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Iraqi Air Force since 1948, Part 2
By Tom Cooper
Sep 13, 2003, 18:14

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I Persian Gulf War

For the IrAF the invasion of Iran came at the time it was in the middle of receiving a total of 240 new aircraft and helicopters from the USSR, as well as expecting the arrival of the first 16 Dassault Mirage F.1EQs from France.

In reaction to the Iraqi invasion, and expecting the war to last only a few weeks, both the Soviets and the French stopped delivery of additional aircraft to Iraq, and re-started it only in December 1980.

Consequently, the IrAF had to fight the first few months of the war with actually obsolete or poorely equipped types. It was still heavily dependable on the MiG-21, which was no match for either the Iranian F-4 Phantoms or F-14 Tomcats. Iraqis hoped that their MiG-23s could even the match to a degree, but the type suffered immense losses: betwen 13 September 1980 and 31 January 1981 no less but 40 were shot down. Consequently, it was the Su-20/22 series that silently developed into the Iraqi "battle wagon": although never sufficiently well-equipped the Sukhois were gradually upgraded and became the first Iraqi fighters equipped with stand-off precision-guided ammunition, in turn bearing the brunt of the attrition war against Iran.

The official stars of the Iraqi Air Force, however, became MiG-25s and Mirage F.1EQs, which began flying combat operations from spring and autumn 1981, respectivelly. The Mirages and Foxbats were later during the war to fly some particularly spectacular operations against Iran. The fact that both types suffered considerable losses to Iranian interceptors - even when flown by foreign mercenaries and "advisors" - was largely neglected in the public.

Neglected was also the fact that the Soviets deployed a number of their "top" combat aircraft and weapons systems (flown by some of their best pilots) to Iraq for combat testing against Iran. These included Tu-22KD/KDP bombers, equipped with Kh-22M/MP (AS-4 Kitchen) air-to-ground missiles; MiG-23MLDs, equipped with R-23 and R-24 missiles; MiG-25RBs; MiG-25RBTs, equipped with Kh-25 air-to-ground missiles; MiG-25BMs, equipped with Kh-25 and Kh-58 anti-radar missiles; and even MiG-27s, equipped with Kh-29L/T missiles. Given that most of these proved only marginally succesuful, but that all types also suffered considerable and sometimes embarassing losses, it is not surprising that there was little interest to publicise these deployments.

The same can be said about the French support for Iraq, which intensified from 1983, when five Super Etendard strike fighters were leased to IrAF. At least two, and possibly even three, of these were shot down by Iranian interceptors. Given that this deal caused a considerable uproar in the public, as well as that by 1985 the Super Etendard was in competition with Italo-Brazilian AMX and the Fiat G.91 as a light tactical fighter for the NATO air forces, the French were never interested to publicise much about this deployment. Their reporting about the combat experiences of Iraqi Mirage F.1EQs was similar: the fact that no less but 50 out of 113 examples delivered were lost during the battles with the "non-existing" Iranian air force was certainly nothing that could be used in commercials.

Due to such and similar reasons the air warfare between Iraq and Iran was for long time one of the most poorely researched topics in the history of modern wars at all.

Iraq ordered no less but 140 MiG-23MS in 1973, but these orders were soon cut-down to only 20, after the type proved a disappointment in service. This example served with the 23rd Fighter Squadron early during the war with Iran, before being assigned to the 84th FS, in early 1982. In December of the same year it was flown by a defector to Vahdati AB, in Iran: the IrAF realized what happened with this aircraft and - as the Iranians failed to tow it to one of nearby HAS' - only several hours later it was destroyed while on tarmac of Vahdati.

From 1981 the IrAF received four Tu-22Ks and between 200 and 300 Kh-22M and Kh-22MP (AS-4) missiles. By 1986 at least three of these were lost in combat, and the Kh-22s proved a failure in combat.

The Soviets were very slow to supply Mi-24s (actually: MiG-25s, the down-graded export variant of the Mi-24D) to Iraq: in 1980, only between six and eight examples were delivered, of which four were lost to Iranians by the end of the year. This example belonged to the third batch of Mi-25s supplied to Iraq in 1986, and was noticed in action in the same year. All Iraqi Mi-25s were operated by the 4th Squadron/1st Wing of Iraqi Army Aviation Corps (IrAAC), not by the IrAF.

