Military Aviation

Former IIAF Tomcat pilots tell the True Story of why Iran picked the F-14 over the F-15

‘The AWG-9 enabled us to engage at ranges that F-15 pilots could only dream of. We could even use AIM-7s and AIM-9s at longer ranges than the Eagle,’ Maj Ali former IIAF F-14 Tomcat pilot

Iran’s inability to prevent overflights by Soviet MiG-25Rs is said by many Western observers to have been one of the main reasons why the country acquired the Grumman F-14. The truth is slightly different, however. Since the late 1950s, the Imperial Iranian Air Force (IIAF, renamed Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force, IRIAF, after the Islamic Revolution), in cooperation with the USAF, had been flying highly secret reconnaissance flights over the USSR. Initially, lighter aircraft (even transports) were used, and several were shot down by Soviet fighters. After the first F-4s arrived, the IIAF also received some RF-4Es, and operations were intensified.

The Soviets were, understandably, concerned about Iran’s massive re-armament, and started their own reconnaissance missions over the country. IIAF interceptors — especially F-4Ds — repeatedly tried to catch the MiG-25Rs, but this proved a very difficult task as the routes flown by the overflying `Foxbats’ were carefully chosen.

The Shah was not interested in a direct confrontation with the USSR, so as the mutual airspace violations intensified, he offered to stop IIAF — and American — overflights if the Soviets would do the same. This offer was repeated, and turned down, several times. The IIAF was therefore ordered to fly two or more missions over the USSR for every Foxbat flight, initiating a ‘tit for tat’ campaign. But a more powerful weapon system than Sparrow-armed F-4s was needed to prevent Soviet incursions.

Meanwhile, in line with plans for massive Iranian military development during the 1970s, as well as future cooperation with the US, the IIAF was seeking a new interceptor that was able to meet foreseeable threats over the next 20 years. It would have to cover huge areas of Iranian airspace using powerful sensors and weaponry, and have a corresponding endurance and combat ability.

At the time all these capabilities were combined in a single airframe to produce the world’s first ‘superfighter,’ an interceptor able to confront most threats: the Grumman F-14 Tomcat. It was also the most costly and complex fighter built to date. It was not long, therefore, before controversy arose in the US resulting from development problems, cost overruns (caused by rampant inflation) and a debate centring on whether such an expensive aircraft was needed at all. As a result, both Grumman and the U.S. Navy were seeking an additional customer to share the cost of further development and production.

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-14A Tomcat VF-33 Starfighters / Tarsiers , AB201 / 19428 / 1982

By October 1971, Grumman had established the first contacts with the Iranian government, and the following March Gen Hassan Toufanian was allowed to see secret information pertaining to the F-14. Toufanian was a military advisor to the Shah, as well as Deputy Minister of War and Director of the Arms Industries and Military Procurement Organisation. Soon, the Shah himself was showing an interest in the aircraft.

In agreement with the IIAF leadership — which had already concluded that the F-14 was the interceptor it was seeking — a letter was sent to the Pentagon to start the acquisition process, although the Iranians still offered McDonnell Douglas the chance to demonstrate its F-15A Eagle.

Early F-14 pilot Capt Rassi explains in Tom Cooper and Farzad Bishop’s book Iranian F-14 Tomcat units in combat published in 2004 (the names of all F-14 pilots and RIOs interviewed for the book, active or retired, have been changed for security reasons) why the Iranians were so interested in the Tomcat:

`There were several factors which influenced the selection of the F-14. Iran’s northern border with the USSR, and those to the west and southwest with Iraq, are guarded by high mountains. Our Air Defence Command was building radar outposts on many peaks for better radar coverage, but we could never improve the situation with ground-based radar alone. There were too many “blind spots” in this coverage, and the big white domes of our radar stations were also excellent targets, visible from up to 50 miles away. Intelligence information obtained at the time verified that the Soviets would indeed strike them first.

`In the south, along the Persian Gulf coast, we had only US-supplied radars, which did not work properly in hot and humid conditions — that is, for ten months of the year — and otherwise also had poor performance, despite several upgrades. All the radars supplied to the IIAF as part of Military Assistance Program projects were far from being top-of-the-line. The Americans gave us what they wanted to give, not what we needed.

