As tensions in the Middle East continue to simmer between Iran and the Western Bloc’s leading regional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, all parties have gone to great lengths to strengthen their war fighting capabilities in preparation for a potential regional conflict.
Tel Aviv and Riyadh have continued to improve bilateral military cooperation, with the latter taking steps to begin acquiring Israeli arms and granting the Israeli Air Force right of passage through its airspace in the event of war with Iran.
The defense budgets of the two states, and even of smaller Western aligned regional powers such as the United Arab Emirates, far surpass that of Iran’s own armed forces – and this is most of all reflected in the superiority of their air forces.
Israel and Saudi Arabia are two of just four countries ever allowed to acquire modern U.S. air superiority fighters, with both countries fielding air superiority variants of the F-15 Eagle, the F-15C, in large numbers.
Aside from the F-22 Raptor, a fifth generation platform developed exclusively for the U.S. Air Force and strictly prohibited from export, the only Western fighter with near peer air to air capabilities to the F-15 is the F-14 Tomcat.
This swept wing fourth generation fighter was developed in parallel to the Eagle, and had a highly similar role.
The Tomcat was considerably heavier however and could deploy more powerful sensors, which combined with its short takeoff capabilities made it ideal for protecting the U.S. Navy’s carrier strike groups from potential air attacks.
The only service ever to acquire the Tomcat outside the United States was the Imperial Iranian Air Force, which due largely to lobbying efforts by Mohamed Reza Shah was given priority access to the latest American systems.
A competitive demonstration was reportedly held between the F-14 and F-15 for the leadership of Iran’s Air Force in the early 1970’s, overseen by the Shah himself, in which the F-14 was judged to be the superior platform and better suited to the country’s defense needs.
The Tomcat was considerably more costly than the F-15, but its unique beyond visual range air to air capabilities and unmatched situational awareness for its time made it a much valued asset.
The F-14 first entered service in 1974, two years before the F-15, and Iran would receive 79 of a total of 80 ordered aircraft before the Pahlavi dynasty’s overthrow in 1979 led to a freezing of arms deliveries.
Tomcats subsequently proved an invaluable asset in the Iranian Air Force during its 8-year war with Iraq, responsible for downing approximately 160 Iraqi fighters to only three losses against Iraqi jets.
Both the F-14 and F-15 programs were connected to the F-111 program, designed based on the valuable lessons of air war over Vietnam, and combined high maneuverability, speed, and endurance with powerful sensors and beyond visual range air to air capabilities.
The F-14 from the outset retained an advantage however, as while it was less maneuverable its AIM-54 Phoenix missiles retained a 190 km range and could close in on targets extremely quickly due to hyper-sonic speeds of Mach 5.
The F-15 could not carry the Phoenix, and in any case lacked sensors powerful enough to engage targets at such extreme distances due to the lighter and less powerful APG-63 radar it integrated.
The Eagle thus relied on the AIM-7 Sparrow, which weight less than half as much as the AIM-54 but was restricted to speeds of Mach 4 and ranges of just 70km. Based on their performance records, the AIM-7 appeared to also be somewhat less reliable than the Phoenix.
While the Tomcat’s missiles retained semi-active radar homing and terminal phase active radar homing providing the aircraft with effective ‘fire and forget’ capabilities and the ability to simultaneously engage multiple targets, the AIM-7 had to be guided by the F-15 throughout its flight which seriously limited its effectiveness.
Regarding which party would be best placed to claim air superiority should Israeli or Saudi F-15’s engage Iranian F-14’s, a number of critical factors must be considered.
The first is that both Western aligned states have access to advanced airborne early warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft, in the form of the Israeli EL/W-2090 and the heavier Saudi E-3 Sentry.
These systems deploy far heavier and more powerful radar systems than fighter aircraft and when working alongside fighters squadrons are key to providing high situational awareness and coordinating offensive and defensive operations by multiple fighter squadrons.
The Saudi E-3 for its part is capable of tracking several thousand hostile targets simultaneously, and can guide air to air missiles such as the AIM-120C to their targets at range using targeting information from its own more powerful sensors.
Iran’s lack of any AWACS whatsoever thus leaves it at an overwhelming disadvantage. With a regional war highly likely to involve both Israel and Saudi operating in unison, there is a considerably chance that Israeli fighter squadrons will be able to make use of Saudi Sentries to enhance their own performance.
While facing vast disadvantages both numerically and due to a lack of AWACS, Iran’s F-14s retain a number of advantages for beyond visual range engagements.
With each deploying up to six Fakour-90 missiles the fighters can engage Saudi and Israeli Eagles extreme ranges of over 250 km – well beyond retaliation range.
The AIM-54 demonstrated high precision against fighter sized targets far smaller than the F-15 at extreme ranges, and the Fakour-90 is expected to be considerably more precise still than its American predecessor which was developed in the mid 1960’s.
Much as the AIM-54 gained the Tomcat 62 kills during the Iran-Iraq War, forcing the Iraqi Air Force to take extensive measures to avoid the Tomcat against which they stood little chance in a long ranged engagement, so too will the missile provide a major advantage against enemy F-15’s today.
Given its specialization in extreme range engagements, the considerable distances separating Iran from its adversaries thus play into the Tomcat’s hands.
The ability to leverage this advantage, however, relies heavily on the Fakour-90 integrating modern electronic warfare countermeasures – which is particularly critical when engaging Israeli F-15s which integrated highly sophisticated indigenous electronic warfare systems.
Ultimately while the Israeli and Saudi Air Forces can be said to have an overwhelming advantage over their Iranian counterpart, when considered separately or as part of a combined force, the Iranian F-14 appears to be the best suited fighter to a regional air war.
Despite its age, the fighter’s beyond visual range capabilities remain unmatched and the integration of the Fakour-90 has only strengthened this advantage.
This does not mean, however, that Iran’s Air Force could prevail in a regional air war – with the remainder of its fleet lacking any modern air to air capabilities whatsoever – or that its two F-14 squadrons would stand a strong chance against the ten F-15 squadrons arrayed them, seven Saudi and three Israeli.
What it does imply, however, is that in an all out war kill ratios are likely to favor the Iranian Tomcat fleet in the early stages of a war as Eagles are expected to take far heavier losses in long range engagements.
Whether Iran will attempt to compensate for its vast numerical disadvantage with the acquisition of new air superiority fighters remains to be seen, but the country has shown interest in acquiring new platforms from Russia – either the Su-30 or Su-35.
Military Watch Magazine / ABC Flash Point News 2021.