The shah's air force had more than 450 modern combat aircraft,
including top-of-the-line F-14 Tomcat fighters and about 5,000
well-trained pilots. By 1979 the air force, numbering close to
100,000 personnel, was by far the most advanced of the three services
and among the most impressive air forces in the developing world.
Reliable information on the air force after the Revolution was
difficult to obtain, but it seems that by 1987 a fairly large
number of aircraft had been cannibalized for spare parts.
Before the Revolution, the air force was organized into fifteen
squadrons with fighter and fighter-bomber capabilities and one
reconnaissance squadron. In addition, one tanker squadron, and
four medium and one light transport squadron provided impressive
logistical backup. By 1986 desertions and depletions led to a
reorganization of the air force into eight squadrons with fighter
and fighter-bomber capabilities and one reconnaissance squadron.
This reduced force was supported by two joint tanker-transport
squadrons and five light transport squadrons. Some seventy-six
helicopters and five surface-to-air missile (SAM) squadrons supplemented
Air force headquarters was located at Doshan Tapeh Air Base,
near Tehran. Iran's largest air base, Mehrabad, outside Tehran,
was also the country's major civil airport. Other major operational
air bases were at Tabriz, Bandar-e Abbas, Hamadan (Shahroki Air
Base), Dezful (Vahdati Air Base), Shiraz, and Bushehr. Since 1980
air bases at Ahvaz, Esfahan (Khatami Air Base), and Bandar Beheshti
have also become operational.
Throughout the 1970s, Iran purchased sophisticated aircraft for
the air force. The acquisition of 77 F-14A Tomcat fighters added
to 166 F-5 fighters and 190 F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers, gave
Iran a strong defensive and a potential offensive capability.
Before the end of his reign, the shah placed orders for F-16 fighters
and even contemplated the sharing of development costs for the
United States Navy's new F-18 fighter. Both of these combat aircraft
have been dropped from the revolutionary regime's military acquisitions
When the Iran-Iraq War started in 1980, Iran's F-14s, equipped
with Phoenix missiles, capable of identifying and destroying six
targets simultaneously from a range of eighty kilometers or more,
inflicted heavy casualties on the Iraqi air force, which was forced
to disperse its aircraft to Jordan and Oman. The capability of
the F-14s and F-4s was enhanced by the earlier acquisition of
a squadron of Boeing 707 tankers, thereby extending their combat
radius to 2,500 kilometers with in-flight refueling.
By 1987, however, the air force faced an acute shortage of spare
parts and replacement equipment. Perhaps 35 of the 190 Phantoms
were serviceable in 1986 (see table 11, Appendix). One F-4 had
been shot down by Saudi F-15s, and two pilots had defected to
Iraq with their F-4s in 1984. The number of F-5s dwindled from
166 to perhaps 45, and the F-14 Tomcats from 77 to perhaps 10.
The latter were hardest hit because maintenance posed special
difficulties after the United States embargo on military sales.
China and North Korea with their "independent" policies on arms
sales, were the only countries willing to sell Iran combat airplanes.
Iran had acquired two Chinese-made Shenyang J-6 trainers in 1986.
Unconfirmed reports in 1987 indicated that Iran was receiving
Shenyang F-6s (Chinese-built MiG-19SFs), and that Iranian pilots
were receiving training in North Korea. The reconnaissance squadron
has also struggled to perform its duties with limited equipment.
Once flying close to thirty-four aircraft, by late 1987 it may
have been reduced to eight, having converted five Tomcats to serve
in a noncombat role. It was not clear whether these five airplanes
were in addition to the ten in the interceptor squadrons. Given
the technical sophistication of reconnaissance aircraft, it was
almost impossible to acquire from non-Western sources new ones
capable of performing to Iranian standards. The only substantial
acquisition was the purchase of forty-six Pilatus PC-7s from Switzerland.
Iran requested three Kawasaki C-1 transports and a 3D air defense
radar system from Japan, but this transaction did not appear to
have materialized by 1987. Reports also indicated that Iran had
placed with Argentina an order for thirty Hughes 500D helicopters.
From its inception, the air force also assumed responsibility
for air defense. The existing early warning systems, built in
the 1950s under the auspices of CENTO, were upgraded in the 1970s
with a modern air defense radar network. To complement the ground
radar component and provide a blanket coverage of the Gulf region,
the United States agreed to sell Iran seven Boeing 707 airborne
warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft in late 1977. Because
of the Revolution, Washington canceled the AWACS sale, claiming
that this sensitive equipment might be compromised. Finally, the
air force's three SAM battalions and eight improved Hawk battalions
were reorganized in the mid-1980s (in a project involving more
than 1,800 missiles) into five squadrons that also contained Rapiers
and Tigercats. Washington's sale of Hawk spare parts and missiles
in 1985 and 1986 may have enhanced this capability.
The air force's primary maintenance facility was located at Mehrabad
Air Base. The nearby Iran Aircraft Industries, in addition to
providing main overhaul backup for the maintenance unit, has been
active in manufacturing spare parts.
Data as of December 1987