoms were also equipped with three drop tanks. Intelligence had timed our take-off for the noon on 6 of June 1974, so we would arrive at the appointed target area on time.
- We took off as planned and climbed to 3.000 meters while heading to the assigned area. The Raven 1 levelled off, and in radio-silence the leading pilot adjusted his controls while his WSO stared at the Omani coast line. After some time, the WSO remarked that he did not think this would be a good place to bail out. After the pilot agreed with him, the WSO continued that they were meanwhile only three minutes from the target area. So Raven 1 made a „wake-up“ call to his wingman, and then switched weapons to guns before starting to search for the three gun-runners.
- As the Phantoms continued over the sea, the leader started a slow right turn that would take the flight into the target area and then let them attack the targets after closing from the direction of the coast, before continuing back to the base. About two minutes over the target area, we spotted two of the three targets: the third was not to be seen. The lead thought that two out of three is also very good, and that with some luck the third dhow might appear before we leave the area.
- The decision was taken for the leader to take out the lead dhow first, leaving the dhow two for Raven 2. The dhows had spotted the Phantoms and were now heading for the shore as fast as the wind would take them. We dropped to 100 meters and the Raven 1 turned into attack, swiftly lining with the target. 162 20mm rounds were enough for the first dhow to disappear. Raven 1 then pulled up to 400 meters, to swing back around and make place for Raven 2 to attack his target. At that moment, he got the first warning call from the wingman:
- Attention Raven 1: smoke trail from southeast!
As this bad news came over the radio, more soon followed….
- No! Correction Raven 1: two smoke trails!
- Correction, flight leader! Three smoke trails! All from southeast!
Then the WSO of Raven 1 called out two more smoke trails spotted coming in from the north! Five SAMs at once? How could this be? Why wasn’t there any warning from the RWR?
- So much for the Omani intelligence reports: our Phantoms were flying at between 400 and 500 meters, and less than 260km/h in a clear blue sky: what a target we must have been for the rebels! Sitting ducks on a pond!
But, the experience took over:
- Raven 2; on me now!
Banking hard left and diving as fast as possible to 50 meters above the sea, Raven 1 hoped his wingman would be where he should be. The flight lead hoped and prayed the SAMs were SA-7s, and that by turning into them he would mask his engine exhausts to home in on. As both Phantoms turned around and rolled out, Raven 1 ordered Raven 2 to drop all tanks - just as his WSO called out two more smoke trails to their left. We were less worried about this SAM warning as our aircraft were accelerating while skimming just above the sea surface. And, as luck would have it, the dhow two appeared straight ahead of us. Raven 1 radioed Raven 2 that he would climb to 100 meters and destroy the dhow, and that he must keep close and watch their rear. This was to be the last attack, and the Phantoms were then to continue straight back to their base. Raven 2 responded:
- Raven 1; Capt. we now just go about our business as if nothing has happened? And what about the SAMs?
- Raven 2, SAMs are short range jobs, SA-7 only. We are safe here (he was not 100% sure of this) – and we will finish our mission, Lieutenant.
Raven 1 pulled up, lowered the nose and fired; 207 20mm rounds and the second dhow was gone. Levelling out at 100 meters and keeping their speed up, both Phantoms returned to their base just in time to see six IIAF C-130 transports landing full of building supplies, fresh rations, and ammunition.
We were going to remain at Midway for some times longer….
|Quartet of IIAF F-4Ds as seen during a parade in Tehran, in 1969. The F-4D was the first version of the legendary Phantom acquired by Iran, and also the first to see combat service with the Iranian air force - initially during vain attempts to intercept some of Soviet MiG-25Rs that flew reconnaissance missions over Iran during the 1970s, and subsequently during the fighting in Dhofar. The two IIAF units equipped with F-4Ds in the 1970s were originally designated 306tha nd 308th TFS and based in Mehrabad. By 1975 their designations were changed to 71st and 72nd TFS, and the units were dislocated to Shiraz (TFB.7). During most of the 1970s these two squadrons were extremely busy: except for having to provide aircraft for temporary duty in Oman, they had also to train an ever increasing number of new crews, required as the IIAF was enlargened from a service flying F-5s and F-86 Sabres in the early 1970s, to a high-tech air force operating F-4s and F-14s only few years later. (Tom Cooper collection)|
Hunters for SOAF
The first large Iranian operation on the ground was undertaken in October 1974, and resulted in IIN Marines capturing Manston and Raykut, where new strongholds were established. The Omani Army, Jordanian and Pakistani units then moved into the rear area to conduct mop-up operations. The capture of Manston and Raykut enabled the establishment of a new defensive line further inland, that had an immense impact on flow of supplies for insurgents. Most insurgents escaped, however, foremost due to their excellent knowledge of the local terrain.
