Mirage F1: The Tomcat killer
The superb French Dassault Mirage F1 was one of the most prolific killers of teen series fighters in the skies of the Middle East. The often over-looked French jet even racked up kills against the best-armed fighter in the world, the seemingly invincible F-14 Tomcat. Kash Ryan shares the story of the F1’s ferocious part in the Iran-Iraq War.
Failing to secure any major contract with top European air forces and failing in their fierce competition against the F-16 in the same decade, the French reached out to, and secured various deals with non-European countries including Libya, Iraq and Morocco.
Iraq had been fighting with Iran since September 1980. Iranian armed forces that had been supplemented with various western arms up until 1979, were head and shoulders above the Iraqis in terms of the quality of their equipment and training. The Iranian Air Force had more than 450 fighter aircraft (F-14, F-4 and F-5) at its disposal and almost all of its aircrew had received their training in the United States or from US advisers and were familiar with western doctrine of war. Whereas the Iraqi side had received mainly Russian or Warsaw pact arms accompanied by poorly trained aircrew and staff who followed the Soviet doctrine of war.
In qualitative edge, Iran was ahead. But all that advantage began to erode when France began supplying Iraq with fighter planes, air defense systems and air warfare doctrine.
Iran’s technological edge in quality of air warfare, and to an extent their edge in air combat was severely eroded with the introduction of the formidable Mirage F1EQ fighter aircraft in Summer of 1981. The Iranian side also suffered from indiscriminate purges of its ranks depriving it of skilled aircrew and mission planners as the war continued.
Moreover the French trained Iraqi pilots showed their mettle against US trained Iranian aviators as the war dragged on in an ever increasingly aggressive manner. Gone were the days that Iraqi pilots relied extensively on GCI commands to engage and fire at Iranian intruders. The French trained fighter pilots of the Iraqi Air Force now confident in their superb training began engaging the Iranian fighters ever more viciously.
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While there are records of prior engagements between Iranian F-14s and Iraqi F1EQ jets circulating among online diaries and books written by veterans of the war, the most known first engagement of the two types occurred 39 years ago this week in the skies over south western Iran.
Based on interviews, books and diaries of the participants, the first huge blow to the Iranian F-14 fleet came on November 24th, 1981 when a pair of F-14 Tomcats were caught by surprise and shot down by Iraqi Mirages in one of the deadliest days for the F-14 fighter fleet. In a pincer attack with a MiG acting as a decoy, the two Mirages downed the two F-14s using hit and run tactics and R.530 medium-ranged missiles. As detailed in our interview with an Iranian Tomcat pilot these losses severely dented the morale of the F-14 force. Something had to be done.
Within 24 hours, the planners at 8th tactical air base in Isfahan AB, Iran got together to plan for their own personal vendetta against the nimble Mirages. A brilliant F-14A instructor pilot Captain F. Javidnia comes up with a plan to teach the Iraqi Mirage fliers a lesson, and to take revenge for the huge losses incurred the previous days.
Captain Javidnia recalls “I spoke with the deputy commander of the air force Colonel Babaei who himself was a capable F-14 pilot. And told him in no uncertain terms that in order to shoot down Mirages on that day, we’d have to clear the skies south west of Iran of any traffic, civil or military. And there has to be absolute radio silence all over the net, and to reduce further risks we will be flying in a single ship F-14 to lure Mirages to our own air space.” Javidnia, now a retied Brigadier General with more than 11 confirmed kills continued: “I was going to engage, and shoot at any object that flew from Iraq into the Iranian air space on that day.” He says: “We set up an oval track at 20,000 feet and just waited. Our radar operators were briefed to click the mic three times to alert us if they saw an approaching intruder at our six o’clock while we were flying west to east.”
Javidnia and his RIO 1st Lt. Khorshidi (later KIA) began their CAP track near Ahvaz in southwestern Iran. The plan was to not get any closer than 20 miles to the intruder, and fire within BVR (beyond visual range) parameters from 20 miles. Two Mirage F1s were vectored from Shiabah air base near Basrah city to intercept what appeared to be a lone clueless F-14 flying aimlessly.
As the two Mirages and the lone F-14 got closer, Javidnia snapped his jet into a quick Split S, and asked Lt. Khorshidi to keep tracking the bogeys on his radar screen. Instead of running back towards an easterly heading at the bottom of the split, Javidnia brought the jet out of dive and rolled back, got a radar lock and immediately fired an AIM-54A Phoenix missile at one of the bogeys hitting it and causing a massive fireball which was seen by troops and observers on the ground.
“The debris from the first Mirage hit the second Mirage forcing him to RTB while trailing smoke and fire in the skies”, Javidnia recalled in a TV interview. The duel between Tomcats and Mirages continued to the very last days of the war.
Mirage F1 fighter-bombers had been purchased to act as long range strike aircraft, and at this role they excelled against Iranian infrastructure, shipping, oil facilities and military installations. Of note, were devastating Iraqi air strikes against Neka thermal power plant in northern Iran at the latter stages of the war, and their long range strikes against Iranian oil platforms across the Persian Gulf in Kharg and Siri islands.
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As Iraqis matured in operating this marvellous aircraft and their confidence grew, their strikes became more lethal. As mentioned above, the Iraqi air force orchestrated two very long-range strike missions. One of these long-range bombing missions was the IRQAF attacking Siri island oil tanker facilities more than 600 miles from Iraqi shores near the Strait of Hormuz on August 12th, 1986. Iraqi Mirage pilots were showing the type of flexibility and aggressiveness that had not been seen before.
The raid against ‘Neka’ thermal power plant on Sept 29th, 1987 was perhaps the longest sortie for the Iraqi fliers in that they had to overfly the enemy territory for more than two hours in complete radio silence while evading Iranian air patrols and air defences, navigating the mountainous terrain and the Caspian Sea to reach their target from the north. This deep penetration strike mimicked the earlier Iranian Phantoms’ long-range strike against H-3 air bases in western Iraq in April 1981 in which 8 F-4E Phantom II jets led by Maj. Baratpour (the mission planner was Col. Fred Izadseta) struck H3 facilities as they refuelled midair in and out of Syrian air space to accomplish their mission.
Mirage F1 fighter-bombers and their French trained pilots performed flawlessly during the war and as ‘USAF Gen. Chuck Horner’ once put it in a TV interview after the first Gulf War “..the Iraqi pilots were no slouches. They pulled off some fantastic missions in the Iran-Iraq war.”
It is however with supreme irony that the very Mirages that hunted Iran’s fighter jets and struck her infrastructure mercilessly would end up taking refuge in Iran in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, and then be put into service with their new host country’s air arm a few years later.