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Iraqi Air Force Since 1948, Part 1
By Tom Cooper
Sep 12, 2003, 17:55

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Since 1948 the Iraqi Air Force (IrAF) participated in a number of wars, and flew a large number of different aircraft types, and by 1991 it was certainly the most combat-experienced Arab air force, as surely as one of the worst suffering to its political leadership ever. Due to frequent arrests, purges, and executions of its commanding officers, pilots, and even technical personnel, the IrAF was never able to develop into a fully independent and war-fighting capable air force: even during the eight-years long war with Iran it was only a shade of its true capability.

Despite being a sizeable service already since the 1930s, not much is known about the IrAF, its markings, camouflage patterns, units, or their rich tradition. This gallery will illustrate the main combat types in use since 1948, and also provide some less well-known details about its history.




1948: the First Arab-Israeli War

The war in 1948 came at the time the IrAF was still recovering from its destruction by the British, during the so-called "al-Raschid" uprising, in 1941, and in the middle of transition from aircraft that were not entirely modern even in the late 1930s, to such advanced piston-engined fighters like Hawker Fury. Consequently, the IrAF played a small but significant - and completely unrecognized - role in the first war against Israel, in 1948-1949, dispatching Anson training-bombers to Jordan, from where these flew a number of attacks. Part of Ansons was subsequently replaced by Furies, but these flew only two missions against Israel in Iraqi markings before most of the available examples were given to the Egyptians.



The first modern fighters in service with the Iraqi Air Force was Hawker Fury. In May 1948 the first eight Fury F.Mk.1s, (serialled 231 thru 237, and 239), as well as a single two-seater (161) were delivered to the No.7 Sqn. This unit was at the tyme flying Anson bombers, but most of these were either sent to Mafraq AB, in Transjordan, from where they participated in the I Arab-Israeli War. Therefore, a number of former Anson-pilots were swiftly converted to the Fury at the Moascar ("Airfield") al-Raschid AB. The No.7 Sqn was at the time commanded by Lt. Col. Muhammed Rauf Hassan. 221, depicted here, was the first Fury delivered to Iraq. It was seen for the last time while departing Hawker's Langley airfield for Iraq, in May 1948.


Initially, Iraqi Furies suffered considerable attrition, as their pilots were trained in a rush. Already on 7 June one was lost in a crash at Moascar al-Raschid, killing the pilot, Capt. Yahya Dubuni from the No. 1 Sqn. This unit was at the time actually still based at Mafraq AB, in Transjordan, from where it flew combat missions against Israel, but some of its pilots - including the CO, Lt. Col. Nadim Sadiq al-Ubaidi - were sent back to Iraq to train on Furies, which initially entered service with the No.7 Sqn. Fury F.Mk.1 "240" belonged to the second batch delivered to Iraq. By the time decision was taken to move the reformed No. 7 Sqn to Amman, in Transjordan, from where these were to participate in the war against Israel, only six out of some 14 aircraft delivered were still operational.


On 18 July 1948, six RIrAF Fury F.Mk.1s of the newly-reorganized No.7 Sqn (which previously passed all its remaining Ansons to the No.1 Sqn, still deployed in Transjordan) finally arrived at Amman. After a short assessment of the situation there and on the front, a decision was taken to re-deploy them to Damascus al-Mezzeh AB, in Syria, from where they were to fly their first combat sorties. On the following morning, on 19 July 1948, the aircraft flew to Damascus, however, two had accidents on landing, and became inoperational. Nevertheless, on the same day the No.7 Sqn RIrAF was to fly its first and last combat operations over Israel. Around noon, Maj. Talid al-Tikriti lead 1st Lt. Arif Abdul-Razzak into armed reconnaissance over Haifa, where they were to look for eventual ships bringing illegal Jewish immigrants. After finding no targets in the area, the pair returned to Damascus without any incidents. 1st Lt. Abdul-Razzak participated also in the second mission over Israel launched on the late afternoon of the same day, and lead by Maj. Raschid al-Anvar. Maj. al-Anwar lead his pair into armed reconnaissance over Ramat David and Sde Dov, where several Israeli aircraft were detected on the ground. Making a bombing and straffing pass each, the two pilots claimed destruction of one of Israeli Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers. Due to the temoprary armistice no additional combat sorties were flown. Instead, the No.7 Sqn was advised to hand its remaining four operational Furies to Egypt, while the crews were returned to Iraq. Not that they could do much even in the case they would remain in Syria, however: when deployed to al-Mazzah, the squadron was given only 2.000 rounds of 30mm ammunition and a dozen of bombs. Despite these early problems, the RIrAF was to continue purchasing Furies, and acquired a total of 38 F.Mk.1s, and four two-seaters. Aside from the No.7 Sqn, the No.1 Sqn was later also re-equipped with them.