This model is available from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS

`For two years — 1973-74 — a group of Iranian radar instructor including Col Iradj Ghaffari (the first Iranian tactical radar instructor) studied coverage problems associated with “Radar Sites Reinforcement,” but could not find a solution. Eventually, it was decided that a “flying radar” would eliminate the terrain masking problems. That flying radar would also have to be able to defend itself. It is beyond doubt that during the war with Iraq, the F-14 proved that it was exactly what we needed.

`Before these studies were conducted within IIAF circles — at the time we were still flying F-5A/B Freedom Fighters and F-4D Phantom IIs we started looking for a top-of-the-line fighter interceptor. The result of these studies, directed by Gen Mehdi Rouhani, was a requirement for F-14s and AEW aircraft. US briefings on F-14s and F-15s undoubtedly helped us to formulate our requirement. We created the plan to purchase eight AEW aircraft — initially four, followed by four more — and the F-14s. Eventually, four orders were issued — the first for 30 Tomcats and the second for 50. There was one for Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS, followed by one for two communication satellites, which would enable all these aircraft to communicate securely with each other.’

Unaware that the Iranians had already identified the F-14 as the right aircraft for their unique operational requirements, the US Navy and Grumman started an intensive campaign to ‘sell the Shah’, which included sending the F-14 Program Coordinator of the Chief of Naval Operations, Capt Mitchell, to Tehran twice to brief the Shah and IIAF commanders on the Tomcat’s capabilities. This culminated in a spectacular fly-off in July 1973 at Andrews AFB, Maryland, for the Shah and a group of high-ranking Iranian officers.

While many US officials and Navy officers still believe that this stunning show put on by Grumman test pilots influenced the Shah’s final decision to order the F-14, Iranian officers interviewed by Cooper and Bishop strongly disagree. One of the first to fly the Tomcat was Maj Ali. He had experience of the F-4, as well as having exchange tours with the USAF, Israeli Defence Force /Air Force (IDF/AF), Luftwaffe, US Navy, RAF and Pakistani Air Force to his credit. He was later to score more than five aerial victories against Iraq, and he offered a further insight into the background to the Iranian order:

`Both the IIAF and the Shah had studied the F-14A and the F-15A since their inception. In 1972, very early on in our studies, we learned that the F-15A with the AIM-7F missile was to be a deadly fighter-weapon mix, but not as deadly as the AIM-54-armed F-14A. It was clear to us that the F-14/AWG-9 pulse-Doppler radar/AIM-54 combination would be unequalled in the world – which it remains today [as we have pointed out the book was published in 2004]. The AWG-9 enabled us to engage at ranges that F-15 pilots could only dream of. We could even use AIM-7s and AIM-9s at longer ranges than the Eagle. Yet this complex radar and weapons system was simple to operate. It took much practice and hard work to operate the weapon systems in the F-15A, and the USAF had still to clear these initial problems with the man-machine interface — especially the Head-Up Display — and this did not happen before the mid 1970s.

`Of course, we were most impressed by both fighters. They had great visibility from their roomy cockpits, were built specifically for fighter pilots and had excellent state-of-the art avionics, powerful engines and excellent manoeuvrability. Both boasted precise target tracking during air combat and had no real angle of attack (AOA) limits, except in training.

First squadron of Iranian Pilots of F14 tomcats of Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (Iranian Revolution) at Shiraz Air Base.

‘The F-15A was pleasant to fly due to its flight control augmentation system, which was a major improvement at the time. However, we also concluded early on that the F-15A would not be as manoeuvrable or as flexible as the F-14A. The Tomcat has very straightforward flight characteristics, but is highly agile. The pilot enjoys manoeuvrability to an extent previously only dreamed of. The jet’s variable sweep wings and aerofoil qualities give it a great advantage when manoeuvring. At low level and at low or supersonic speeds, with pilots of equal skill, the F-14A always wins against the F-15A. I know this as a matter of fact — I was later to fly F-15As with the USAF in mock-dogfights against US Navy F-14As.