It remains unclear when the IrAF purchased its first MiG-23MFs, but there are indications that a Soviet-controlled unit of either MiG-23Ms or MiG-23MLDs was operational in Iraq already in October 1980, as well as that an IrAF unit equipped with the MiG-23MF was operational in 1982. They were easy to distinguish from later - and more modern - MiG-23MLs by their darker camouflage pattern.

The IrAF started getting its first su-22M-3Ks from 1976. These saw extensive service early during the war with Iran, and were - from 1982 - also equipped to carry Kh-23 and Kh-25 air-to-ground missiles. This aircraft, "1574" was shot down by Iranian MIM-23Bs on 12 February 1986, near al-Faw, in southern Iraq. The pilot attempted to eject shortly before the crash, but the seat only partially deployed before the plane hit the ground.

Iraq had a long tradition of operating bombers already since the 1930s. In 1962 this tradition was renewed when the first out of eventual eight Tu-16 bombers were delivered from the USSR. Six of these remained operational at the times of the Six Day War, when only two out of four sent to attack Tel Nov AB reached Israel, one missing completely, while the other - the lead aircraft - was shot down by the Israelis. Six new Tu-16K-11-16s were delivered by the USSR in 1972, but they did not take part in the war with Israel in 1973. Instead, the surviving aircraft saw extensive service during the war with Iran, when they were used not only for launching cruise-missile attacks or bombings, but also as chaff-bombers and stand-off jammers. In late 1987 Iraq also purchased four H-6D bombers from China. The type eventually suffered extensive losses during this war, and only a handfull of Tu-16s and H-6Ds survived: except one all were destroyed by US strikes against the al-Taqaddum AB, in January 1991.

In October 1983, in the frame of the Operation "Sugar", France leased five Super Etendards to Iraq. The aircraft entered service in March 1984 and were used exclusively for anti-shipping strikes against tankers underway along the Iranian side of the Persian Gulf. At least two were shot down and a third claimed by Iranian interceptors during the spring and summer of 1984. It seems that one was indeed shot down, while another was damaged and crashed on landing back in Iraq. The Iraqis definitely returned only three Super Etendards to France, including the example shown here.

Starting in April 1981 the IrAF received a total of 32 Mirage F.1EQ and F.1EQ-2s. Although designed as multi-role fighters, these were used almost exclusively as interceptors - albeit with far less success than frequently claimed by French and British sources. Quite on the contrary, their first combat deployment - in December 1981 - can only be described as a desaster, as between four and six were shot down in a series of engagements with IRIAF F-14As, most of which happened over Kuwait!

From the standpoint of usual reporting about the war between Iraq and Iran, IrAF's Mirage F.1EQ-5s, equipped with advanced Cyrano IV-M radar and AM.39 Exocet missiles, deployed for anti-ship operations inside the Persian Gulfs, were definitely the "stars" of this war. In fact, the IrAF experienced extensive technical problems with the type early during its combat career, problems with the reliability of the AM.39 Exocet missile, problems with the lack of pre- and post-strike reconnaissance, and heavy losses in 1988: during a two short engagements on the same day in February of that year, a single IRIAF F-14A shot down three Mirage F.1EQ-5s in quick succession. Despite much publicity, Iraqi anti-ship operations remain an unknown quality: due to the Iranians moving their tankers in convoys, protected by warships and interceptor aircraft, the Iraqis had over the time to considerably improve their tactics and diversify their means. Consequently, during the final 12 months of the war the IrAF Mirages were not fighting this war any more - but more frequently they were involved in operations that saw a combination of formations consisting of MiG-25s, MiG-23s, Su-20/22s - and even Tu-22Bs. Despite considerable losses, such formations were able to offer better mutual suport to each other - regardless if by ECM-systems or by shock and confusion they would frequently cause.

This MiG-23MS was also shot down by Iranian MIM-23B I-HAWK SAMs on 12 February 1986, near al-Faw, in southern Iraq: together with the Su-22M-3K shown above, it was one of nine Iraqi fighters confirmed shot down by the same IRIAF SAM-site on that morning.

