Babak Taghvaee discusses Iran’s programme to modernise its veteran F-14 Tomcats and upgrade their weapons
MILITARY F-14A TOMCAT
On July 23, 2018, during a ceremony at the Babaiee Missile Industries Company’s premises in Lavizan, northeast of Tehran, the serial production of the Iranian domestically built medium-range semi-active radar homing air-to-air missile (AAM), the AIM-23B Fakkur, was launched by Iranian Minister of Defence General Amir Hatami. Fakkur is only a part of a big project to restore the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force’s (IRIAF) Grumman F-14A Tomcat’s combat capability to keep the fighter as the backbone of the IRIAF’s interceptor fleet. The type is slated to remain in service with the 81st Tactical Fighter Squadron and 83rd Tactical Training Squadron at the IRIAF’s 8th Tactical Fighter Base (TFB) at Isfahan until 2040.
Between 2006 and 2008, following the retirement of the US Navy’s F-14s, the Iranian Aircraft Industries Company (IACI) which has been responsible for performing depot level maintenance of Iran’s Tomcats since 1981 managed to buy a huge stock of spare parts which resulted in a rise in the number of airworthy Tomcats in Iran from 16 in 2005 to 24 in 2008. However, the number of fully mission capable (FMC) Tomcats did not increase. IRIAF statistics show that only five of its Tomcats were fully mission capable with operational AWG-9 radars and able to carry out QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) missions in 2005. By 2008 this number had increased to just seven.
The facts behind the statistic mean that of the 24 airworthy Tomcats only seven could perform air-interception missions. Other platforms, such as F-5Es, F-4Es and MiG-29s could not be used to augment the F-14s; only ten MiG-29s, all two-seat Fulcrum Bs, were fully mission capable in 2008. Because of this a programme was launched to restore combat capability to the IRIAF’s Tomcat fleet. IACI and the IRIAF started to regenerate old stored Tomcats using parts acquired from the US, despite sanctions, via companies acting as middlemen.
In 2008, the IRIAF’s commander-in-chief, Brigadier Hasan Shah-Safiapproved the launch of Project Babaiee. The Air Force’s Deputy of Industrial Research and Self Suffciency Jihad (SSJ) project was intended to sflightly upgrade the weapons systems of Iran’s F-14As to restore the jet’s combat capabilities. The main goal was to increase the number of fully mission capable F-14As with fully operational fire control systems and radars.
Iranian agents found it easy to buy instruments, gauges, engines and hydraulic parts, but impossible to find parts for the AWG-9 radars and other mission and weapon systems. Therefore, the Deputy of Industrial Research and Self Suffciency Jihad used private contractors to produce replacement parts that, in most cases, were not only smaller but had better performance than those 1960s-vintage systems originally installed on the Tomcats.
An F-14A which had reached its MTBO (mean time between overhaul) date was selected to be used as the prototype of the project for installation of the new avionics and radar parts. The Tomcat in question, 3-6049 (US Navy Bureau Number 160347) was partially mission capable. The aeroplane flew from its home base, 8th Tactical Fighter Base at Isfahan and arrived at Mehrabad International Airport, Tehran on December 30, 2008.
On Saturday January 3, 2009, a team from SSJ together with technicians from the IRIAF’s F-14 overhaul centre in Isfahan travelled to Tehran in a C-130E and started breaking down 3-6049 for depot maintenance and then upgrade work at the Mehrabad Overhaul Centre at the 1st Tactical Fighter Base. The facility is completely independent from IACI which was limited in its role in the project to providing spare parts, whether original or components produced inside Iran. Those parts were mostly for the engines, airframe and hydraulic and pneumatic systems as well as navigation and avionics systems, but it could not help with spares for the mission and weapon systems, including for the AWG-9. These were provided by SSJ’s private contractors which produced 843 reverse engineered spare parts for these systems – mostly with better performance than the originals.