In May 1948 the RIrAF also received the first three DeHavilland Dove VIP-transports. These entered service with the No.3 Squadron, which was in 1951 to form the so-called "Royal Flight". This unit, the aircraft of which were easily recognizible by the letters "RF" applied on their fins, was later also to operate at least three DeHavilland Herons. The rest of the No.3 Sqn flew remaining Ansons for most of the 1950s.





1950s: Times of Changes

During the 1950s the IrAF went through a series of important developments. In 1953 first jet-fighters, Vampires, were purchased from the UK; barely three years later the RIrAF was already acquiring its first Hunters from the UK. In 1958, however, a bloody coup against the young King of Iraq, which toppled the monarchy and moved the country towards the Soviet Union came, resulting in a temporary halt of cooperation with the West. While the Iraqi Air Force dropped "Royal" from its name, the Soviets were swift to start supplying MiG-17s, and later also MiG-19 and MiG-21 fighters, as well as Ilushin Il-28 bombers. Due to one coup attempt following the other within the following six years the Iraqi air Force went through a series of changes and reorganizations, during which it was also heavily hit by purges mounted by successive regimes that were replacing each other. One of the consequences was that already in the early 1960s the IrAF had a very mixed fleet of fighter jets, consisting of Vampires, Venoms, Hunters, MiG-17s, MiG-19s, and MiG-21s.

The first jet fighters in the Iraqi Air Force were 12 deHavilland Vampire FB.Mk.52s and six Vampire T.Mk.55s, delivered in 1953 to the No.5 Sqn, stationed at Moascar al-Raschid, and later at Habbaniyah AB.


In 1954 and 1956 the next new jet fighters arrived in Iraq: a total of 19 Venom FB.Mk.1s and FB.Mk.50s were delivered at the time, entering service with the No.6 Squadron, based at Habbaniyah AB, and now under command by Sqn.Ldr. Abdul-Razzak, who was subsequently to rise in rank to Wing Commander, and taken the overall command of this base, when the local units transferred to Hunters.


The first version of the Hawker Hunter purchased by Iraq was F.Mk.6, which entered service with the No. 1 Sqn, at the time based at Habbaniyah/Tahmouz AB. The pilots and technicians for the unit were trained by No. 229 OCU, at Chivenor and were swift to learn how to operate the aircraft properly. Initially, the tempo of RIrAF Hunter-operations was high, with the units going through a very rigorous training programme. Sadly, most of the officers and pilots from Habbaniyah were arrested and imprisoned either after the coup in 1958, or after another coup, in 1960. Only few remained in Iraq after 1962, and even less returned to serve.


This Hunter F.Mk.6 (IrAF serial "403", ex-XK146) was one of 14 ex-RAF aircraft purchased by Iraq with US funding in late 1957. It is seen here already wearing the fin flash introduced after the coup in 1958.


This MiG-17F was one of the first delivered to Iraq from the USSR, in late 1958, and is seen wearing the fin flash that was in use only until the next coup in Baghdad, in 1960. The first batch of MiG-17Fs to arrive in Iraq were used to replace Venoms of the No.5 Sqn, which were in turn given to the No.6 Sqn (in order to replace surviving Vampries). Iraq never received as many as 100 MiG-17F/PFs, as sometimes claimed: there was never more than one unit operational with the type, and this was usually deployed to battle Kurds in north of the country. Nevertheless, it is possible that during the late 1960s and/or early 1970s few additional examples were purchased and then forwarded to either Syria or Egypt - as this was a widespread practice at the time for Arab countries of the "second line" in the conflict with Israel.


Iraq started receiving MiG-19s already in early 1960, and by 1964 some 50 were acquired. The aircraft were left bare-metall overall, but wore small black serials on the nose and names of Iraqi cities ("Basrah" on "660", seen here), in white under the cockpit - on both sides of the fuselage. However, for technical reasons the attrition was heavy and most of Iraqi MiG-19s were subsequently given to Egypt, in 1965, in order streamline the IrAF and reinforce the UARAF's (as the Egyptian Air Force was named at the time) fleet that was depleted due to the same problems. Interestingly, while in Egyptian service former Iraqi MiG-19s have initially kept their names!