Just like the arrival of the first MiG-23MFs, the time at which the Iraqis have got their first MiG-23MLs remains unknown. According to results of most recent researches, the IrAF had at least a squadron of MiG-23MLs based at Qayyarah West AB, already in September/October 1980. It is possible that these aircraft were former mounts of a Soviet AF unit deployed at Shoibiyah AB, in early 1980 (months before the Iraqi invasion of Iran), to escort and defend the Soviet-flown MiG-25s deployed at the same air base.

The fast and poweful MiG-25 remained the most successful Iraqi interceptor also after the war with Iran: on the first night of the IIPGW, an Iraqi MiG-25 shot down a USN F/A-18C Hornet, and in December 2002 another Foxbat shot down a USAF RQ-1B Predator UAV, armed with Stinger missiles. Although the MiG-21 remained the favourite fighter-jet of the IrAF pilots, the brute power (both, that of the engines and that of the radar, which proved very problematic to jam) and confortable cockpit were appreciated by all of their Foxbat-pilots.

The appearance of the Su-25K in Iraqi service remains a sort of a mystery. Although Russian and the Ukrainian reports claim that over 80 aircraft were delivered between 1985 and 1989, that these saw extensive service during the later stages of the war against Iran, especially in 1988, and that a number of Iraqi Su-25-pilots were highly decorated by Saddam Hussein personally, in fact only one squadron is known to have been equipped with the type in 1986, and the other became operational only after the war with Iran. According to Iranian reports - some of which can be confirmed by pictorial evidence - the Su-25 was a rare appearance over the battlefield even in 1988: only two were ever encountered in air combat, one was shot down (there are photographs of the wreckage) and two badly damaged by ground fire. In 1991 seven were flown out to Iran, where they were subsequently taken over by the IRGCAF, while in 2003 the US forces captured only a handfull of Su-25s. Consequently, it is likely that Iraq eventually ordered over 80 Su-25s, or stated intention to do so, but it is unlikely that more than 30 were indeed delivered.

1990: Invasion of Kuwait, and the II Persian Gulf War, in 1991

In August 1990 the IrAF was one of the most powerful air forces in the whole Middle East. Theoretically, it should have been hardened by the long war with Iran, boasting over 500 combat aircraft, flown and maintained by highly experienced personnel. In fact, already at the time the first post-war purges hit the whole service, as the Iraqi regime struggled to bring it back under total control: training was brought to the minimum during the whole 1990, the IrAF fighters seldom flying more than 100 sorties a day as most of the operations again were not to be conducted without the permission from the top of the regime.

Eventually, during the short but fierce war against Kuwait the IrAF was back to its pre-1986 performance: although striking in large formations - like against Iran, in 1988 - it nevertheless failed to neutralize the Kuwaiti Air Force and air defence installations, or properly support own ground troops. Instead, especially the Iraq Army Air Corps suffered heavy losses in helicopters when these attempted to deploy commandos into the Kuwait City.

This "Dusty Weasel", an Su-22UM-3K, was flown out to Iran in February 1991: the aircraft was damaged by Iranian air defenses, but the pilot managed a safe landing. During the war with Iran, Su-22UM-3Ks were deployed extensively in combat, and foremost used by strike leaders, or as SEAD-assets - like the example here, shown carrying a Kh-28M/Nissin-M (Iraqi designation) - or AS-9 - anti-radar missile.

This Su-22M-4K is one from the batch of some 60 aircraft supplied to Iraq in 1986 and 1987, which was lucky enough to survive both, the long war with Iran, and then also the Coalition air strikes during the II Persian Gulf War. The aircraft was flown out to Iran, and seen for the last time at Hamedan AB, in April 1991.

By 1991 the surviving 50 Mirage F.1EQs were the most important interceptors of the IrAF. Although originally designed as multi-role fighters, and despite the fact that meanwhile the whole fleet was upgraded to a standard similar to the Mirage F.1EQ-6 - i.e. one that enable the aircraft not only the use of the AM.39 Exocet and AS.30L missiles, but also the Soviet-built Kh-29T/L guided bombs - once again during the II Persian Gulf War they were foremost used as interceptors. Operating alone, with poor GCI-support and mainly by night, however, Iraqi pilots had little chance against the USAF F-15s, supported by E-3A Sentry AWACS and EC-135 ELINT-gatherers.