‘The capability of the F-14A to snap around during the dogfight was unequalled at the time. Even today [once again we have to remember the book was published in 2004], I’m sure that anything but the F/A-18 or F-22 would be hard pressed to beat it. After only 100 hours of training I learned to pitch the nose of my F-14 up at 75 degrees AOA in just over a second, turn around and acquire my opponent either with the AIM-9 or the gun.

`The F-14’s only weak point was its TF30 engines, which were unreliable. We had to learn to fly them — not the airframe. The engines were always a problem on the F-14. Nevertheless, under certain flight conditions they develop just over 20,000 lbs of thrust each. That’s enough for the F-14A to stand on its tail and hold an indicated airspeed below 85 mph and 40 degrees AOA. This is possible due to the large “stabilators” — a combination of elevators and horizontal stabilisers. Dual rudders for directional control also provide roll control at medium and high AOA.’

IIAF studies were indicating these advantages, and the Shah — himself an experienced pilot — got them confirmed during briefings by US Navy officers. Very soon there was little doubt about which aircraft would be acquired. Rassi concluded:

`We couldn’t care less about what some in the US called “selling” the F-14s to Iran. It’s totally naive to believe that a show organised for the Shah would make any reasonable and responsible person decide to spend billions of dollars, train thousands of personnel, spend additional millions to build support facilities and thereby influence the future of the whole air force for the following 30 years on the basis of “the F-14 display was better than the F-15”! No way. We knew better than to be influenced by the stunts of American pilots.

`We were searching not only for a fighter superior in manoeuvrability and weaponry, but also for a highly flexible area defence interceptor. We wanted a complete system, including superior sensors, effective long range weapons and man-machine interface that would need little or no outside support. We simply couldn’t ignore the F-14. Its performance during the war with Iraq confirmed our decision beyond any doubt.’

As John C. Bierwirth, back then chairman and chief executive officer of Grumman, said in Arthur Reed’s book F-14 Tomcat: `The F-15 and the F-14 are both first-class aircraft. They’re both very good, and they have slightly different purposes. The F-14 is basically designed to give you air superiority to handle any air threat, be it missile or aircraft by itself. It is bigger than the F-15, because has to carry more, and the F-15 is a little faster. The F-15 is designed to fly over the ground you control. And if you control the ground underneath, you then supply your own missile capability from the ground, your own long-range radar on the ground, and your own computer in the control centre on the ground. The F-14, being a navy ‘plane and flying over water, has to carry this capability with it.

‘It’s very logical that the Iranians, with the mountains and the deserts, would buy the F-14, and the Israelis, with little need to go away from home would buy the F-15.

Iranian F-14 Tomcat units in combat is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force official site, Dmitriy Pichugin and gire_3pich2005 via Wikimedia and U.S. Air Force

Artwork courtesy of

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

View Comments

  • Yeah well... Not such a sophisticated rebuttal to a simplistic 'nice show' assertion after all.

    The AWG-9, being optimized to overwater use from it's days in the F-111B and going even further back to the ASG-18 on the YF-12 and the formulation of the F6D Missileer, used Hi/Lo PRF interleave which is great when the clutter is and regular, allowing you to use a Kalmann Filter which operates on a series of primary and secondary (harmonic, ocean wavelengths and energy states) rejection algorithms.

    Overland, the absence of a 'third vote' that is Medium PRF, opens very wide clutter gates over irregular terrain and particularly against high energy targets which can rapidly generate notching aspects.

    Which makes a mess of your 'first they will come through holes in our coverage, then they will blow up the primary ADGE sites...' argument. Though this is really a mission role for a MiG-27 or Su-24 rather than a MiG-25 anyway. If the Russians wanted to kill Iranian radar sites, it would likely be with AS-9 Kyle from a Tu-22 or AS-11 Kelter from a Su-24 and to bag those threats, firing from anything up to 200km inside Soviet airspace, would mean an 'external' anyway. I would not want to take an F-14 against period S-125/200 threats at high level, trying to bag ballistic ARM slingers. You'll run out of expendables before you run out of gas before you run down the threat.