After completion of the work on 3-6049’s upgrade, it was given a new designation, F-14AM with the ‘M’ standing for modernised. The jet was painted in a new splinter Asia Minor II camouflage and logged its first functional check flight, in the presence of the IRIAF’s commander in chief, on January 18, 2012 from Mehrabad. After three more functional check flights it was re-delivered to the 81st TFS in May 2012. The same work was then carried out by the in 8th TFB’s F-14 overhaul centre on Tomcats 3-6041 (in 2013), 3-6045 (in 2014), 3-6036 (in 2015) and 3-6046 in 2016. Three more underwent the process in 2017 and 2018.
During the Iran-Iraq war, the nascent SSJ integrated the MIM-23B SAM (surface-toair missile) with the weapons systems and AWG-9 radar of Iranian F-14As under Project Sedjil. Four Tomcats (three during the war and another after the ceasefire) were wired up and equipped with reinforced pylons to carry heavy Hawk I missiles. New computers were added to the system and these were used with the MIM-23B interface to fool the AWG-9 into identifying Hawk Is as the AIM- 7F medium range air-to-air missiles it was designed to work with.
The goal of the project was to enable the Tomcats to use the weapon against Iraqi Air Force MiG-25RB Foxbat reconnaissance jets which were able to ly at will over Iran because of the absence of ground-toair missiles capable of intercepting them. Only one Iraqi Foxbat was destroyed by Iran during the war. Tomcat pilot Colonel Shahram Rostami managed to shoot down an Iraqi MiG-25PDS using an AIM-54A Phoenix over the Persian Gulf. After that, Iraqi MiG-25s never lew at altitudes below 70,000ft over Iran.
However, before the first modiied Tomcat could be prepared for test, the IRGC (Islamic Republican Guard Corps) Aerospace Force was equipped with Chinese-made long-range and high-altitude HQ-2 SAMs, with which it managed to shoot down an Iraqi MiG-25RB over Isfahan. This stopped Iraqi overflights of Iran. The first victory by an Iranian F-14A equipped with the MIM-23B set-up was logged by Colonel Ali Mazandarni against an Iraqi Air Force MiG-29B in the last year of the war. Only one more, a fourth, F-14A was modiied to carry the MIM-23B Hawk I missile in late 1990, after the war had ended and Project Sedjil was cancelled.
After the war, the MIM-23Bs assigned to the 62nd and 81st Tactical Fighter Squadrons were re-named AIM-23C Sedjil. According to the weapons oicers of these units, each unit received 18-20 overhauled MIM-23Bs to use on their Tomcats. Of the four Project Sedjil Tomcats, two were assigned to the 62nd TFS in Bushehr and two to the 81st TFS in Isfahan. One of these was always on QRA duty at each base armed with two AIM-23Cs. They shared the QRA alert with another non-Sedjil Tomcat armed with two AIM-9Js and two AIM-7E-2s.
Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution resulted in the cancellation of programmes for the procurement of air-to-air missiles for the Imperial Iranian Air Force’s F-14As. As a result, when the Iran-Iraq war started in September 1980, only 270 Hughes AIM-54A Phoenix active radar homing long-range AAMs were in the Air Force’s inventory and available for use by the handful of fully mission capable Tomcats. At the time Iran’s Tomcat leet numbered 77.
Before the 1979 revolution, a total of 362 AIM-7F Sparrow semi-active radar homing medium-range AAMs, 362 AIM-9L Sidewinder IR-guided short-range AAMs and 150 AIM-54As had been ordered for the Air Force but the revolution resulted in their cancellation.
In 1981, the IRIAF’s SSJ Group engineers integrated the AIM-9J and AIM-7E-2 which were in use by the F-4Es with the Tomcat’s weapons system to enable Tomcat crews to use these cheaper and more abundant weapons against targets lying close to the Tomcats. However, fewer than ten victories were scored by these missiles during the war compared to almost 100 with AIM-54As. Because of their higher availability the older AIM-9J and AIM-7E-2 missiles remain Iranian Tomcats’ main weapons today. The AIM-7E-2 is an improved variant of the AIM-7E providing better manoeuvrability and dogighting capability. It has a maximum range of 29 miles (45km) when launched from a APQ-120 radar-equipped McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II. But this range drops to only 19 miles (30km) when launched from a Tomcat, almost half of what the cancelled AIM-7Fs have.