The probably most unlucky MiG-21F-13 ever built - but also the best known of all - was this example, originally belonging to the No. 11 Sqn IrAF, but flown on 12 August 1966 by Capt. Monir Rdfa from Iraq via Jordan to Israel. The MiG-21F-13 was not the most potent version at the time any more, but the Israelis still tested it extensivelly, learning everything there was about its performances and capabilities.


In 1953 four Bristol 170 Freighter Mk.31Ms were delivered to Iraq. Freigthers entered service with the No.3 Transport Squadron, in turn making it the largest unit of the Royal Iraqi Air Force, and later making the organization of the "Air Transport Command RIrAF" possible. The Freighter depicted here is seen already with the fin-flash introduced in 1960.





1967: The Six Day War

Another coup in Baghdad, in 1962, saw not only another change of the regime, but the new government re-established good relations to the UK, and subsequently ordered even more Hunters. For several years the acquizition of Soviet fighters was actually stopped, until in 1966 a batch of MiG-21PF interceptors was purchased. These aircraft, however, did not come in time to participate in the next war against Israel, the so-called "Six Day War", in June 1967. Instead, at the time the IrAF's main fighters were still Hunters and MiG-21F-13s. Detachments of these were initially stationed at the H-2/al-Wallid AB, in western Iraq, from where the Hunters flew a single strike against Israel, on the late morning of 5 June. After the first Israeli counterattack against this base, on the afternoon of 5 June, however, all the aircraft that remained operational were evacuated to Habbaniyah/Tahmouz AB, some 200km further to the east, where from 7 June also a group of surviving Jordanian and Pakistani Hunter-pilots was stationied. From there the MiG-21s and Hunters were to fly CAPs over western Iraq until the end of the war, mainly in - partially successful - attempt to defend H-3/al-Wallid AB from additional Israeli attacks.

The IrAF received a total of 16 Hunter F.Mk.6s, 22 Hunter F.Mk.59s, 18 Hunter F.Mk.59As, and four Hunter F.Mk.59Bs, as well as between three and five T.69A two-seaters, and several FR.10s. This F.Mk.59B is shown as it appeared at the time of the Six Day War, in 1967, when Iraqi Hunters - some flown by East German, Polish, Libyan and Pakistani pilots - shot down at least two Israeli fighters.





1973: the October War against Israel


The situation in Iraq stabilized only after the coup staged by the elements of the IrAF and the Ba'ath Party, which was in turn to bring Saddam Hussayin al-Tikriti to power (initially as Vice-President, and from 1979 as the President of Iraq). Shortly after the coup the IrAF was again hit by a series of purges, in which most of its leadership was removed and executed.

Nevertheless, in the following years the IrAF was to grow in size and capability, as new treaties with the USSR were to bring large numbers of relatively modern fighter aircraft. Iraqis were never entirely satisifed with what the Soviets were supplying to them, and while they were purchasing new MiG-21s, Su-7s, and subsequently new types, intense - even if fruitless - efforts were underway to acquire Mirage 5s and later Jaguars from France.

The IrAF was thus to participate also in the next war against Israel, the so-called "Yom Kippour/Ramadan/Teshreen" War, fought in October 1973, mainly equipped with Soviet-built aircraft. For the Iraqi Air Force, this conflict started with the deployment of the No.1 Fighter Reconnaissance Squadron ("1st FRS"), equipped with Hunter F.Mk.59s, to Egypt. The unit arrived in Egypt actually already in the summer of 1973, for joint exercises with the EAF, but remained to fight the war - in which it lost all except one of 12 deployed Hunters.

On 7 October also a contingent of IrAF was deployed to al-Mazzah AB, in Syria, consisting of No.4 FS (10 Hunter F.Mk.59s), No.5 FS (18 Su-7BMKs), No.9 FS (18 MiG-21PFs), and No.702 OCU (10 Hunter F.Mk.59s). After these units have suffered considerable losses - both to Israeli fighters and SAMs, but also to Syrian air defenses - on 13th October also the No.17 FS (11 MiG-21MFs) was deployed to Syria, together with one or two Hunter FR.Mk.10s of the No.1 FRS. However, only one day later the participation of the IrAF on the Syrian side was cancelled due to heavy losses and also massive disagreements with the Syrian Commanders. Except for Su-7s, all the other aircraft and most of the personnel were than pulled back to Iraq.

