A picture on social media of an Iranian F-14 Tomcat fighter undergoing repairs at a hangar has again raised questions about how the Cold War-era spare part-deprived fighter is being maintained and flown.
It is difficult to imagine any amount of inventive reverse-engineering or supply chain for aerospace parts amid 43 years of sanctions that still ensure easy maintenance, periodic upgrades, and aircraft availability — all being big constraints despite possible workarounds.
However, experts and other reports on the Iranian military and the US defense industrial business reveal loopholes, weak sanctions enforcement, and the existence of secondary markets for aerospace products that have allowed F-14 parts to find their way to Iran.
A US criminal investigation in the late 1990s to the mid-2000s busted one such long-running operation that exported F-14 components and parts in circuitous, roundabout routes from third countries into Iran by US-based Iranians.
The accused sourced the devices from several airline consultancies, aviation technical services firms, and smaller players in the American aviation industry who could escape regulatory oversight.
Iran’s Best Fighter Is Hungry For Spares
Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Iranian Shah, chose the highly capable and fearsome swing-wing interceptor after a thorough evaluation, with 79 planes reaching Iran, roughly 40 of which are surviving now.
The 1979 Islamic Revolution deposed the monarch when the US placed sanctions to prevent the new unfriendly and hostile regime from using Western-origin weapons against them. The US Navy and the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) are now the only users of the F-14 Tomcat worldwide.
The picture showed an F-14 inside a hangar completely hollowed out, with the engines removed along with several panels from its airframe, indicating a massive upgrade and overhaul to ensure airworthiness and service-life extension program (SLEP). B-AREV, the handle on X (formerly Twitter) that posted the photo, said the picture was from the “2020s period.”
The plane again emerged in the public glare when it was discovered to be one of the aircraft besides the four Su-35S fighters escorting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aircraft when he visited Saudi Arabia and the UAE in December.
‘Secondary Markets Available for Parts’
Without particularly referring to the Iranian F-14s and their US-made spares, retired IAF fighter pilot Air Marshal Anil Chopra, currently the director of the Center for Air Power Studies (CAPS), pointed toward the existence of parts in the non-conventional markets.
Iranian F-14s then saw considerable action against Russian-origin and Iraqi-flown MiG-25 Foxbats, MiG-21s, and even French Mirage F1s in the nearly eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war, fought between 1980 and 1988.
Iraqi MiG-25s would fly unchallenged over Iranian airspace, but the F-14s and their powerful AWG-9 radar and Phoenix air-to-air missile made the fighter the most powerful jet in the Middle East at the time.
Maintenance of Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force F-14 Tomcats, 2020s period. pic.twitter.com/uLm739XxCP
— B-AREV (@trip_to_valkiri) January 7, 2024
“Defense aerospace businesses are such that there are still spares of older aircraft available, which can be purchased in the gray markets. Countries that cannot buy them openly often source these products through third parties, the official buyers, and later divert them to the main party,” Air Marshal Chopra explained.
Such elaborate routes, however, require complicated and tedious documentation, logistics, shipping, cargo, and transport measures, possibly through shell companies that work with the buyer country’s security agencies.
Iran’s intelligence apparatus has long been known to operate such firms that carry out legitimate trade business while sourcing dual-use components in various countries.
Prior reports about the presence of Western-origin electronics and sophisticated circuitry in Iranian drones and Russian missiles validate Air Marshal Chopra’s premise. This is despite the two being some of the heavily sanctioned countries by the US and international European alliances with severe curbs on their defense, banking, and commerce industries.
Experts explained this situation by pointing to the contradictions in international trade, especially in the advanced manufacturing, electronics, and aerospace components industry, where companies appear to put business ahead of geopolitics.
Iran Can’t Completely Rely On F-14s
But neither can complete reliance on the workarounds and circumvention of international trade sanctions be advisable, especially since tensions between the US and Iran have been consistently high. Such mechanisms also tax the state machinery, affecting the F-14s or the F-4 Phantoms’ maintenance, besides the technical effort to reverse engineer and replicate parts.
Iran’s homegrown electronics, circuitry, components, assemblies, or airframe repairs and reinforcements might also not be performing to the exact standards set by the US manufacturers, limiting how it can keep flying and upgrading the 1980s jet.
However, Air Marshal Chopra agrees that the maintenance issues of the older jets might be affecting the IRIAF’s operational plans, which must consider the low availability rate. “Not all F-14s could be available at all times. Even if they are, IRIAF can’t use them heavily to avoid wear and tear,” he said.
Iranians Still Sourced F-14 Parts From US
This, in turn, might be affecting the training and piloting skills of IRIAF aviators, tipping the scales in core airpower firmly in Israel’s favor. Indeed, an Iranian F-14 can outpace and outmaneuver an Israeli F-35, but the latter won’t get to that stage. The F-35 will use its long-range sensors to knock out the F-14 long before it gets close and gets into a dogfight.
In March 1998, federal agents arrested Iranian-born Parviz Lavi at his home in Long Island for buying spare parts for the F-14’s TF-30 engine and shipping them to Iran through The Netherlands.
Lavi was sentenced to five years, along with a US$125,000 fine. Interestingly, Iranian pilots and US defense officials have noted the TF-30 as the biggest problem with the F-14 and possibly its only weakness.
It was a power plant developed mainly for the F-111, a problem-ridden aircraft with a lengthy crash history. The engine frequently broke down and was unsuited for the high power requirement, thrust criteria, strain of tight maneuvering, and rapid speed changes of fighter flying.
In 1998, a San Diego-based aircraft parts vendor told American customs officials that one Multicore Ltd. in California had requested price information for air intake seals used only on the F-14. Agents arrested Multicore’s Saeed Homayouni, a naturalized Canadian from Iran, and a Malaysian national, Yew Leng Fung.
The Washington Post (WaPo) claimed bank records showed that Multicore Ltd. had made 399 payments totaling US$2.26 million to military parts brokers since 1995 and had received deposits of US$2.21 million. The company shipped parts mainly through Singapore.
US authorities then began investigating 18 companies that had supplied airplane components to Multicore. In September 2003, they caught Iranian Serzhik Avasappian in a South Florida hotel for shipping several F-14 parts worth US$800,000 and arrested him after he offered to buy the components.