The AIM-7F, introduced in 1977, had solidstate guidance and a more powerful motor. Its rocket motor had more powerful boostsustain capability with a combination of high speed and terminal energy compared to the AIM-7E and AIM-7E-2.
Integration of AIM-9J and AIM-7E-2 with the Tomcat’s weapons system was a temporary solution for Iran and because of that, the deputy of Industrial Research and SSJ started working in the 1990s on plans for integrating the Russian Vympel R-27R medium-range semi-active radar homing AAM with the AWG-9 radar. The project was eventually abandoned because of insurmountable technical issues. There was a similar project to integrate the short-range Vympel R-73E with the F-14’s ire control system but this didn’t work because of the lack of an infrared search and track (IRST) system on Iran’s Tomcats. The missile’s performance when used in conjunction with an F-14 was much inferior to that achieved when it was launched from a MiG-29. Launching the R-73E without input from an IRST reduced the missile’s range to less than what Tomcat’s could achieve with their ageing AIM-9Js.
Because of their age Iran’s missiles are well beyond their use-by date and repeated overhauls have further reduced their eicacy. This resulted in the failure of several AIM-7E-2 Sparrow missile launches during exercises between 2001 and 2005. More signiicantly, when a QRA F-14A of the 62nd Tactical Fighter Squadron of the 6th Tactical Fighter Base (the squadron was disbanded in 2007) was scrambled to intercept a spy-plane lying over Bushehr and its nuclear plant, its AIM-7E-2 missiles failed to launch owing to technical failure.
Project Sky Hawk (Shahin)
Because of the technical issues with its Sparrow medium-range missiles, the IRIAF evolved a plan to modify more F-14As to enable them to carry the most recent modernized variant of the MIM-23B SAM. Named Shahin (Hawk), the system was equipped with a new avionics and ire control system sold by MKS International Co Ltd, a private Iranian cluster company which has now been placed under sanctions by the US Treasury Department.
Shahin and a later version, Shalamcheh were widely produced and delivered to the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Defence Force (IRIADF) to replace ageing MIM-23B Hawk I SAMs for medium-range air defence. The air-launched variant of the missile, named as Shahin Havapayeh (Sky Hawk) was developed as a replacement for Iran’s F-4Es’ and F-14As’ ageing AIM-7E-2 missiles.
The missile’s large size limited Tomcats to carrying only two rounds and severely limited manoeuvring, reducing maximum g from +5.5 to +3.0. On the F-4E its efect was even worse. The missiles had to be carried on outboard wing pylons meaning no under-wing external fuel tanks could be carried, reducing the range of QRA F-4Es rather than their manoeuvrability in combat.
These problems led to the cancellation of the integration of the Sky Hawk with Iranian F-14As. Instead the IRIAF’s Deputy of Operations and SSJ handed blueprints and documents of a project for mixing the MIM- 23B with the AIM-54A, which had been under consideration for more than a decade, to the Babaiee Missile Industries Company.
A key goal of that project was to enable the MIM-23B missile to fit every pylon on the F-14A, enabling the jet to carry six. This was to be achieved by using the outer casing of retired or non-operational AIM- 54A missiles and filling them with MIM-23B Hawk I components and rocket motors. These small MIM-23Bs would then easily fit on Tomcat pylons.
Project Fakkur 90
In the 1990s, the IRIAF Deputy of Industrial Research and SSJ had failed to fit all components of the MIM-23B inside an AIM-54A casing and this resulted in the cancellation of the project at its early design stage. The success of Babaiee Missile Industries in producing miniaturised parts for MIM-23B missiles led to a re-launch of the project, under the new name of Fakkur-90, in 2012. Under Fakkur-90 Shahin AIMF-90 missiles would be produced with smaller parts capable of fitting inside the casing of an AIM-54A Phoenix.
A few months after the launch of project Fakkur-90, one of three surviving Project Sedjil Tomcats, 3-6073 (US Navy Bureau Number 160371) was sent to the 1st Tactical Fighter Base Lashgrari to launch a single Sky Hawk missile against a Karrar target drone over the Semnan Missile Test Range in May 2012. The successful test led IRIAF commanders to order the manufacture of missiles of the size and shape of the AIM-54A Phoenix.
