The volume and brutality of the Iran-Iraqi air war of the 1980s was astonishing. On the 40th anniversary of the Iran-Iraq War, we spoke to retired Brig. General Alireza Namaki who commanded an F-4 Fighter Wing, and survived numerous combat missions against Iraqi targets. Here he shares his insights on the potency of the Phantom, the raw drama of ground attack sorties, frustration with bad leadership and the appalling horror of a one-man mission of revenge that will forever haunt him.
What were your first impressions of the Phantom II ? “Amazement. It was some time in 1968 when I flew for the first time in the backseat of a brand new F-4D. My flight instructor was Col. Bahram Hoshyar, who later became an influential air war planner in the early 1980s. He taught me a great deal about flying and fighting in the F-4.
As a new second lieutenant fresh from the Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT), I was given many opportunities to go through ‘cockpit checks’ to become familiar with F-4’s switchology, and had spent many hours in the simulator to prepare for the actual flight. My fast jet flying experience up to that point had primarily been on T-33 Shooting Star. And the transition from T-33 to F-4 was like going from night to day. The Lockheed T-33 had steam gauges, and it was just clunky, small and underpowered. On the other hand, the F-4 Phantom had radar and ECM displays; its gauges were more advanced. Up to that point, I had never seen an aeroplane with radar. And F-4 had both the air-to-ground and air-to-air radar function displays. The Imperial Iranian Air Force in late 1960s possessed roughly 16 brand new F-4D jets, and besides the United Kingdom and the United States, no other country owned any F-4s. Anyways, it was a grand aircraft, and I have never seen a better, sexier fighter jet since then. The F-4 will always be my first love. On first sighting, I was filled with both joy and apprehension. I was also hoping to get a slot to fly the Phantom from the front seat. The training syllabus was exciting especially when we got to employ air-to-ground weapons.”
Three words to describe the F-4 Phantom?
“Allow me to say four words. On top of being the farthest, highest and fastest fighter plane of its time, it was also a reliably ‘pinpoint’ striker.It could carry more than 10,000 lb of ordnance. It could be armed with radar-guided and heat-seeking missiles. Its later version the E model was also armed with an internal gun. It could fly up to 50,000 feet at sustained speeds unrivalled by its contemporaries. It could strike any target anywhere.”
Its best traits?
“In its own time, it was the best. Its bombing computer, armaments, fuel capacity and its capability to be air-refuelled were unique for its time. It was technologically ahead of its rivals like the MiG-21 and MiG-23. And among its western colleagues, it was top notch, certainly better than the A-4 Skyhawk, or early versions of the Panavia Tornado. But since you asked, its biggest and most useful trait was the aircraft’s forgiveness. By that I mean the aircraft could tolerate pilot’s mishandling and mistreatment of the airframe better than most jets. It was sturdy and could take a beating. Many pilots survived their ejection, bad landings and combat solely due to the F-4 being a superb machine. It is now clear that the F-4 was the ultimate 1970s multi-role war machine. And it could also be employed in strategic role for smaller nations like Iran. Case in point is the Iranian air force’s strategic attack on Osirak’s reactor in late September 1980 (on the 7th day of the war a two-ship strike mission led by Major H. Ghahestani), which forced French engineers and support personnel to leave Iraq the following day. I am prepared to argue that Israel’s attack on Osirak later on was more symbolic since we had inflicted damage to the facilities. Or another strategic strike was that of our several missions against ‘Salman-Pak’ nuclear research facilities south of Baghdad through out the first year of the war.”
Its worst traits?
“To speak of Phantom’s worst traits, its weight (empty) comes to mind. I am assuming that the designers had to have to grapple with this from the get -go. And we’ve got to be fair, the Phantom has to be compared with its contemporaries in appraising its worst or best traits. For its time, it was nearly flawless and was built to bridge a technological and tactical gap.”
What are your thoughts on sensors and avionics?
“Again, this must be viewed in the context of time. At the time of delivery to our air force, the F-4D/E was quite advanced. They had been equipped with radar altimeter, a gunsight, radios, INS (inertial navigation system), a complex weapon release computer system (WRCS), RWR sensors and ECM capabilities. And I must say, Iran’s RF-4E recce jets at the time of their delivery in mid 1970s were the most advanced reconnaissance fighter aircraft in the market.”
“From the typical human-machine interface, it was brilliant. I did not have to take my eyes off the flight path to look for switches. Although this ability was built after many hours of practicing and flying the aircraft. I have around 4000 hours on the F4D/E variants and never did I encounter any problems with the placement of switches or systems.”
Tell us something that our readers may not know about Iran’s F-4 Phantoms
“The Phantom is now an ageing airframe, and it is nearing its retirement everywhere. The late Shah’s air force acquired F-4D/E in large numbers to satisfy a strategic need at the time. Our neighbour to the north, the Soviet Union, was a menace. Our neighbour to the west, Iraq, was a threat. The Phantom was purchased to deal with the threats of its time. No presidential palace, no oil facility, no air base was safe from our reach. It could fulfil a strategic role for our air force as well as a tactical role.
