Key point: It would be much smarter for Iran to use asymmetric means to take on the United States instead of challenging America in the air.
With the United States withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal with Iran, a war with Tehran seems to be a distinct possibility. In the event of a military conflict between Washington and Tehran, there is also the ever growing possibility that the White House might seek regime change in Iran.
A full-scale military campaign against Iran would require the United States to destroy the Iranian air force—which to this day flies American-built warplanes. The best of Iran’s decrepit fighter aircraft fleet is the Grumman F-14 Tomcat. The Imperial Iranian Air Force purchased 80 of the powerful fourth generation fighters before the 1979 Islamic revolution, but deliveries were halted at 79 aircraft. Additionally, Iran had purchased 714 Hughes (now Raytheon) AIM-54A Phoenix long-range semi-active/active radar guided air-to-air missiles, which have a range of roughly 100 nautical miles.
When the F-14A was developed, it was amongst the most capable fighters developed by the United States during the late 1960s. The jet entered service with the U.S. Navy in 1974 equipped with the AWG-9 long-range pulse Doppler radar, which had a range of over 115 nautical miles and was the first American radar set to incorporate a track while scan mode to allow for a multiple shot capability. Coupled with the AIM-54, the AWG-9 could target six enemy bombers simultaneously. On paper, the Tomcat provided the fleet with a potent capability—though the reality did not quite meet the Navy’s public relations hype.
Iran has upgraded its Tomcats with new avionics and potentially new weapons, but only a handful of Tehran’s F-14s are in flyable condition—perhaps as few as 20 aircraft. However, other than perhaps 20 Russian-made Mikoyan MiG-29 Fulcrums, the venerable Tomcat is the Islamic Iranian Air Force’s most capable fighter. In the event of a war, the F-14 would be Iran’s first line of defense against an American onslaught.
The stealthy Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor air superiority fighter would almost certainly lead an American attack. Compared to the antiquated F-14, the Raptor is a technological marvel and is equipped with some of the most sophisticated sensors ever developed for a military aircraft.
The F-22 combines extreme stealth and sustained supersonic speed—it can cruise at just above Mach 1.8 without afterburners—with integrated avionics and extreme agility. The Raptor’s Northrop Grumman AN/APG-77 (V)1 active electronically scanned array radar and ALR-94 passive electronic support measures suite would spot an F-14 from many tens of nautical miles away before the Tomcat had any idea that an F-22 was in the vicinity.
The Raptor, having detected a flight of Iranian F-14s and given the go-ahead to engage, would likely turn toward the enemy and launch its Raytheon AIM-120D AMRAAM missile—which reported has a range of 96 nautical miles when launched from a conventional fighter—from high supersonic speeds exceeding Mach 1.5 and at altitudes well above 50,000ft. It would be all over for the Iranian F-14s before anyone in the enemy formation would have any idea they were under attack.
Even if the Raptors had run out of AMRAAMs and were forced to engage within visual range, the F-22s can use their stealth to close in unobserved to less than 1000ft to either kill the F-14s with Raytheon AIM-9X Sidewinders or 20mm Vulcan cannon fire. Indeed, F-22 pilots flying during exercises such as Red Flag or Northern Edge will often sneak into guns range to make unobserved kills from very close distances by taking advantage of the Raptor’s stealth. More often than not, the Raptor’s quarry is caught completely unaware.
However, if by some bizarre circumstance the F-22 is embroiled in a dogfight with the F-14, the chances are the Raptor will kill the Tomcat unless the American pilot suffers from extremely bad luck or makes a serious error. The Raptor holds all of the cards in terms of instantaneous and sustained turn rates—which in the F-22’s case is greater than 30 degrees per second—and energy addition. The Raptor’s incredible specific excess power and sheer maneuverability combined with its new AIM-9X missiles makes it so that the odds are grotesquely stacked in the F-22 pilot’s favor. It would be like clubbing a baby seal.
Of course, that’s just in the case that Iran’s leaders are foolish enough to take the United States head-on. It would be much smarter for Iran to use asymmetric means to take on the United States instead of challenging America in the air.
This first appeared in May 2018.