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Middle East , Aircraft and Anti-Aircraft

How Iran Keeps its 1970s F-14 Fleet Viable and Competitive Through Domestic Modernisation

February 12th - 2018

During the 1970s the Iranian government of Mohamed Reza Shah, the Western bloc’s closest military partner in the Middle East, purchased extensive U.S. arms for all branches of its armed forces. Iran became the world's second nation after the United States to operate fourth generation fighters when it received the U.S. F-14 Tomcat Air Superiority fighters in the 1970s, and it was the only country to ever induct these advanced fighters into service other than the United States itself. While the F-14 first entered Iranian service over forty years ago, surviving both a gruelling eight year war with Iraq and a harsh embargo which prevented the Air Force from acquiring spare parts to maintain its fleet, the fighters still continue to serve in Iran's military today.

The F-14 remains a uniquely potent air to air combat platform, in many ways the most capable in the Middle East. Its ability to fire AIM-54 Phoenix Missiles, a weapon designed exclusively for the Tomcat capable of travelling at Mach 5, engaging eight targets simultaneously and hitting fighters over 190km away, is perhaps the F-14’s most critical asset which could prove a critical asset when engaging enemy fighters over the Persian Gulf. Indeed Saudi Arabian and Israeli F-15C Eagles, able to engage up to six targets and limited to a range of just 75km, would be vulnerable to the F-14 at range. While the F-15 is currently the fastest U.S. fighter in service, the phenomenal speed of the Phoenix missile makes it impossible for even the Eagle to outrun. The F-14 thus remains today by far the most potent asset of the otherwise unremarkable Iranian Air Force.

Iran has developed extensive infrastructure to service its F-14 fleet, as well as its U.S. built third generation F-4 and second generation F-5 fighters. As well as producing parts for these fighter Iran has also been able to reverse engineer the F-5 to produce its own light fighter with similar capabilities - the Seaqeh. Perhaps more significantly however, Iran has managed to reverse engineer the United States' much renowned Aim-54 Phoenix Missiles to develop its own Fakour-90 missile - allowing it to keep the F-14 fleet a viable force. Having sent an F-14 to the USSR for analysis, it is possible that Iran received some Soviet assistance in developing the Fakour - particularly as the USSR produced the R-33 and R-37 with similar roles and capabilities.

The F-14 proved a formidable asset in the Iran-Iraq war against Iraq's large third generation fleet comprised primarily of Soviet MiG-23 and French Mirage F-1 third generation fighters. The F-14's kill ratio during the war was 160:3, though a shortage of both Phoenix missiles and spare parts from the United States as a result of the arms embargo imposed on Iran impaired the fighters' performance. Today significant resources are devoted to the Tomcat’s maintenance and modernisation. The Iranian Air Force is estimated to have little over 60 fighters, though only around half of these are serviceable due to shortages in some key components produced only in the United States. With Iran the only other operator of the F-14 obtaining parts was particularly difficult - as unlike the F-4 and F-5 fighters they were not widely used and all parts had to come directly from the United States itself.

In the mid 2010s Iran began a modernisation program to upgrade its F-14s to F-14AM fighters. This would extend their operative life until 2030 and allow them to better contend with the most potent adversarial air superiority platforms - Saudi and Israeli F-15C fourth generation fighters. Upgrades have included superior avionics and adaptations to the fire control system allowing it to deploy weapons such as the R-73E, AIM-54A, AIM-7E and AIM-9J. The fighters have also been given a new three-tone Asian Minor II camouflage pattern.

How long the Iranian Air Force can rely on the F-14 for the bulk of its aerial warfare capabilities is questionable, particularly considering the small numbers available and the irreplaceability of many key components. It is likely that Tehran will seek to acquire new high performance fighters in the near future. While the country can produce some basic platforms with second generation level capabilities, it is still a long way from being able to produce anything comparable to the U.S. made F-15 fielded by its primary regional adversaries. Likely choices for the Iranian Air Force in future include the Russian made Su-30 and Su-35 - or possibly even the Su-57 or Chinese J-20 fifth generation air superiority fighters. With Iran's JCPOA Nuclear Deal restricting Iranian arms imports until 2020, it is likely that the country will purchase new fighter jets for its fleet after this date. In the meantime the F-14, as a result of the extensive modernisation it has received and Iran's ability to produce missiles and most of the required parts domestically, remains more than capable of engaging enemy fighters at long range. With the F-14 more than capable of matching the F-15 in beyond visual range engagements, and with the United States having failed to provide its allies with a fifth generation air superiority fighter to replace the F-15, Iran's disadvantage in air to air combat against its regional rivals will remain quantitative rather than qualitative.

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