One interesting fact to your reader could be the late Shah’s desire to buy General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark instead of the F-4D/E. It is why I use the word strategic for the role F-4 was to play for us.”
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How satisfied were you with F-4’s weapons and performance?
You are asking me how satisfied I was? I am an F-4 pilot. I was and am delighted by F-4’s performance including its armaments. In 1980s, a few F-4E Phantom fighters each armed with half a dozen AGM-65 Maverick missiles could destroy any ship at will. This was proven in late November 1980 during ‘Operation Morvarid’ in which we essentially removed Iraq’s naval capacity from being an effective factor in waging war in northern Persian Gulf.”
Did you ever encounter an enemy aircraft in combat?
“Not close and personal in combat. Although I fired a radar guided AIM-7E Sparrow missile at an intruder in a BVR (Beyond the Visual Range) situation, but I am not certain what came of it.”
What do you think was the toughest opponent for an F-4?
“Best to direct this question to Iranian F-14 pilots, as their primary task was to tackle the Iraqi aircraft in dogfight. Iran’s fleet of F-4s was primarily tasked with tactical and strategic bombing missions albeit in few instances, Iranian air force Phantoms performed air-to-air missions with varying degree of success. My personal opinion is that the Iraqi Mirage F1 in lower speeds could outperform, and out-turn the F-4 and overcome it. But in higher speeds and during ‘snapshot attacks’ F-4 was acceptably better.”
How was life during the war in and out of squadrons? What lows and highs did you personally experience?
“The answer to this question can be as long and extensive as the eight years of the war itself. On the first day of the war, I had to kiss my family and children goodbye. As we lived in a war zone at Bushehr air base, they had to be evacuated to a safer city beyond the reach of Iraqi fighter-bombers. I managed to go home once after thirty straight days. The house was extensively damaged, and its windows were completely shattered due to Iraqi bombs going off nearby. I felt I was taking revenge for my own destroyed house as I led a four-ship formation to bomb Az-Zubayr oil field west of Basrah.
As a warfighter, I was truly hurt whenever the Iraqis would attack our population centres and we were absolutely forbidden by our own government to retaliate in kind.
In one such attack, an Iraqi jet struck a girl’s middle school near the city of Abadan resulting in the death of more than 23 students and a young teacher. This event caused me a lot of emotional pain. I think I had found my own reason/excuse for a personal vendetta. This terrible incident was seared in my mind until the day I was tasked to lead a 3-ship sortie call sign ‘Houman’ to attack the town of Khor al-Zubair’s steel and iron plant 40 km south of Basrah. Each aircraft was armed with six BL-755 bombs.
These are cluster bombs designed to destroy tanks and armoured troop carriers. That day I got to take my revenge and wage my own personal war. I had decided to save one of these bombs to drop on Basrah on our way back to Bushehr air base. My reasoning was to give the Iraqis a taste of their own medicine. Choosing a north to south heading, I released the remaining bomb on what appeared to be an empty street, dove to 20 feet in afterburner while dodging a hail of AAA arcing over my canopy. That very night, Radio Baghdad reported that upwards of 40 Iraqi citizens have been killed and wounded in a bombing raid. Our wing commander summoned me and questioned me. The air force headquarters was desperate to find the perpetrator. But I denied it and they eventually let go of it. I am now a retired warrior and I absolutely regret this incident. It is apparent that what I had done was, and is, against the accepted norms of humanity and was against the international law. Mankind created war, just as it invented lying and dishonesty. And I abhor what I did. I am not proud of it.
Such harrowing combat tales are aplenty. The regular Iranian armed forces did not target Iraqi civilians. It is important to add that in the later stages of the war in what came to be known as ‘war of the cities’ missile attacks against Baghdad our regular forces did not conduct such attacks.”
“Honestly, my flying career is now defined by the gruelling years of the war. One event stands out. By 1987, I was a fighter Wing Commander at Bushehr air base (In Iranian AF, a wing commander is also the base commander) in the latter stages of the war. Our wing was instructed to strike three oil tankers carrying Iraqi oil or heading to Iraqi oil terminals per week by our higher headquarters. This is during the early stages of the infamous Tanker War. It was the weekend. Our quota of three had not been achieved. We had managed to hit two ships that week. Our F-4 jets had found a third vessel to attack, however Saudi Arabian F-15 fighters had arrived and prevented our side from performing a successful strike. This third vessel’s captain had now decided to deviate and head for Saudi’s Ras Tanura port. Hitting a vessel in a neutral country’s waters was akin to declaring war on that neutral state, and as such it was not advised. Time was running out, and this vessel had to be hit before it took refuge in Saudi Arabian territorial waters. I decided to fly this special mission myself, as I did not want to endanger the lives of my younger pilots. Flying as low as I could to close the distance, I popped up around 8 miles out and fired two AGM-65 Maverick missiles at it, dove back down and flew straight to Bushehr AB as low as it was feasible. This definitely put an end to the non-stop messages my office was receiving from Tehran on the need to strike three ships a week.”