While this was going on, the British took care to further strengthen the SOAF – foremost through addition of more transport aircraft, but also new fighter-bombers. In 1974, three BAC.111s, eight Briten-Norman BN.2 Defenders, and a Vickers VC.10 transport were purchased. Later in the year an even more important acquisition followed, when a contract for delivery of 31 Hawker Hunters was signed. The exact versions and mix of these aircraft – most of which arrived actually only in 1975 – remains unclear: some where ex-RAF FGA.9s, transferred to Oman by the British government; some were ex-Kuwait F.Mk.57s, while most were apparently ex-Jordanian Mk.73s (one of ex-Jordanian Hunters was the former F.Mk.6 XG262, converted to FR.Mk.10 standard). Most likely, most of the airframes were actually used as sources of spares; those in operational condition entered service with the newly-established No.6 Squadron SOAF, and flown almost exclusively by British (i.e. RAF-pilots on secondment) and Jordanian pilots. Several of them were equipped with additional underwing pylons for AIM-9P Sidewinders.
The crucial counter-insurgency operation of this war was launched already before the SOAF Hunters became operational. In January 1975 Omani and Iranian forces were concentrated near Sharishitti, and in February they began a major offensive – code-named “Himaar” – against the rebel stronghold in Ashoq. This operation saw extensive use of helicopters – several of which were lost or badly damaged to enemy fire, and also in accidents. Overall, however, Himaar was a success, with Ashoq being captured together with considerable supply depots. Consequently, the Omanis and Iranians were quick to prepare their next offensive – directly towards the border of South Yemen. During the fighting in the Hagaif area, on 8 March 1975, an AB.205 helicopter was shot down by small arms fire. As much more dangerous proved SA-7s, the first of which were used on 9 August 1975, to shot down a SOAF Strikemaster. The pilot ejected safely and a number of helicopters and additional Strikemasters were deployed to rescue the pilot already while he was floating down to the ground. Although being targeted by a number of SA-7s, no other aircraft was damaged and the British pilot was safely recovered.
In total, by the end of 1975 the British, Iranian, and Jordanian pilots flying in Oman counted 23 SA-7 attacks. Only two aircraft were shot down by these, including one IIAA Bell AH-1J Cobra, hit on 15 September.
|From 1975 the SOAF received a total of 31 Hawker Hunter fighter-bombers, from very differnt sources. Some of these - including the example shown here, serialled "825" - were equipped with rails for AIM-9P Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, and used almost exclusively in air defence role. (Ole Niklajsen collection)|
|Bell AH-1J Cobra (in foreground) and Bell 214A "Isfahan" helicopters of the Iranian Army Aviation proved instrumental in the successful conclusion of Dhofar War. Cobras were used to close air support, while the Isfahans transported Iranian Marines and Omani troops, or carried supplies for isolated strongpoints along insurgent supply routes. (Photo: Bell-Textron, via Tom Cooper)|
The final offensive against insurgents was launched by Omanis and Iranians in the Sarfait area, in October 1975. Supported by IIAA CH-47C Chinook helicopters, which deployed artillery and were also used for troop-transport, and SOAF Hunters and IIAF Phantoms – which also bombed targets inside South Yemen – the government forces swiftly captured the whole plateau. The Hunters are known to have heavily hit insurgent bases in Hauf and Jaadib, which were also shelled by artillery from IIN Sumner-class destroyers. During these strikes SOAF Huntes were noticed to fly daring dive-bombing runs, designed to ensure precision but also bring them outside the SA-7 envelope as swiftly as possible. This tactics proved successful, and only one fighter was damaged during this operation, the pilot managing to bring it safely back to base.
After the immense success of the attack on Sarfait, on 11 December 1975 the Sultan of Oman declared the war to be over. Nevertheless, the SOAF lost two additional AB.205s to enemy fire, including one on 1 November, and another on 25 December. Occasionally, there were some artillery duels along the border with South Yemen but even these ended with a cease-fire signed in spring of 1976.
For some time longer the SOAF and IIAF flew sporadic recce flights over South Yemen. During one of these, on 26 November 1976, an IIAF RF-4C was shot down by two SA-7s while passing at low level over the coast, the wreckage falling into the shallow water near the coast. At first, Iran maintained that an unarmed aircraft was on a routine training mission over the Omani airspace when it came under “slant-fire” by Yemeni anti-aircraft guns, as well as that the crew ejected from their crippled plane and was fired upon while descending under parachute. Indeed, the crew ejected safely, but was captured by Yemenis. The pilot, Maj. Daryoush Jalali, survived the ordeal and was repatriated after 27 days in response to the Shah’s 48-hour ultimatum, and with Saudi mediation. The RIO, 1st Lt. Yaqoub Assefi, however, died under torture. It was an irony that Maj. Jalali was executed only four years later by the Islamic regime of Iran, for alleged participation in the “Nojeh” coup attempt. During this post-revolutionary trial in Tehran, on 7 April 1979, the last IIAF Commander, Gen. Amir-Hussein Rabi’e (executed shortly later), disclosed that the IIAF conducted at least four photoreconnaissance missions deep over South Yemen, but especially in the area of the port of al-Ghayda. According to him, there were actually two RF-4s participating in this mission, of which one was hit and shot down. Furthermore, Rabi’e stated, in reaction to this loss the IIAF F-4Es heavily bombed the area several times
The SAS remained active in Oman for several years longer as well – even if officially being withdrawn in 1976. The Iranians pulled back in mid-1977, after the Shah and the Sultan agreed to jointly bear the responsibility for the security of Hormuz Straits. Nevertheless, the Iranian Navy warships patrolled the Straits and the IIAF guaranteed the security of Oman’s airspace until 1979, when this guarantee was ceased as the Shah was overthrown.
