US Navy F-14 Tomcats against Iranian opponents
The F-14 Tomcats of the US Navy achieved their first aerial victories during freedom of navigation exercises off Libya in 1981. However, the period during which they saw most combat followed several years later, during Operations Earnest Will and then Desert Storm, from 1987 until 1991.
To date, very little has been published about the operations in question. Indeed, the widespread belief is that USN F-14s saw next to no air combat against Iran. As so often, the reality is entirely different. Tomcats engaged several Iranian opponents and only weather- and communications-related problems, but also the incredible discipline of their crews, prevented them from scoring up aerial victories.
The ‘Tanker War’
During the Iran-Iraq War the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) ran such a highly-effective offensive against its enemy’s oil industry, that Iraq ceased to export crude and gas; indeed, Baghdad was forced to import fuels and did not manage to reach its pre-war oil exports even as of 1990, two years after the Iran-Iraq War ended. De-facto bankrupt by 1981, Iraq depended on extensive financial support from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to retain the ability to continue the war against Iran. Unsurprisingly, the Iraqis sought to knock out the Iranian oil industry but lacked the necessary firepower and reach.
As told by Tom Cooper in his book In the Claws of the Tomcat: US Navy F-14 Tomcats in Air Combat against Iran and Iraq, 1987-2000, when all other attempts failed, in 1984 they began attacking tankers exporting Iranian crude from Khark Island in the northern Persian Gulf, thus initiating what became known as the ‘Tanker War’. With this campaign being micromanaged by a government in Baghdad that had no understanding for modern armed forces, it degenerated into a battle of attrition: despite occasional successes, it proved costly while failing to stop Iranian oil exports. However, it proved volatile enough to provoke Theran into a shortsighted decision to order its forces into intercepting foreign merchants underway to countries supporting Iraq in the Persian Gulf, including Kuwait, which slowly crystallised as the second most important US ally in the area.
Operation Earnest Will
Related Iranian activities offended the Kuwaitis and incensed them to a degree where they requested help from Washington: if the US were not to bow, they threatened to ask the Soviets instead. The administration of US President Ronald Reagan rushed to agree and 12 Kuwaiti supertankers were re-registered to US: in the future, these were to pass up and down the Persian Gulf escorted by US Navy warships in Operation Earnest Will.
After months of preparations, in July 1987 the Navy concentrated a CVBG of nearly a dozen warships, centred on USS Constellation at the so-called Gonzo Station in the Gulf of Oman. Underway with the CVW-14 aboard, the carrier was not to enter the Persian Gulf, but to provide top cover from there. The ships heading into the Gulf were to be protected by two Lockheed P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft, forward deployed at Dhahran in Saudi Arabia. While packed full of advanced radars and electronic gear, these aircraft depended on the protection of F-14 Tomcat fighter jets.
The widely publicised concentration of US Navy warships sounded alarm bells in Tehran. For this reason, the Iranian armed forces received the order to challenge the Americans in only asymmetric fashion: the naval service of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was to do so by deploying mines, while the IRIAF would act by trying to sneak up on one of the US aircraft alert the Iranians understood were supporting Iraqi anti-ship operations along their coast of the Persian Gulf.
Iranian F-4 attacking US Navy P-3
Early on the morning of Aug. 8, 1987, the APS-4 at Bandar-e Abbas detected a target moving slowly towards the northern entrance of the Hormuz Strait. From tracking a similar movement over the previous weeks, the Iranians figured out that the aircraft in question was one of the US Navy’s P-3Cs. Considering it appeared to be alone, it was a ‘perfect target’: a slow and nearly defenceless target, suspected of collecting intelligence about the movement of shipping up and down the Iranian coast, and forwarding the same to Baghdad.
Minutes later, one F-4E of the 91st Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) from Tactical Fighter Base 9 (TFB.9) outside Bandar-e Abbas, was ordered into the air. Once airborne, Major Darious Kaknegar Moghadam with Captain Mandi Shaghayegh as weapons system officer (WSO), flew along the coast towards the west, at an altitude of about 213m (700ft). Keeping their APQ-120 radar on standby, Kaknegar and Shaghayegh waited for a signal from the ground control to execute the planned pop-up manoeuvre and attack.
However, the weather in the Persian Gulf that day was very hot and humid, with dense overcast from 300 up to about 7,000 metres (984-22,966ft). The clouds – and the sand these contained – played havoc with radars on both sides. For a start, even the excellent APS-4 system missed the appearance of two Tomcats from VF-21 on a Combat Air Patrol (CAP) at an altitude of 6,100m (20,000ft) over the Hormuz. The leader of the US Navy formation was Lieutenant-Commander (LCDR) Robert Clement, CO VF-21; on his wing was Lieutenant (Lt) William ‘Bear’ Ferran, a young pilot on his first operational cruise. The two Tomcats were supported by an E-2C Hawkeye from VAW-113 Black Eagles.