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How valuable was the Phantom for Iran both in terms of how it was perceived and its combat capability?
“In early to mid 1970s, Iraq’s leadership grew increasingly hostile towards Iran. Therefore our war planners in the air force began concentrating on countering this probable threat. So plans were made to attack all Iraqi airfields on the first day of hostilities to deny Iraqi AF a chance to use them for further aggression. Our pre-1979 contingency plans had us bomb each Iraqi airfield with roughly 50 aircraft. This required more or less 300 strike aircraft to fly in a single day to secure air supremacy for the ground forces to advance inside Iraqi territory.
It is widely accepted that our air force performed a deterrent role before its personnel were decimated by the Islamic revolution and the ensuing purges. Psychologically speaking, Iran’s neighbours were informed of our capabilities and were aware that any air or land strike against Iran had to be foolish since it would be responded to with overwhelming force. Combat-wise, this aircraft was unique in what it brought to the table. As I said earlier, this aircraft flew the furthest and highest among its contemporaries. I remember vividly that back in 1969 during a bilateral training exercise with the Pakistani air force (I had just finished my initial F-4 combat training) we intercepted a Pakistani Canberra bomber flying at 45,000 feet. Up to that point we had no fighter aircraft that could do these types of missions. The aircraft made an invaluable combat contribution as a whole.”
Anything you’d like to add?
“All that must be said about the Phantom has been said and spoken of as it has been around for generations. Iran possessed roughly 230 F-4 Phantoms in D, E and RF variants. A handful of Cs model of its reconnaissance version were loaned to Iran by the Americans in early 1970s for recce flights of the Soviet Union. And many replacements were sent to Iran before 1979 for the airframes we had lost due to mishaps. No new F-4s joined our fleet after the revolution due to US embargoes, and the plans to purchase F-4G Wild Weasels were shelved.
Iranian AF lost nearly 50 percent of its F-4 Phantom II aircraft during the war and this is most hurtful to me. Some of these losses were unnecessary and could have been avoided had our side employed people with a degree of professional knowledge instead of employing religious zealots who had weaselled their way to the top who did not know anything tactics or war fighting.”
What is your most memorable flight?
“One stands out in my mind as a proud moment of my younger days. It took place several years before the Islamic revolution of 1979 during training exercises participated by the United States, Pakistan and Iran. Our task was to fly an armed reconnaissance mission from Bushehr in north of Persian Gulf all the way to somewhere in the Indian Ocean to track an unknown vessel. This flight lasted about more than a dozen hours with multiple mid-air refuelling with the US and Iranian tankers. My front-seat pilot was the then Maj. Ravadgar who later became a prisoner of war. My point is that this sole mission proved the value of F-4 to me as a young pilot, it was and still is the longest I’d ever strapped to an ejection seat while flying.
Thoughts on replacement for Iranian F-4s? What’d you buy if you were in charge?
“Each aircraft brings its own unique set of capabilities. And it really depends on what directs our future procurement. Is it a strategic buy, or a tactical one? What role are we fulfilling? The US-built F-35A Lightning II, or the Russian built Su-34 are among the best choices to replace the ageing F-4, and the F-15E is certainly a useful asset in terms of its capabilities.”
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Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
“Maybe one last thing. In a Max Range, Max Performance strike mission we flew a handful of F-4s early in the war to attack a commercial transit point also known as Ar’ar border crossing on the Iraqi-Saudi border. We knew this border crossing to be the place from which Iraq was importing aviation fuel, lubricants and diesel. The other port of entry ‘Safwan’ (at Iraq-Kuwait border) was closed as a result of weeks of air bombardment. This was the maximum range of our aircraft and we could not air-refuel as this was deep inside Iraqi territory. Our calculations were by the book and we found out we would have less than 2500 lbs of fuel (bingo fuel) prior to
touchdown at Bushehr. We managed to bomb the trucks and vehicles creating massive fireballs all around. However I decided to turn around and fire my plane’s nose-mounted gun at other intact vehicles. But this cost me valuable amount of gas, which caused me a double engine flameout as soon as I touched down on runway. Had this happened moments earlier, I may have had to eject over the water. This is an unforgettable mission for me.”
Brig. General (rtd) Alireza Namaki is a former squadron, and wing commander at Bushehr TFB . He is an independent historian/author with several published books in the Persian language on the subject of the Iran-Iraq war in the air in his name.
Interview by Kash Ryan
Kash Ryan a native of Iran, hails from a military family. Both his father and grandfather were professional service members. His father served in the Iranian Air Force retiring as a Lt colonel. Kash served mandatory service in the Iranian Air Force in the late 1990s.
Growing up on an air base planted the seeds of curiosity about aviation and aircraft in him. He is a qualified private pilot currently splitting his time between Canada and the United States. As a military history enthusiast he was compelled to bring several fascinating combat memoirs of the Iranian Air Force pilots to a wider audience in the English speaking world for the first time.
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