During the Iran-Iraq War, the Iraqi military enjoyed considerable advantages in terms of the equipment in its inventory, earnings from oil exports and political support with the backing of both the Western Bloc and the Soviet Union as well as the majority of the Arab nations.
While Iran faced a tight arms embargo and struggled to obtain spare parts for its military, particularly it’s fleet of American-made fighter aircraft, Iraq’s supplies were constantly replenished by the Soviet Union and France with the full support of the United States.
Against such unfavorable odds, one of the Iranian military’s greatest assets was its Air Force’s access to F-14 air superiority fighters. These were the first fourth-generation aircraft to enter service anywhere in the world outside the United States, and against Iraq’s vast fleet of the lighter and less sophisticated second and third-generation platforms, they gave Iran a distinct advantage.
During the war, despite a crippling lack of spare parts and ammunition due to the American arms embargo, Iran’s few serviceable F-14s downed over 160 Iraqi Iraqi aircraft – enjoying considerable advantages over jets such as the Mirage F1, MiG-23, and MiG-21 which formed the bulk of the Iraqi fleet.
By contrast, only three F-14s were lost in the air to air combat air, reflecting the extreme discrepancy between their capabilities and those the Iraqis fielded. The F-14’s AIM-54 Phoenix missiles were considered the most advanced in the world at the time, with a range of 190km and state of the art guidance systems, while Iraqi jets relied on missiles such as the K-13 and R-40 with less than a quarter of this range.
As a result of the prowess of the F-14, Iraqi pilots took great care to avoid the fighters. With Iran’s air defence capabilities severely lacking, the F-14 became a critical means for the country to defend its airspace and deter attacks from Iraqi fighters.
Unable to counter the F-14 or obtain any equivalent platforms – with the Russian Su-27 yet to enter service, the MiG-31 unavailable for export and the French having yet to produce a similarly capable platform, Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein personally formulated a plan to neutralize Iran’s advantage in the air.
The president reportedly used the distrust of the Iranian new revolutionary leadership towards the Shah-era military and its U.S. trained pilots to Iraq’s advantage, later recounting:
“The Iranian F-14s were assigned to defend Kharg as an alternative to anti-aircraft weapons… so we were watching out for them, because we knew they could hurt our airplanes on either the trip over or the trip back…. so I asked a certain party to go tell the political leaders in a certain Gulf nation that there were some Iranian pilots who wanted to desert with their F-14 planes and if they could please allow them to land, because arrangements have been made for them to seek asylum in Iraq.”
According to Saddam, there were, in fact, no pilots who intended to defect, and the message was meant to be intercepted by the Iranians. As he had hoped, Iran grounded their F-14 fleet temporarily based on these suspicions and the Iraqi Air Force was able to press its advantage.
Without the F-14 Iran’s Air Force, made up of older third-generation F-4E and F-5E fighters was unable to match the Iraqi fleet of more advanced MiG-25 and MiG-23 platforms. The MiG-25 in particular, due to its considerable speed and altitude, was essentially invulnerable to attacks by anything other than Iranian AIM-54 missiles which were deployed by the F-14 exclusively.