US Navy F-14 fires AIM-7 Sparrow missiles at the Iranian F-4
The Hawkeye detected the Phantom right after its take-off from Bandar-e Abbas and monitored its progress in a western direction. Because it flew in the rough direction of the Orion, several warnings were aired: usually, the Iranians would react by turning away. Not this time: Kaknegar, headed straight for his slow target. Therefore, the E-2C ordered the P-3C in a southern direction, and Clement and Ferran to engage. With Ferran’s AWG-9 having a better track, he took the lead and both Tomcats engaged their afterburners, accelerating towards two targets now 65km (35nm) away.
Kaknegar continued and, in advice from ground control, initiated a shallow climb to 610m (2,000ft). When within 20km (11nm) of the Orion, the Iranian powered up his APQ-120, Shaghayegh quickly locked on the Orion: the pilot waited for three seconds to permit the system to set up all parameters, then squeezed the trigger. Another two seconds later, his AIM-7E-2 Sparrow thundered away, dropping a bit before climbing up and to the front of the F-4E, releasing a typical trail of white smoke.
The fact that the Iranians had powered up their radar and locked-on to the P-3C did not escape the attention of the Americans. On the contrary, it made the situation clear. Now it was a matter of urgency to stop the Iranian attack. Ferran’s RIO quickly set up his counterattack and, at a range of 16km (8.6nm) the pilot fired one AIM-7F. The missile dropped from the Tomcat like a stone: its motor failed to ignite. Realising what was going on, Clement followed up with an AIM-7M and fired ‘from well inside 15 kilometres (7.5nm)’. Ferran then fired another AIM-7F.
US Navy F-14 damages Iranian F-4 by means of an AIM-7 Sparrow
Both of these Sparrows were released in a mad rush and from the verge of their envelope, at a target neither American could see: the hope of a hit was minimal, but still there. The hope of Kaknegar and Shaghayegh was much higher: they could not see their target either, but the smoke trail of their missile was indicative of the weapon guiding and they were expecting it to hit at any time. Then, all of a sudden, their RWR blared a warning: a quick look at the display indicated an airborne threat and that their aircraft had been fired upon. Acting instinctively, Kaknegar forgot about his Sparrow, broke hard and dived for the sea surface, invisible in the soup of clouds and dust below him.
Ferran was strained while following the two smoke trails down: he saw his Sparrow drifting slightly from left to right and then, shortly after motor burn-out, he noticed a fireball inside the translucent diamond projected on his HUD, marking target’s position.
At least at the time, Clement was certain his missile scored a kill. Kaknegar never looked back: his peripheral vision registered ‘something’ flashing past his cockpit before detonating ‘somewhere behind’: actually only metres behind his Phantom. Taking no chances, he concentrated on his altimeter to roll out above the shark-infested waters, then thundered away towards the north, accelerating to sonic speed despite the damaged fin. Meanwhile, unable to see any kind of wreckage and thus uncertain what he had engaged, Clement ordered a hard break: leaving a trail of chaff and flares in their wake, both Tomcats dived for the sea surface and disengaged towards the west before ever seeing their target.
Not a pleasant experience
Although no fewer than four Sparrows (of three different versions!) were fired in this engagement, none scored a hit: one failed on launch, another proximity fused a few metres behind the target, and two missed because the launching aircraft turned away, breaking radar lock-on in the process. Considering LCDR Clement stopped guiding his AIM-7M before the hit, while LT Ferran observed a detonation of his second Sparrow, it is apparent that — while not a ‘hard kill’ — the latter pilot scored a ‘soft kill’, thus spoiling Kaknegar and Shaghayeghs’s attack through forcing them to evade, and saving the lives of those aboard of the targeted P-3C.
Ironically, the experience of the US Navy pilots involved were not entirely pleasant. Due to the weather, their superiors were uncertain if there were any IRIAF Phantoms around at all: while commended by some for successfully protecting the so-called ‘high-value unit’ (HVU) Ferran was criticised for opening fire at a ‘fake radar echo supposedly created by bad weather; and by others for mishandling his weapon system and firing Sparrows ‘wildly’. Before long, the damage was done: while subsequently sent to the coveted Naval Fighter Weapons School (NWFS, better known as ‘Topgun’), eventually left the service in disgust.
In the Claws of the Tomcat: US Navy F-14 Tomcats in Air Combat against Iran and Iraq, 1987-2000 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Tom Cooper, U.S. Navy and Shahram Sharifi via Wikipedia