The Indian Air Force (IAF) has been one of the largest and longest operators of the MiG-21 fighters in the world. It has a long history of training Iraqi pilots on their MiG-21s. The Iraqi pilots deployed some of these tactics against the Iranian Air Force during the Gulf War.
Iranian and Iraqi clerics had years of shared religious and cultural history. Tribes and families were separated by a 1000-mile-long border. However, the 1979 Islamic Revolution paved separate paths for both countries.
In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran, and the United States and other Western countries lent their support to Iraq in the eight-year conflict.
The IAF (Indian Air Force) sent its flying instructors to train Iraqi cadets at the flying academy at Tikrit from 1958 to 1989 to train them in fighter, transport, and helicopter operations.
Initially, only the IAF’s Qualified Flying Instructors were sent to Iraq. Later on, even combat instructors or combat Fighter Strike Leaders (FSL) or Fighter Combat Leaders (FCLs) as it was known earlier. Even during Saddam Hussain’s war against Iran, the Indian officers were in Tikrit Academy training the Iraqi cadets on MiG-21 Type-69 trainers.
The IAF officials were stationed in Iraq for two years. The Indian instructors taught the Iraqis to aggressively maneuver their MiG-21s, at a low level, thus making them less dependent on ground control. The Indians also taught bomb-tossing and low-level rocket-attack techniques, which enabled the Iraqis to develop their tactics for MiG-21s.
The IAF had inducted the MiG-21s in 1963 and saw their first operational mission in 1965 war against Pakistan and developed their tactics. The Indians had developed low-speed combat manuvres for MiG-21s, which they deployed with considerable success against the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) in the 1971 war.
The ‘Cold War Warrior’ MiG-21s claimed its first kill with its GSh-23 twin-barrelled 23mm cannon. When the hostilities ceased, the IAF MiG-21FLs had claimed four PAF F-104s, two Shenyang F-6s, one F-86 Sabre, and one C-130 Hercules.
Apart from the IAF’s trainers, the Iraqi Air Force also had trainers from France and the USSR. However, their training was largely overseen by the IAF instructors.
Around 120 instructors have been posted in the country not just to give the Air Force cadets basic flying lessons and interceptor training but also to instruct at their staff college. Some Iraqi pilots and technicians were also sent to India for training.
Throughout the 1970s, the Iranian Air Force, aided by the US, surpassed Iraq’s air power. The Imperial Iranian Air Force became the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force after the Islamic Revolution. Two-thirds of its officers of air arms were either executed or arrested in the aftermath of the revolution.
The Iranian Air Force operated five squadrons of F-5E/Fs Tiger fighter jets and one squadron of flying reconnaissance-optimized RF-5As. They were equipped with the AIM-9J variant of the US-made Sidewinder missile. The Iranian pilots were trained in the US, and some even in Pakistan.
In comparison, the Iraqi Air Force (IrAF) operated nine squadrons of the MiG-21. Their best units had the MiG-21 bis-variant and were armed with the latest Soviet-made air-to-air missiles, the AA-2C Advanced Atoll and the AA-8 Aphid.
The Iraqis had internally modified the aircraft to carry French-made R.500 Magic air-to-air missiles. The French had delivered it to Iraq in 1980, pending the first deliveries of Dassault Mirage F.1EQ interceptors.
The First Salvo
The Iraqi tactics were an amalgamation of Indian, French, and Soviet training and their own fighting experience in the October 1973 war with Israel. The Iraqi Air Force attacked Iran on September 22, 1980.
The Iranian F-5Es and Iraqi MiG-21s clashed for the first time two days later on September 24, 1980. Two MiGs sneaked up unobserved on a four-aircraft formation Tiger aircraft that was approaching Hurrya Airbase in Iraq. The Iranian fighter jets were loaded with Mk.82 bombs.
The Iraqis fired a missile at the F-5s, but it detonated under the aircraft, alerting the Iranian pilot to the enemy’s presence. The F-5 responded by firing a single Sidewinder.
Later on, September 26, 1980, the Iranian Air Force was targeting the Iraqi oil industry to plug its revenue resources. A pair of Tiger IIs was intercepted by a pair of MiG-21s. Iraqis claimed that their MIG-21s claimed their first kill using ‘Magic.’ The Iranians claimed that the plan was lost after it hit the ground.
The biggest aerial battle was on November 26, 1980, when eight Iranian F-5Es crossed Iraqi borders to bomb a power plant, a radar station, and Hurrya Air Base. The enemy aircraft heading towards the power plant were intercepted by a pair of MiGs, and they fired an AA-8, bringing down one F-5E.
The Iranian fighter jets approaching the radar station were challenged by MIG-21s. And there a MiG-21 was brought down by the AIM-9J of the F-5.
“I found our target was not occupied and decided to re-route towards the telecommunication facility outside Suleimaniyah instead,” Iranian pilot Sharifi-Ra’ad recalled. “Once there, my plane shook, and I warned my wingman about enemy flak. Then I glanced to the left and sighted a MiG-21: that was the reason for my aircraft shaking.”
“I released my bombs and prepared for air combat while decreasing my altitude to a very low level and then turning hard to force the MiG to overshoot. The Iraqi pilot made a mistake and reduced his speed, while I made another mistake by firing an AIM-9J at him much too early. The Sidewinder failed to lock on and missed its target.”
“I switched to guns and fired a burst at his right wing from short range,” Sharifi-Ra’ad added. “He was watching me as we descended very low, and then his left wing touched the ground — and his aircraft exploded.”
The air battles between the fighter jets – Iranian F-5s and Iraqi MiG-21s, were fought to a stalemate. Both sides lost four aircraft each.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
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