Cold War Era

The Story of the Giraffe Missions and how IrAF Mirage F.1 fighter bombers were able to shoot down four IRIAF F-14 Tomcats

When the two Mirage F.1 interceptors were within 20 kilometres from their targets, the ground control issued the pre-determined code-word – ‘Giraffe!’ – advising the pilots to climb and power up their radars. The two Iraqis established a lock on and then fired at least two Super 530F, from about 10 kilometres range. Taken by surprise, the Iranians were left with too little time to react…

Between April 1981 and June 1988, France delivered a total of 86 single-seat Mirage F.1EQs of four different variants, and 15 Mirage F.1BQ two-seat conversion trainers. During this period the type became the workhorse of the Iraqi Air Force (IrAF): the four units operating them had flown a lower number of combat sorties against Iran than those operating MiG-21s or Su-22s, but their mounts proved far more versatile, while offering excellent flight performance (especially at low altitudes), superior precision in navigation and weapons delivery, and load-carrying and self-defence capabilities.

Their excellently trained pilots performed most of their tasks superbly, and there is little doubt that the type eventually outperformed all the other combat aircraft in the Iraqi arsenal — and then by a wide margin.

Iraqi Mirages might not have scored many aerial victories during the Iran-Iraq War, but those they did achieve were some of the most important aerial victories of the war. Operated in hit-and-run fashion they scored four crucial kills against Iranian F-14s, thus destroying the aura of invincibility of this type, and providing an example for other interceptor units of the IrAF.

As explained by Tom Cooper & Milos Sipos in their book Iraqi Mirages The Dassault Mirage Family in service with the Iraqi Air Force, 1981-1988, while nearly all available Iraqi sources remain insistent that their primary opponent in the skies over Iran were Iranian ground-air defences, there is little doubt that as of 1980-1981 the main opponents were still the IRIAF’s F-14A Tomcats. The first combat aircraft ever to be equipped with microchips, the F-14 was a technological marvel of its times: as well as reaching speeds well above Mach 2, or the ability to remain airborne for up to 4 hours (or up to 12-13 hours with help of multiple in-flight refuellings), it was as manoeuvrable as the much smaller MiG-21. Moreover, the Tomcat was equipped with the powerful AWG-9 radar and weapons  system, with a maximum detection range of over 200 kilometres for fighter-sized targets. It could carry up to six AIM-54A Phoenix active radar homing air-to-air missiles, with the range of over 100 kilometres. Iran originally placed an order for 80 Tomcats and 714 Phoenix missiles: by the time relations between Tehran and Washington were interrupted, in April 1979, 79 F-14As and 240 AIM-54s were delivered. However, Iran never received any of the advanced AIM-7F Sparrow and AIM-9H Sidewinder missiles intended to complete the arsenal of its Tomcats and thus for the first months of the war the type had to serve armed with Phoenixes and internally installed 20mm General Electric M61A1 Vulcan six-barrel cannon. It was only in spring 1981 that the technicians of the IRIAF adapted the fleet to carry rather dated and less reliable AIM-7E-2 Sparrows and AIM-9J Sidewinders.

Out of about 120 Iranian pilots and slightly less than 100 radar-intercept officers (RIOs) that had completed their training on F-14s by 1979, fewer than two thirds were still serving as of 1981. Nevertheless, each of them had received extensive training in air combat tactics in the USA and at home, and this was refreshed during rushed courses launched following the first border clashes with Iraq in August 1980. Cut off from US support and with its support infrastructure in chaos, most of the time the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) was unable to keep more than 12-20 (out of 76 available) Tomcats in fully mission capable (FMC) condition at any time. Still, these were enough to maintain combat air patrols (CAPs) over Khuzestan, Khark Island and Tehran, usually lasting from 0900 in the morning until 1700 in the afternoon.