The IrAF received its first 18 Su-7BMKs in 1968, followed by at least 12 more in 1973. By the time of the October War, in 1973, the 5th Fighter-Bomber Squadron was operational with the type, and the unit was deployed to Syria with 18 aircraft. During the first week of their participation in the fighting, at least eight were shot down by Israeli fighters and SAMs: the remaining ten examples were then given to the Syrian Air Force, while their Iraqi crews were pulled out of the country (minus several pilots that decided to defect and stay in Syria). Through the 1970s, the IrAF operated only one squadron of Su-7BMKs, mainly for weapons training purposes.


In 1973 the 17th Fighter Sqn was in the middle of the re-qualifications to the MiG-21MF, when the unit was rushed to Syria with eleven of these fighters. The "681" survived that war against the Israelis, as well as clashes with Kurds and Iranians during the 1970s, and was seen for the last time on 25 September 1980, while at al-Hurriyah AB, near Mawsil ("Mosul").


"682" was another of the early Iraqi MiG-21MFs, and also another former mount of the 17th FS that survived the October War, in 1973. It remained in service together with the "681" and was seen for the last time at al-Hurryiah AB, on 25 September 1980.


The MiG-21MF "686" was another from the batch of 40 MFs supplied to Iraq from the USSR, in 1973.


Iraqi Hunter-fleet took part in the war against Israel, in 1973, as well. This time the No.1 Sqn was deployed to Egypt, while No.702 OCU was deployed to Syria. Both units suffered considerable losses: the No1 Sqn should have lost all of its aircraft by the second week of the fighting.


Several Hunter F.Mk.59As and F.Mk.59Bs were delivered modified to the FR.Mk.10 standard. During the 1960s some of these, including the "664" shown here (former N259 while still a F.Mk.6 with the Netherlands Air Force), were easily recognizible having had their noses and fins painted in red. On 13 October 1973 British mercenary Robert Conner was shot down while returning with one of the FR.Mk.10s from a reconnaissance mission over the Golan - by Syrian SA-3s. The loss caused a break in cooperation between the IrAF and the SyAAF at the time.





1970s: Fighting Kurds and Iran


Through the early 1970s the IrAF was almost permanently involved also in fighting a series of fierce Kurdish uprisings in the north of the country, some of which brought Iraq also on a collision course with Iran. The Shah of Persia, namely, was supporting the Kurds with arms and supplies, and - in November 1974 - even with own troops, which brought heavy artillery as well as modern SAMs into northern Iraq. During the fighting in November 1974 the IrAF suffered heavy losses in aircraft and crews, so that it started using brand-new Tupolev Tu-22B bombers in operations from high levels, where these were outside the reach of the Iranian SAMs. Nevertheless, the situation finally became so tense, that in 1975 Iraq attempted to cause a larger incident on the Shatt al-Arab, trying to draw the attention of Iraq away from the situation in the north. This Iraqi effort - significant due to the deployment of a whole armored brigade that was sent to cross the Shatt and undertake a raid into Iran - was stopped almost as soon as it began, as the McDonnel Douglas F-4E Phantoms of the Imperial Iranian Air Force used AGM-65A missiles to destroy at least 20 Iraqi tanks in a matter of few minutes.

After this fiasco, the Iraqis were ready to negotiate, and in the same year the so-called Algiers Treaty was signed, which regulated the border between Iraq and Iran, and also stopped the involvement of both sides into the inner politics of the other. Subsequently, the Iranian support for Iraqi Kurds was cancelled, and there were no new incidents until 1979.

When the war with Israel erupted, on 6 October 1973, the IrAF was in the middle of the process of acquizition of 80 Su-20s from the USSR. Remarkably, the "1173" survived in service with the IrAF until 1991, when it crashed while being flown by defecting pilot to Iran.


IrAF ordered 14 Tu-22Bs and two Tu-22Us from the USSR shortly after the October War, in 1973. Ten Tu-22Bs and two Tu-22Us were delivered by 1979. They were stationed at the al-Taqaddum and H-3/al-Wallid ABs, and in service with the 7th Bomber Squadron of the 4th Composite Bomber Wing. Iraqi Tu-22Bs - piloted by Soviet crews - were the first Blinders to be used in combat, when at least two flew a series of strikes against targets in northern Iraq, in September 1974. Later they saw extensive service during the war with Iran, but their losses were also heavy: at least four were shot down by Iranian F-14As alone.






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