Persian Tomcats: How Iran Keeps its 1970s F-14 Fleet Viable Through Domestic Modernisation

During the 1970s Iran was a leading client for a range of advanced Western armaments, and under the leadership of the Pahlavi dynasty, the country was a key defense partner of the United States and its Western European allies which was strategically located on the Soviet Union's borders. 

While Iran was widely known to be pursuing a nuclear deterrent, which would target both its Arab neighbors and the neighboring USSR, it had also planned major investments in conventional arms including purchasing over 300 American F-16 fighters, subsidizing research and development costs for a land-based variant of the F-18, and possibly even acquiring Invincible Class aircraft carriers from Britain which would be escorted by American Oliver Hazer Perry Class destroyers. 

Although none of these purchases materialized due to the Pahlavi dynasty's overthrow in 1979, which was a serious loss to the defense sectors of multiple Western countries, Iran had made one prolific purchase of American fourth-generation fighter aircraft before this - the F-14A Tomcat.  

The F-14 was the heaviest fourth-generation fighter ever developed, rivaled in size only by the Soviet MiG-25 and MiG-31 interceptors, and was the most capable fighter in the U.S. Military which had been developed specifically for long-range interception of enemy aircraft. 

The Tomcat was the first fourth-generation fighter to enter service anywhere in the world and joined the U.S. Navy in 1974 which would be its only operator other than the Iranian Air Force. 

The fighter's very high cost and high maintenance requirements meant that even the U.S. Military purchased it in only limited numbers, and Iran was the only foreign country that was willing to invest in acquiring it. The Tomcat was reportedly personally chosen by the Iranian head of state, Mohamed Reza Shah, who favored it over the competing heavyweight fighter the F-15 that had been developed for the U.S. Air Force. 

The F-14's sensors were far more powerful, and it benefitted from 'fire and forget' capabilities which the F-15 lacked and from almost triple the air to air engagement range which made it overwhelmingly more capable for beyond visual range air to air combat. 

Although the F-15 had a higher climb rate and operational altitude, the F-14 had an overwhelming advantage in most other areas with its only significant drawback being its much higher operational costs and maintenance needs. 

With the F-15 struggling to engage Soviet MiG-25R Foxbat jets, a reconnaissance variant of the well-known interceptor, the F-14 was the ideal aircraft to challenge Soviet reconnaissance flights over Iranian territory. 

When it received its first F-14s Iran became the second country in the world only after the United States to operate fourth-generation fighters, with 79 aircraft delivered out of a total order of 80.

The collapse in Iranian-U.S. relations after the Pahlavi Dynasty's overthrow led the U.S. to cut supplies of spare parts or new armaments to the Iranian Air Force, leading to widespread estimates by Western analysts that the Iranian fleet would be left totally inoperable within three years if not less. 

The toll of an eight-year war with Iraq from 1980-1988, which saw Iranian F-14s shoot down more Iraqi aircraft than the whole rest of the Iranian Military combined, took an even greater toll on supplies despite its ability to acquire parts through third parties. 

Iran has nevertheless continued to field F-14s for over 40 years and has even managed to expand the number of operational airframes over time, equip the aircraft with new weapons, and enhance the aircraft's electronics, sensors, and other key subsystems. 

Iran has developed extensive infrastructure to service and refurbish its F-14 fleet alongside its older F-4 and F-5 fighters, as well as a defense industry capable of producing parts for these fighters. By the turn of the century, the country's technicians have reportedly made close to 300 separate modifications to the Tomcat to improve its performance. 

Recent developments in 3d printing technologies have reportedly allowed the country to expand the number of F-14s in service by making it easier and cheaper to produce complex spare parts, while the fighters' wiring, sensors, and avionics have all largely been replaced. 

Iran has developed a relatively sophisticated and self-reliant military aviation industry, as reflected most prolifically in its flying stealth drone programs which have proven successful in combat as well as its Kowsar lightweight fourth-generation fighter program. 

This has placed it in a strong position not only to service and refurbish but also to extensively modernize its F-14s. 

A modernization program to upgrade the F-14As to F-14AM standard began in the mid-2010s and would extend the aircraft's operational lives until 2030 and allow them to better contend with modern enemy fighters such as the Royal Saudi Air Force's F-15SA or U.S. Navy's F-18E Block Super Hornets. Superior avionics and adaptations to F-14's fire control system played an important role in bringing the Tomcat into the 21st century and complemented efforts to equip the aircraft with new weaponry.

Iran's inability to acquire new American missiles for its F-14s had led it to modify the jets from the 1990s to be able to deploy Soviet-origin missiles, including the R-27 long-range air to air missile and R-73 infrared-guided missile. 

The R-27 was much shorter ranged and less capable than the AIM-54 the fighters were originally equipped with but was also far smaller and lighter meaning it could also be carried by normal-sized aircraft and on the F-14 would facilitate a much better flight performance due to its lower weight. 

The R-73's reliability and ability to fire at extreme angles, meanwhile, made it by many accounts the most capable short-range air to air missile of its time. Although they improved the F-14's versatility, these missiles were not well suited to the Tomcat's primary mission which was very long-range interceptions - something only the American AIM-54 and Russian R-33 and K-100 was well suited to at the time. 

This led Iran to eventually reverse engineer and extensively improve the AIM-54 domestically, which provided it with a similar-looking but more capable missile named the Fakour 90. 

The AIM-54 was prized for its speed, its long-range and its high maneuverability, and carried a powerful radar and large 61kg warhead - over triple that of the AIM-120 missiles carried by modern American fighters. 

The Four 90 has, according to Iranian sources, improved on these characteristics and provided a much-extended range from approximately 190km to around 250-300km. 

The AIM-54 is the only air to air missile in the world recorded to have destroyed three fighters with a single impact - a feat achieved during the Iran-Iraq War - and was key to allowing the F-14s to gain a kill ratio of over 160:3 against the Iraqi Air Force during the war. Its successor, which will be made available from domestic sources, is a vital asset to the F-14 fleet today as the aircraft continues to be relied on heavily for Iran's defense. 

How long the Iranian Air Force can continue to rely on the F-14 remains questionable, but it was announced in 2020 that the country was developing a new class of heavyweight fighter which could well eventually serve as a replacement and bear several similarities to the F-14.

The Iranian military aviation sector's extensive experience with the Tomcat over more than 45 years will likely prove a major asset to efforts to develop a new class of aircraft - much as Iranian experience with both the F-14 and the F-5 is widely thought to have influenced its development of the lightweight Kowsar jet. 

The possibility also remains that Iran could replace the F-14 with a foreign-sourced fighter, and with Russian being the only party other than the U.S. offering heavyweight fighters for export a design such as the Su-35 or Su-57 could be chosen in the future, with the Su-57, in particular, representing a very considerable improvement over the Tomcat with a much lower reported operational cost. The possibility also remains that Iran could eventually seek to replace the F-14s at a much later date with an indigenous unmanned aircraft, with the country's drones having proven formidable in combat and tests of drones with air to air capabilities have already begun in the country. 



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