By autumn 1981, battling Iranian F-14As proved a futile exercise for the IrAF: the available MiG-21MF/bis’ and MiG-23MS’ were equipped with poor radars and missiles requiring attacks from the rear hemisphere: much too often they would be detected early and either shot down or forced to withdraw. All the IrAF managed in one year of related efforts was for one of its MiG-21 pilots to hit and damage a single F-14A with few shells from its 23mm cannon in the course of a chaotic dogfight over Ahwaz. The situation was even more dramatic for Iraqi fighter-bombers: because their old RWR-systems proved unable to detect emissions of the AWG-9 when this was operated in the track-while-scan mode; and because the AIM-54 flew along a ballistic trajectory and thus attacked its targets from above, dozens of Iraqi pilots were shot down by long-range shots without ever knowing what had hit them. The sole effective method of defence was possible only once the presence of IRIAF Tomcats was visually confirmed – and consisted of fighter-bombers promptly jettisoning their ordnance and beating a hasty retreat.

Unsurprisingly, the GHQ in Baghdad put great emphasis on No. 79 Squadron (and on its new Mirage F.1s) finding a way to stop the ‘Tomcat menace.’

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As the IRIAF’s F-14As on CAP-station north of Ahwaz continued causing losses to its fighter-bombers, in early November, the High Command IrAF ordered No. 79 Squadron to reinforce its detachment at Wanda AB to 10 aircraft. On order from the commander of the newly-established 3rd Air Defence Division IrAF (responsible for air defence of southern Iraq) Brigadier-General Nagdat an-Naqeeb, henceforth every Iraqi airstrike would be preceded by a pair of Mirages and MiG-23s that attempted to at least distract the Tomcats. Late on the morning of Nov. 15, 1981, a pair of MiG-23MS’ from No. 39 Squadron approached the Tomcats on station north of Ahwaz to attract their attention. As the Iranians moved to intercept, a pair of Mirage F.1EQ-2s led by Major Mukhalad sneaked upon them at very low altitude from the other side.When the two low-flying interceptors were within 20 kilometres from their targets, the ground control issued the pre-determined code-word – ‘Giraffe!’ – advising the pilots to climb and power up their radars. The two Iraqis established a lock on and then fired at least two Super 530F, from about 10 kilometres range. Taken by surprise, the Iranians were left with too little time to react. The F-14A piloted by Captain Gholam-Reza Nezam-Abadi- with Lieutenant Fahollah Jalal-Abadi as the Radar Intercept Officer (RIO)- received at least one direct hit, which forced the crew to eject. For the first time ever the IrAF has scored a confirmed kill against an F-14A Tomcat.

Emboldened by this success Brigadier-General Naqeeb ordered No. 79 Squadron into a major effort on Nov. 24, 1981. Two Giraffe operations – so-called due to their flight profile – were run that day, both again in coordination with MiG-23MS’ from No. 39 and MiG-23MFs from the newly-established No. 67 Squadron and both along the same pattern as the first successful, one. However, in their excitement the Iraqi pilots always targeted just one F-14A: thus, they just hit one in each attempt. Late in the morning the aircraft flown by Captain Jafar Bahadoran and Lieutenant Yadollah Hosseini was shot down, and in the afternoon another F-14A, flown by Major Abolfazl Hooshyar with RIO Lieutenant Ahmad Roustaei (both Iranian ejected safely).

One last Giraffe operation took place on Apr. 24, 1988 when a pair of Mirage F.1EQ-4s and F.1EQ-5s was each scrambled into action against a single IRIAF’s F-14A. Using a combination of offensive split and the Giraffe tactics, the F.1EQ-5s then acted as bait for the Tomcat performing a CAP about 50 kilometres south of Khark, dragging the Iranian fighter in front of the two F.1EQ-4s until Captain Ahmed Hussein Khalaf established a lock-on and fired one Super 530F from a range of 10 kilometres. According to Iraqi sources, Hussein’s missile either scored a direct hit, or detonated right underneath target’s cockpit, and the pilot was subsequently credited with a confirmed kill. However, whatever the Iraqis saw or concluded after reviewing the gun-camera film, Major Jalal Zandi managed to land the badly damaged Tomcat back in Bushehr: the IRIAF did not lose a single F-14A in all of 1988.

Photo credit: Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force and PA via Wikipedia

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.

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