The F-14 was considered by far the most capable fighter in the Iran-Iraq War, which was waged between 1980 and 1988 and saw an estimated 160 Iraq fighters shot down by Iranian Tomcats with only three F-14s lost in return.
The Tomcat was the only fourth-generation fighter to take part in the conflict, and other than a small number of elite Iraqi MiG-25 interceptors it could very comfortably outperform all Iraqi aircraft in the air to air combat.
One notable incident which saw the F-14 demonstrate the advanced capabilities of its AM-54 Phoenix missiles was in the war’s first year, on January 7th, 1981, when a Tomcat flying under the newly formed Iranian Revolutionary Air Force engaged Iraqi MiG-23 fighters at the range.
The fighter was patrolling Iran’s oil-rich Khark region, with the country’s lack of airborne early warning aircraft or modern land-based air defence systems leaving the F-14 as the only reliable means of protecting its airspace.
The lone F-14 was altered to the presence of a single Iraqi fighter reportedly on a strike mission against targets in Khark and quickly climbed to high altitude, activated its AWG-9 radar, and prepared to target the aircraft.
The Iraqi fighter in question was a MiG-23 – a third generation Soviet jet which had been sold to the Iraqi Air Force in heavily downgraded form.
The fighter was the fastest to take part in the Iran-Iraq War and could operate at high altitudes. While it was considered more than a match for the F-4E and F-5E fighters which formed the bulk of the Iranian fleet, its much smaller radar and relatively short engagement range of just 30km meant it was never a match for the F-14.
The Tomcat detected the MiG 140km away and fired on it when it reached 90km – less than half the AIM-54 missile’s maximum range which meant the missile would have considerable excess energy upon reaching its target and be much harder to evade.
The AIM-54 was prized not only for its speed and range but also for its high maneuverability, powerful radar, and large payload of 61kg – over triple that of the AIM-120 missiles carried by American fighters today.
The missile quickly reached its target, which it emerged had been a group of four MiG-23 jets flying in very close formation rather than a single fighter.
The Iraqi fighters apparently did not take evasive maneuvers, likely because they lacked a viable missile warning system that could detect ‘fire and forget’ missile attacks, and the explosion was sufficient to destroy three aircraft and damage a fourth.
The F-14 would gain a dangerous reputation in the Iraqi Air Force, and the presence of these fighters was sufficient to deter Iraqi air units from approaching Iranian positions as it had no units capable of matching them in the air to air combat.