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Tomcats vs. Eagles; How Would Iran’s F-14 Fleet Fare Against Saudi and Israeli F-15 Fighters in a Regional War?

April 01st - 2018

As tensions in the Middle East continue to simmer between Iran and the Western bloc’s greatest regional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, all parties have undertaken extensive efforts to strengthen their military assets and prepare for a potential regional war. Tel Aviv and Riyadh have continued to improve bilateral military cooperation, with the latter taking steps to begin acquiring Israeli arms and promising to grant the Israeli Air Force access to its airspace in the event of a war with Iran. The defence budgets of the two states, and even of smaller Western aligned regional powers such as the United Arab Emirates, far surpass that of Iran’s own armed forces - and this is most of all reflected in the state of their air forces. Israel and Saudi Arabia are two of just four countries ever allowed to acquire modern U.S. air superiority fighters, with both countries fielding air superiority variants of the F-15 Eagle in large numbers - approximately 60 fighters each. Aside from the U.S. F-22 Raptor, a fifth generation platform strictly prohibited from export and no longer in production, the only Western fighter able to match the F-15 in air to air combat is the F-14 Tomcat - a platform developed to provide air superiority for the U.S. Navy where the F-15 provided it for the Air Force. The only state ever to acquire the Tomcat outside the United States was Iran, which until 1979 was a close Western military client which was given priority access to the most advanced U.S. made arms. A competitive demonstration was reportedly held between the F-14 and F-15 for the leadership of Iran’s Air Force in the early 1970s, overseen by the Shah himself, in which the F-14 was judged to be the superior platform. Iran was the second country in the world after the United States to operate fourth generation fighters, and the F-14 would prove an invaluable asset in the Iranian Air Force during its eight year war with Iraq in the 1980s. The fighters were responsible for downing approximately 160 Iraqi fighters, while only three were shot down in air to air combat during the entire war. Despite their age, the F-14 and F-15 represent the most capable fighters in the Middle East today. Though they were never envisioned to be fielded by opposing sides of any conflict, and strict restrictions on arms sales were placed to ensure this, as a result of Iran’s 1979 revolution a contest between the two analogous U.S. made platforms is today key to determining which party will hold an air superiority advantage in a future conflict.

Both the F-14 and F-15 were connected to the F-111 program, designed with the lessons of the Vietnam War firmly in mind. Both fighters were developed under the same philosophy under which highly specialised heavy fighters were sought out - “not a pound for the ground” having been the design mantra. Both fighters have since the 1970s undergone extensive upgrades, and to this day represent the most capable Western made fighters for air to air combat ever developed - again with the sole exception of the F-22. While the original F-14 relied on 190km range AIM-54 Phoenix missiles, these have since been phased out and platforms currently in Iranian service now field the 300km range Fakour-90 to give fighters a significantly longer ranged and more precise strike capability. Other extensive upgrades to radars, avionics and fire control systems have also been made. The F-15, having formerly relied on the AIM-7 with a 11km strike range, today operates the AIM-120B with a range of 75km. Saudi Arabia’s F-15SA fighters, though primarily designed as strike platforms, are able to operate low manoeuvrability variants of the longer ranged AIM-120C air to air missile providing a 105km strike range. Significant upgrades to these fighters across the board have been applied to these F-15 fighters, and far more funds have been devoted to these upgrade programs compared to those spend by Iran to enhance its F-14 fighters.

Regarding which party would be best placed to claim air superiority, an Israeli-Saudi combined force or Iran, each retains significant advantages over the other. With a regional war highly likely to involve both Israel and Saudi operating in unison should they attempt to engage Iran without direct U.S. assistance, considering the two as a single closely coordinating military bloc in such a scenario is a realistic representation. While both sides of a regional conflict would field twin engine air superiority platforms, Iran’s small fleet of approximately 30 operational F-14 fighters would face a combined forces four times as large - larger still if the unspecialised F-15SA and F-15I strike variants of the Eagle are included. Another notable asset the Saudi and Israeli forces will retain is the relatively low maintenance requirements and high reliability of their fighters - with the Tomcat by contrast being extremely complex to maintain largely due to its variable swept wings. Israeli pilots are also world renowned for their skills in air to air combat, as demonstrated in numerous Arab-Israeli wars where they overwhelmingly outmatched their often better armed opponents. Iranian pilots for their part also have an excellent reputation, with their operations against the Iraqi Air Force often with far less capable aircraft (the F-14 excluded) demonstrating high levels of skills. Saudi pilots for their part, though they have had few opportunities to demonstrate their capabilities in air to air combat, have left much to be desired in operations in Yemen and Kuwait.

