The Mother of all Build-Ups
During the 1970s, both Iran and Iraq invested heavily on their air forces, creating not only two of the largest and most powerful air arms in the Middle East, but also worldwide. The circumstances and the results of these investments remain largely unnoticed
, just like the details about the deployment and operations of both air forces in the long and bloody war of attrition between the two countries, fought between 1980 and 1988.
In 1960s and 1970s, Iran was a firm US ally; consequently, the Imperial Iranian Air Force (IIAF) was developed along the USAF lines, and relied on US threat perceptions, doctrine, strategies, tactics, purchasing, production, as well as training policies.
Everything in the IIAF, its air power doctrine and capabilities, was tailored for supporting a joint US-Iranian operation against a possible Soviet invasion of Iran from the north. Even the traditions and markings of the IIAF strongly resembled those of the US Air Force (USAF). A chain of huge air bases and a widespread early warning system were erected against the USSR. Consequently, the self-sufficient structure of the IIAF was weak during the 1970s, and was planned to be developed during the 1980s. Instead, during the 1970s, Iran was turned into a huge forward base for local as well as the US forces, where huge stocks of spare parts and weapons were piled
. Partially, such a policy was also influenced by the fact that after learning about Israeli problems in 1973, the Iranians began to order additional amounts of equipment, spare parts and weapons, which could enable them to fight an intensive war for many months without any external help. The IIAF’s strategic stocks, managed by the costly Peacelog automated inventory system, became so huge that even in 1986 the emerging Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) was still using bombs and missiles purchased during the 1970s – even if expired shelf-lives of most items caused operating difficulties
By constantly taking part in joint exercises with the USAF, USN, RAF and the Turkish and Pakistani air forces, in addition to sending its best crews and pilots for training courses to the US and Israel, the IIAF honed the skills of its chain of command, pilots, and technical personnel to highest possible degrees
. Iranian reconnaissance assets were also involved in constant monitoring operations along the Soviet borders, together with USAF/CIA personnel and equipment. The IIAF was trained to function as a member of a team with large and far-reaching objectives, and so had to keep the pace. There were some problems, like lack of proper EW systems and gaps in radar coverage of the Iranian airspace, as well as a lack of effective anti-shipping systems, but they were recognized and measures were taken to rectify them. During the late 1960s and through 1970s, the IIAF took delivery from the USA up to 104 Northrop F-5A/Bs Freedom Fighters, and then continued with purchases of 32 McDonnell Douglas F-4Ds, 177 F-4Es, 165 F-5E/Fs, at least 20 RF-4Es (only 16 of which were delivered “officially”), and 80 Grumman F-14As, as well as a large fleet of Boeing 707-3J9C tankers, Lockheed C-130E/H Hercules transports, and a number of Boeing 747-2J9C strategic transports. By 1979, up to 300 F-16A/Bs, seven Boeing E-3A AWACS aircraft and other assets were on order, negotiations for 75 more F-14As were due to start, and the IIAF was also to build the most comprehensive training installations outside the USA, very similar to those used for the Red Flag exercises. Training began with a fast pace, in the US, and young Iranian officers started undergoing F-16 flying and AWACS control courses.