This MiG-21MF was captured by US troops at Tallil AB, in March 1999. It is a highly interesting example, not only because of its serial but ever more so because it wore a kill marking for an unknown Iranian aircraft shot down sometimes during the long war in the 1980s. The US troops made only one poor photograph of this aircraft before it was completely destroyed.

The plan for the invasion of Kuwait included a large commando operation which was to see the capture of the Emir: commandos were to be deployed directly into the city with the help of helicopters. The operation failed to a large degree, however, as the helicopters were intercepted by several Kuwaiti Air Force Mirage F.1CKs as well as by SAMs, and suffered horrendous losses.

This MiG-23BN, "23160", was lucky enough to survive the long war with Iran, and then the fighting against Kuwait, in August 1990, but it was disabled by US air strikes against Tallil AB, in January 1991, and then cannibalized for spares. It was found by US troops at Tallil dump, in April 2003 again, by when the middle section of the fuselage was the largest remaining piece of it.

Control Operations over Iraq, 1991-2002, and the III Persian Gulf War, in 2003

After the defeat and a massive loss of aircraft during the IIPGW, the IrAF was reduced to a pale shade of its former might, and further weakened by additional series of purges, in 1992, 1993, and 1995. Two large-scale reorganizations, in 1992 and 1999, were not to help improve combat readiness. In fact, it was not before 1992 that that the IrAF Training Command started functioning again, and subsequently the pilots were spending up to 80% of their service with political indoctrination courses - instead with flying and learning about their aircraft and systems.

By 1999 the technical condition of most of the surviving aircraft and helicopters was terrible, as Iraq started running out of its remaining stocks of spare parts as well. Attempts to improve the situation with help from Serbia and Belarus, in the period 1999-2002 had some success, but could not help make the IrAF nor the IrAAC effective combat services again. Despite a considerable increase of activity since 1991, and even some success in the almost permanent battle against US reconnaissance UAVs, in December 2002, by March 2003 the IrAF was actually grounded and inactivated for all practical purposes. One of the reasons should have been a failed coup attempt staged by several IrAF officers in October 2002; the other a series of unbelieveable failures on the part of the former Iraqi regime.

The service was eventually disbanded as the US troops reached Baghdad, on 7 April 2003. Ever since, all of its aircraft were either scrapped or taken away to the USA, its whole command structure completely destroyed with top officers either in US custody or in exile, and many of its airfields are now being used by US and other forces.

In the late 1990s, the IrAF modified a number of available MiG-23MLs through addition of advanced S-3M (SPO-10M) RWR, SO-69 (export variant) transponders and SRZO-2 IFF-transponders. The same aircraft have also got ASO-2 chaff&flare dispensers taken from Iraqi Su-22s - considered not important at the time Iraq was facing solely the air policing operations of the USA and the UK. Another interesting addition to these MiG-23MLs was the capability to carry the French-made Remora ECM-pods, delivered together with Mirage F.1EQs already back in 1984. These pods were carried on port main underwing pylon - as seen here - while the starboard station was "reserved" for R-24R missiles. MiG-23MLs armed this way were not carrying any R-60, because these were considered too short-ranged for engagements usually fought by these fighters. Evidence found during the "Orao" affair, in Serbian-held parts of Bosnia and Herzegowina, show that the IrAF MiG-23MLs were overhauled with help of Serbian technicians, starting in 1998 - a fact strongly denied by Iraqi sources.

By 1999, between 32 and 34 J-7Bs (or "F-7Bs") were still in service with the IrAF, but they were mainly used for basic weapons training. Like all the other types, they were not to play any role in the fighting. The example here was found by US troops in a field some 150km south of Baghdad.

This Mi-25, coded "2118", was found at the al-Taji Iraqi Army Air Corps facility by US troops in April 2003. Note the unusual camouflage pattern, never seen before on Iraqi "Hinds".

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