According to Iranian records, during the Dhofar War the Omani Army lost 187 KIA and 559 injured, the British 24 KIA and 55 injured, while the IIAS suffered a loss of 719 KIA and 1.404 injured (including five IIAF pilots and crewmembers killed and 18 injured). On the other side, the allied forces counted a total of 1.400 killed and 2.800 wounded and captured insurgents.
|Sometimes all the efforts of their British crews were insufficient to prevent the versatille SOAF Skyvans from suffering damage when landing on rough field strips, most of which were barelly 300m long. South Yemeni artillery, operating from behind the border, was also a threat. In this case, a SOAF Bell 214 is seen evacuating a Skyvan that suffered unknown damage while operating over Dhofar, in 1976. (Tom Cooper collection)|
SOAF since 1977
The involvement of SOAF Hunters and Strikemasters (still mainly flown by Jordanian and British pilots), but also IIAF F-4 Phantoms, as well as numerous Omani and Iranian attack and transport helicopters, proved decisive for the end of rebellion in Dhofar. Without them the isolated outposts along the main rebel supply routes would have been unable to survive. These outposts were essential in weakening the rebels: they effectively cut off their supply routes, while forcing them to commit their forces in frontal attacks against well-defended positions, and exposing them to superior firepower.
Although the SOAF remained involved in counter-insurgency operations in the Dhofar region for the rest of the 1970s, the focus of the force began to change. The arrival of the first 12 SEPECAT Jaguar International fighter-bombers, in 1977, used to replace Strikemasters of the No.1 Squadron, marked an important step. Short of their delivery the airfields at Salalah (Masirah Island), Bait al-Falej and several landing strips deeper in the desert were enlargened and new support facilities established. A new and very modern air base – often called “Midway” – was built at Thumrait as well.
|In 1977 Oman ordered its first SEPECAT Jaguar International. Although mainly tasked with air-to-ground duties, these are frequently seen carrying Sidewinders as well. (Photo: British Aerospace)|
The first batch of Jaguars was used to train Omani pilots and technicians. But, they were also – together with remaining Hunters – equipped with AIM-9P Sidewinders and used for air defence duties. Subsequently delivered Jaguars were also compatible with Matra R.550 Magic air-to-air missiles. Omani Jaguars entered service with the No.8 Squadron, in Thumrait, and the No.20 Squadron, in Masirah.
In the late 1980s another significant order followed. Initially, there were plans for a purchase of eight PANAVIA Tornado ADVs to counter the still-existent threat from South Yemen, but also the newly-emerging one from Iran. Eventually, however, due to the rapidly falling oil prices at the time, only eight BAe Hawk Mk.103s and eight Hawk Mk.203s were ordered instead. In 1990 the SOAF was re-named in Royal Air Force of Oman (RAFO), and had four large, well-developed air bases at Seeb, Salalah, Masirah and Thumrayt, with two major training facilities, the Sultan Qaboos Air Academy and the Air Force Technical College at Seeb.
The venerable Omani Strikemasters were only retired in January 2001. Despite no less but 31 years of service, in which several airframes were left with only between eight and ten flying hours, three Strikemasters were shot down, four lost in non-combat accidents, and five sold to Singapore, in 1975.
In 2000 Jaguars were upgraded to Jaguar ’97 standard. In the course of this project they have got updated avionics, a new navigation system and enhanced thermal imaging system, as well as capability to carry TIALD pods on centreline station and deploy LGBs. 8 and 20 Squadron, pooled at Thumrait.
It was therefore not before 2002 that Oman finally ordered first-class fighter-bombers for its air force, when a contract with Lockheed was signed for 12 AIM-120-equipped F-16C/Ds. Only a year later also the first C-27J Spartan transports were acquired, in order to replace old Skyvans and Caribous, while the Royal Oman Police placed an order for six AB.139 patrol helicopters. Also, in 2004 Oman ordered 20 NH.90 helicopters from the EU. Meanwhile, remaining Jaguars have been upgraded to Jaguar ’97 standard, and the overall war-fighting capability of the RAFO is permanently increasing.
The economic situation and standard of living in Oman improved immensely since the days of the Dhofar War. The future of this country of great strategic and military importance is nevertheless insecure: Sultan Qaboos is still firmly in power, but has no children or any other kind of successor, while holding most of key positions in the government (including being the minister of defence, finance, and foreign affairs).
Sources and Bibliography
Except for own research, additional information for this article was kindly provided by Mr. Tom N. Following sources of reference were used as well:
- "AIR WARS AND AIRCRAFT; A Detailed Record of Air Combat, 1945 to the Present", by Victor Flintham, Arms and Armour Press, 1989 (ISBN: 0-85368-779-X)
- Born in Battle Magazine No.3, 1979
- BRITAIN SMALL WARS website, with detailed description of some of the battles fought by the British security forces during the war in Aden
© Copyright 2002-3 by ACIG.org
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