    Sure, you can go to 75 alpha on the Turkey, the question you have to ask is how long it takes to get to the airspeed which you can do such wheelies from and how much you can roll to command nose point when you do. I see you start to shed massive G vortices as that nose comes around, I'm going to change my roll index 30` into you and pull out of plane. With a severe thrust shortfall, EXTREMELY stall prone engines (in the TF30-P-412s the IIAF models were delivered with), and a wing sweep that is something like 5.9dps in getting to the <300 knots where such nonsense is even possible, you are predictable, and you are stuck, both getting the nose back down and trying to track my tuck, because the only thing you can do is let the airflow:velocity vector lines normalize and pray that your engines stay lit while I separate vertically.

    Meanwhile, my offensive split buddy is rolling in on your fish barrel condition with a 9 Lima hand grenade for you to play catch with. NOT a good idea.

    This is not to say that the other F-14 doesn't get a vote but the reality is that if one section partner gets slow and the other stays fast, waiting for VG+AB to get back in the game means the fast guy cannot do a whole heck of a lot more than run rings around his lead, because their energy states are so divergent and apt to STAY THAT WAY, for more than long enough to Get Dead Fred.

    Let's add here that getting to the Merge is no sure thing either. The AIM-7F was a lousy missile. The AIM-7M and especially MH, were not. Meanwhile, the Iraqi Mirage F1EQ4-5 had the Cyrano IVM with support for the Mach 4.6 Super 530D (not F) which was flatly able to out pole the AIM-54 under most conditions.

    The Phoenix was called 'The White Buffalo' in USN service because, like the creature of the Charles Bronson film of the same name, the Mach 2.6 average midcourse of the AIM-54 at anything over about 15-20nm means that it takes the weapon FOREVER to get downrange. Good vectoring lets you cut the angles off the BVR phase (as goes the intercept...) and the French introduced this missile to the Iraqis specifically as a counter-Phoenix weapon during the Kharg Island through Marsh Fight phases of the Air Campaigns when the IQAF was suffering pretty bad Phoenix attrition over the open ground.

    While both jets had internal DECM, the ALQ-135, even in it's initial variants, was notably superior to the ALQ-100/126 which the F-14A had. And the ALE-45 installation had eight buckets vs. the ALE-39's two. You can never have enough EXCM in the OCA role and in this, the F-14A is a cripple as a penetration fighter.

    The man machine interface of the F-14 HUD had less sophistication than the AI VIII/IX of WWII fame. No velocity, height or target field data. Sure, it's simple and easy to use but so was a period Atari and that had better graphics definition than the HSI/VSI on the Tomcat's heads down systems. You needed a RIO on the Turkey because all the important stuff read out on the TID.

    Finally, I don't know who he was talking to but whoever advised Tom Cooper that the F-15A was inferior to the F-14A was wrong. The Alpha Rodan was the hotrod of the fleet with a T/Wr approaching 1.4:1 compared to (on a _very_ good day at very light weights and above Mach .85, at or below 20K) the F-14's .97. As an EM platform, the Eagle it could literally run rings around the Tomcat, anytime it wanted to. Simply because it could exploit the vertical as nature's G to tighten the radius or increase the rate, on an as needed basis and without the 'wait for the wings to catch up!' lag of the VG.

    And we fought in pairs so that while you're busy putting the canopy on me, my wingman is gutting you from below the sill line.

    As with any comparison between airframes, pilot skill and encounter mode _counts_, a lot, and it is certain that later mods to the F-14, like the TVSU/TCS gave the F-14 tricks we wish (Eagle Eye III) we had gotten. But the reality is that an F-15 made hamburger into Steve Canyon. It took two REALLY GOOD crew and a lot of inexperience on the threat aircraft's part to get the fight slow/low enough to where the F-14 could do it's wheelie and aileron reversal as the One Trick Dog And Pony Show. Because that alpha pitch and Immelman reversal was about all that the F-14 could bring to the merge fight table that even an F-5E could not handle.

    As a point of truth: the F-14 was an abysmal ACM fighter with handling capabilities more akin to a cement truck. You could override the wing sweep to fool a novice with early play from a higher energy state (at the cost of a lot of strain on the airframe and very rough handling which could lead to a snap stall) but any experienced fighter pilot knows how to read threat energy better than simply going by wing sweep and as long as you can read the Tomcat's EM globals, you can beat it. With Ease. The 110 engine may have made it a little more sprightly. But not enough to matter.

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