Thursday, January 24, 2019

Inauspicious Start To Iran-Iraq War

Iraqi MiG-23s took part in the surprise attempt to destroy Iran's air force at start of Iran-Iraq War (Warfareguns)

Saddam Hussein had grand plans for the 1980 invasion of Iran. Despite lacking any strategic plan, he believed he could repeat Israel’s surprise attack in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and destroy Iran’s air force. Iraq started the war with raids upon Iran’s major airbases that was almost a fiasco. This was matched by Iran’s counterattack that proved just as ineffective. This inauspicious start would be symbolic of much of the early years of the conflict as the two sides struggled to make any kind of breakthrough.

Saddam believed that Iraq could destroy Iran’s air force on the ground in a surprise attack and provide an early victory in the war. His inspiration was the Israeli surprise attack in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. The Iraqi air force however, was weary of such a raid due to Iran’s air defenses. Iraq also lacked bombs strong enough to destroy the hardened bunkers Iran used to protect its planes, so it focused upon hitting the air fields, radars, and missile systems hoping that would cripple Tehran’s air power. Iraq had a problem with that task as well as it didn’t have the bombs or missiles to target Iraq’s air defenses.

Despite these severe limitations the Iraqi air force went ahead with its plans. The Iraqi planes were to flow low into Iranian territory to avoid radar starting at night for an early morning strike upon Iran’s major air bases. That presented another dilemma as Iraq’s Soviet planes did not have terrain navigation systems to flow low and were not trained at flying at night. The distances to the targets also meant the Iraqis had to carry more fuel than bombs. That meant on average the Iraqis were only carrying 2 bombs per plane. On the plus side, Baghdad did have thirteen Tupolev heavy bombers that could carry a large payload of munitions.

The Iraqi planes set off on September 22, 1980 to initiate the Iran-Iraq War in a raid that was nearly a farce. Sorties of Su-20s, Su-22s, MiG-23s, 4 Tu-16 and 9 Tu-22 bombers took off at night. Due to fears about the Iranian air defenses, the Iraqis were to drop their bombs, do one more pass and then fly off to avoid losses. The Dezful air base was hit the hardest with its runways and infrastructure badly damaged, but the rest were barely touched. Four Tu-16s bombers targeted the Esfahan airfield but missed the runways because their sights were not designed for low altitude bombing. One of the bombers crashed as well. Three Iraqi planes were shot down, while only one Iranian plane was destroyed on the ground, a Hercules transport plane. The MiGs and Sukhois were quickly rearmed and flew a second sortie against 4 bases, but did just as badly. Baghdad then sent most of its planes to other airfields or to Jordan and North Yemen to escape an expected Iranian counter attack. At the end of the day, the Iraqis flew 250 missions and destroyed 4 Iranian planes, 3 of which were transports, while losing 5 planes for a net loss. All the Iranian bases were operating the next day after repairs were made.

As expected the Iranians counterattacked, but they did as badly as the Iraqis. The Iranian air bases were cut off from their central command so they fell back on an old plan from the Shah’s time. The Iranian air commander got in touch with several Iranian air bases and worked out the strike plan that each Iranian air base would attack the closest Iraqi base. The Iranian air force had far more resources than the Iraqis and set up Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) planes to coordinate the attack along with air tankers for in flight refueling. 140 F-4s and 40 Tiger IIs were launched. One F-4 crashed on take off. Baghdad’s international airport was hit in two waves but only caused light damage because the Iranians only made one fly over and then left to avoid enemy fire. One transport plane was destroyed. The Dora refinery in south Baghdad was also hit. Four Iranians planes were shot down and another crashed. The Iranian planes returned for re-loading for a second wave, but only 50 planes were able to participate. One more Iranian plan was shot down, while another Iraqi transport was destroyed. Like the original Iraqi attack, little damage was done to the Iraqi air bases.

The Iraqis tried their own retaliatory attack against two Iranian air bases but with no real results. One MiG-23 was shot down, while a few Iranian helicopters were destroyed. The worse was on the return flight 3 MiG-21s were hit by friendly fire.

Saddam’s plan to wipe out Iran’s air force was an utter failure. In total the day’s air raids left 10 Iraqi planes for 8 Iranian ones destroyed. The damage to the air bases was light overall, and they were all up and running soon after the attacks. This was perhaps the best two developing countries going to war with each other could hope for. The Iraqi military had taken part in the 3 Arab-Israeli Wars, but not had much success. Its armed forces were used more for internal security, especially against the Kurds. Iran’s air force had just gone through purges after the 1979 revolution, and had not taken part in any major conflict. The lack of success in the air would be repeated on the ground. The two sides would take years of learning and dealing with political interference before they figured out how to carry out effective operations, suffering huge losses in the process.


Razoux, Pierre, The Iran-Iraq War, Cambridge London: Belkmap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015

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