While facing a numerical disadvantage, the F-14 is more than capable of engaging the F-15 at ranges the Eagle cannot hope to match. Carrying up to six Fakour-90 missiles each, they can engage Saudi and Israeli fighters at distances four times greater than the strike range of the F-15’s own missiles. Coupled with powerful radars capable of engaging multiple of targets simultaneously, initially the AWG-9 but since upgraded, the Tomcat proved lethal in engaging Iraqi fighters such as the MiG-23 and F1 well beyond retaliation range - a strength which properly capitalised on gained it its formidable kill ratio. The fighter was equipped with multiple target engagement capabilities long before the F-15, and is specialised in engaging adversaries over great distances - be they open oceans or the waters and deserts of the Persian Gulf. The F-15, developed primarily for a dynamic close quarters combat environment such as the Cold War European theater, would by contrast be less ideal for combat at extreme ranges as is likely to take place in a Middle Eastern conflict. While the F-14 would have been less than ideal for deployment to Europe, where a constantly evolving battlefield and densely packed airbases across the continent would have posed tremendous risks of friendly fire if firing at range, its long range capabilities developed for air combat above the Oceans are ideal for the Persian Gulf and for Iran’s defence needs. Ultimately it is not a case of which is a superior fighter overall, with the two to a large extent being evenly matched, but to which combat role each fighter is best suited.

The Tomcat’s strike range would provide it with a significant advantage, also allowing it to fulfil a limited offensive role. The AIM-54 missiles were the world’s first to be successfully tested against highly manoeuvrable targets at extreme ranges - hitting small drones manoeuvring at 6G. The ability to hit manoeuvring targets was part of it's original design specification, and the Fakour-90 has only improved on these specifications. Despite their manoeuvrability, the F- 15 fighters would remain highly vulnerable to Iranian missile attacks at long range. Though the F-15 is today the fastest fighter aircraft in service, with a maximum speed of Mach 2.5, even older variants of the AIM-54 proved highly effective against smaller and far faster platforms such as the MiG-25 - a Mach 3.3 interceptor the missile was designed to counter at long range. The Eagle's survivability against the Fakour-90 even at extreme ranges thus remains low.

Other than a numerical advantage, the F-15 is also retains a marginal advantage in visual range combat. While the F-14’s General Electric F110-GE-400 afterburning turbofan engines provide significantly more thrust, the fighter’s thrust/weight ratio is inferior to that of the Eagle due to the Tomcat’s extremely heavy weight. The massive weight of the Fakour-90 missiles, approximately 450kg each, puts further drag on the Tomcat. Should Iran equip its F-14s with lighter shorter range missiles for visual range combat, its fighters would do much to bridge the gap in manoeuvrability with the Eagle but in turn would forego their primary advantage of a long range strike capability.

Ultimately the F-14 remains overall the more capable platform in a Middle Eastern air war largely due to its long range strike capabilities unmatched by any other platforms in the region. This does not however mean that the Iranian military is in any position to win an air war should it face a combined Israeli and Saudi force, as other than the its relatively small F-14 fleet the Iranian Air Force remains extremely dated as well as overwhelmingly outnumbered. In all likelihood Iran would be forced to at least initially adopt a defensive strategy and use its Tomcats in a complementary role alongside its advanced surface to air missile network to protect the country’s airspace and intercept enemy attacks. The short ranged MiG-29, F-4, F-5 and domestically produced Saeqeh fighters which comprise the rest of its aerial warfare capabilities would be overwhelmingly outmatched by more sophisticated and numerous Saudi and Israeli platforms should they attempt to take to an offensive role, and these fighters too would likely be used primarily for air defence. Iran has the better air superiority fighter in the F-14, but overall has a less capable Air Force. 

With Iran's F-14 fleet having served the country for forty years, the Air Force has shown interest in acquiring new air superiority fighters to augment its capabilities and narrow its numerical and capability gap with its regional rivals. Under the JCPOA nuclear deal, the country remains restricted in its ability to import new fighter aircraft and other offensive weapons systems until 2020, after which the military is likely to upgrade its aerial warfare capabilities with new heavy platforms to augment its F-14s in combat in case of conflict with rival regional power. The Su-57, Su-35 and Su-30 from Russia's Sukhoi design bureau, all of which far surpass the combat capabilities of the F-15, are all reportedly under consideration.

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