Each Fakkur-90 missile component was tested in a captive training AIMF-90 Fakkur-90 round using testbed Tomcat 3-6066. During each flight, the pilot and radio intercept offcer (RIO) tested the new component and its integrity with the AWG-9 through carryingout track and lock-on of various targets with different radar cross sections such as Ababil AB.3 UAVs, Pilatus PC-7 trainers, F-7N fighters, F-14As and even the stealthy Saeghe UAV of the IRGC Aerospace Force, a reverse engineered Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel.
Testing required targets to fly at various speeds, altitudes and in specific directions while performing various combat tactics and manoeuvres, including simulating dog fights. The same applied to 3-6066’s pilot and RIO who had to test and evaluate the missile’s components in various conditions, including, for example, lock-on of a target with the earth behind it. Data from each test were recorded and saved in the captive training AIMF-90 round and used to help designers find flaws and troubleshoot them after each test.
The Fakkur-90 is designed to be ECM and ECCM (electronic counter-countermeasures) proof and to test this the IRIAF’s two Falcon 50 EW/ECM Saye (Shadows) provided adversary ECM during tests that lasted from February 2014 until March 2016.
Production of the first series of AIMF-90 missiles for test launch was started in January 2016 and the first pre-production series missile was delivered to the IRIAF in February 2017. The first test launch against a Karrar target drone was logged by 3-6009 (US Navy Bureau Number 160307) over the Semnan range on March 8, 2017.
During the successful test, the pilot launched the Fakkur at 36,000ft while flying at Mach 0.85. The Karrar drone was flying at 27,000ft at Mach 0.60 within 32nm (59km) of the Tomcat. A second Tomcat, F-14AM 3-6045 (US Navy Bureau Number 160343) flew as air-spare for the trial and then as chase plane for 3-6009 during the test launch.
Despite the success of two test launches of the Fakkur-90, the Air Force did not have the budget to order the missile. The IRGC absorbed the majority of Iran’s defence budget following its ballistic missile attack against ISIL in Deir Ezzour and the subsequent expansion of its operations in Syria and the establishment of its 313th Division there in 2017.
However, in spring 2018, the IRIAF placed the first order for 100 Fakkur- 90s. On July 23, the production line for the new missile, now named AIM-23B, opened at the Babaiee Missile Industries Company premises in Lavizan, northeast of Tehran. The AIM-23B Fakkur will now replace the unreliable and ageing AIM- 7E-2 Sparrows on Iran’s F-14As.
A beginning for a bigger project
The AIM-23B Fakkur semi-active radar homing missile has a maximum range of 44 miles (70km), with an effective range of 31 miles (50km)). It is not only reliable but has a heavier warhead, a more powerful M112 rocket motor and powerful ECM and ECCM capabilities when compared to the MIM- 23C/E series of missiles. Features such as a proximity fuse make it the best replacement for the AIM-7E-2 Sparrow.
Fakkur was not the first step for Babaiee Missile Industries in the world of air-to-air missiles. In the mid-2000s the company was contracted to restore and overhaul ten AIM-54As which were named AIM-54A+s after redelivery to the Air Force. One was test launched successfully by F-14A 3-6054 during an exercise in 2007 and this led to a further contract for the restoration and overhaul of 20 more missiles. The weapons were redelivered to the Air Force and are currently kept in storage at the 8th TFB as the most strategic assets of the IRIAF’s Tomcats for wartime use.
After the redelivery of the last batch of renovated AIM-54s, restoration of further examples was halted, and priorities were switched to the design of a new long-range active radar homing air-to-air missile based on lessons learned and experienced gained from Project Fakkur. The project for design and production of the new long-range air-to-air missile was named Maghsoud in 2013. Maghsoud is to be integrated with the modernised AWG-9 radars of the F-14AMs and is to have a maximum range of 112 miles (180km). Maghsoud is now under development and is planned to have its first test launch in March 2019.
Iran’s F-14AMs will be armed with the AIM- 23B Maghsoud and the AIM-9P Azarakhsh in the 2020s enabling them to police Iran’s sky for two more decades. The IRIAF now has a fleet of 62 F-14As, almost half of which are operational. Given the funding, IACI could bring at least eight more jets to FOC in three years.