On the 5th of June 1984, one of the strangest, and still confused, air-to-air engagements in history occurred. The reason it was odd is that both types involved were of American origin, and in fact both built by the same manufacturer – McDonnell Douglas.
The reason it is confused is that there have been contrary reports on the details of what happened ever since.
This is the story of when F-4 Phantoms of the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) went head-to-head with F-15 Eagles of the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF).
The tale starts, for simplicity’s sake, in 1980. That year the ambitious new President of Iraq, Saddam Hussein (you might have heard of him) decided to expand his country’s territory by invading neighboring Iran and seizing the strategic Shatt-al-Arab river and if possible the oil rich regions across the Iraqi border. His opportunism was triggered by the fact that Iran was in a state of barely contained chaos.
The Iranian Revolution, which had deposed the Iranian royal family and which ultimately instituted an Islamic theocracy in their stead had occurred only the year before. But this was not a straightforward affair and conflict had occurred between the various revolutionary forces as they strived for control. Meanwhile, Iran’s military and security apparatus collapsed, with many members gaoled and even executed.
So, with this as the situation, I suppose we can see why it was that Saddam thought he was in for a cakewalk – as it turned out a major miscalculation on his part. The Iranians not only resisted but ground up the Iraqi offensives, with both sides suffering major losses in some of the heaviest fighting seen since the Second World War.
As the war descended into a bloody stalemate and it became obvious that a quick victory was not going to be possible, both sides began to use other methods to put pressure on each other. One of these was to attack their opponent’s oil exports, either by hitting storage facilities or else targeting the tankers that carried their enemy’s crude.
Between 1981 and 1983, this was a more confined affair, as neither side had dedicated anti-ship aircraft for the job. Iraq utilized their various MiGs, while Iran relied on their main multirole aircraft, the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom.
Though the more modern F-14 Tomcat receives much of the attention for its role in the war – hardly surprising considering how successful it was – the F-4 was very much the backbone of the IRIAF, being the Iranians primary fighter and attack aircraft.
For targeting Iraqi shipping, the Phantoms mainly used AGM-65 Mavericks and dumb bombs, neither completely ideal weapons but able to do the job whilst the tempo at sea was at a low rate in comparison to the fighting occurring on land.
This saw dozens of ships be attacked over the next four years by both sides and is ranked as the greatest onslaught on shipping since the Second World War.
It is generally considered that the motives for the Iraqi’s ramping up attacks on Iranian shipping was not just to apply economic pressure on them, but also to goad them into taking actions that would see them come into conflict with other nations. In this, they proved to have been correct.
Iraq was essentially by this point being propped up by the Gulf Arab states, principally Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. In addition to providing billions of dollars in loans to Iraq, these nations, principally Kuwait, were allowing Iraqi oil exports to be shipped out via their ports.
Iran needed to respond, but lacking specialist anti-shipping aircraft with long-range missiles they were limited on their attack options. Knowing that the Gulf Arabs were basically allowing the war to continue due to their assistance, the Iranians decided that shipping in their waters was fair game.
On 13th May, 1984 a Kuwaiti tanker was attacked by Iranian aircraft off the coast of Bahrain, then three days later it was the turn of the Saudi’s, when one of their tankers was attacked by Iranian F-4s while in Saudi waters.
Now it’s a demonstration of the Real Politik attitude of the time that Iraqi aircraft had hit Saudi ships that had taken on cargoes of Iranian oil, and that was considered the cost of doing business. But with Iran intruding into Saudi territory to attack their ships, well, what occurred was probably inevitable.
On the 5th of June, an Iranian P-3 naval reconnaissance aircraft located several ships sailing close to the Saudi coastline. Though the recent attacks had drawn a lot of anger from the international community, no military action had been taken against the Iranians and so a new attack was initiated.
Two of Iran’s formidable F-14 were dispatched from Bushehr and proceeded towards the middle of the Gulf. But they were just a distraction, aimed at drawing attention from the aircraft tasked with apparently striking at the shipping on the Arabian side – two F-4 Phantoms, which made their approach by swinging around to the north before dropping to low level.
It might have worked…but the Saudi’s were now able to leverage some of their most powerful military assets, as well as a hefty measure of American support.
With the increasing attacks on ships in the Gulf, the Saudi’s had instituted a standing Combat Air Patrol (CAP) to intercept intruders. And they had the perfect aircraft for the task – the McDonnell Douglas F-15C Eagle.
In 1984, this was arguably the best air superiority aircraft on the planet.
The problem was the RSAF were only just learning how to handle their new fighter.
The Saudi’s had initially requested to purchase the Eagle in 1978 but had been stymied initially by concerns that the F-15 might be used against Israel. But the increasingly close relationship between the Saudi’s and the US, especially in light of the end of Iran as the United States principal ally in the region, meant that in 1981 Saudi pilots were able to begin training on their new F-15s.
They were also receiving American support in the shape of E-3 AWACS and KC-10 aerial tankers of the United States Air Force (USAF), that were flying in Saudi airspace and assisting the RSAF.
In fact, this support played the dual role of providing the Saudi’s with the critical airborne support their growing air force needed and enabling the training of RSAF personnel on techniques and aircraft that they had on order from the US while also allowing the Americans to slow down and monitor their acquisition of advanced aircraft and capabilities so as to placate the pro-Israel lobby in the Senate.
All this meant that the two Iranian F-4s, making their stealthy approach – the sort of thing that might work on the less sophisticated Iraqis – were being watched pretty much the moment they took to the air by a USAF E-3 AWACS that was cruising in Saudi airspace.
As the Iranian’s intentions became clear, this signalled two Saudi F-15’s that were undertaking a refuelling exercise with an American tanker aircraft to intercept.
Here things are a little confused. According to author Steve Davies, it appears the two inexperienced pilots, as said no doubt pretty new on the Eagle, seem to have had some doubts as to whether to proceed.
But here they had some advice on hand. As they were on a training mission, the aircraft were one single-seat F-15C and a two-seat F-15D. And observing in the rear seat of the latter was a USAF instructor. He was able to encourage the Saudi pilots and guide them through the action.
This, however, appears to be refuted by General Spencer Armstrong, USAF, who was in command of the training mission to the RSAF at the time. He states that no American’s were involved in the shoot down, and their only participation was in debriefs.
Regardless of these details, the stage was now set for a battle between two legends.
The McDonnel Douglas F-4 Phantom, and the F-15 Eagle.
The Phantom was (and still is) a real tank of an aircraft. Built originally as a long-range missile-armed interceptor for the US Navy, it had established a formidable reputation as both a fighter and attack aircraft in the previous twenty years and had been used on some remarkable missions against Iraqi targets, including the first attack on Iraq’s new nuclear reactor that was being built just outside Baghdad.
Though its design dated from the 1950s and has been described as a demonstration of the maxim that you make a brick fly with enough engine power, in 1984 the Phantom was still a real contender as a fighter aircraft.
Combined with Iranian crewmen who had been fighting in the most intensive air warfare environment since Vietnam, they were a highly capable combination.
Facing them was the Saudi F-15 Eagle. This, as said was the most formidable fighter flying at the time. But the crew were, as pointed out, very green.
Ultimately it counted for nothing, because the Saudi’s were going to demonstrate once again that at the end of the day, modern air warfare is a team game. They knew where the Iranians were, the Iranians, I strongly suspect, didn’t even know they were being engaged.
Closing rapidly, the F-15s acquired the F-4s and locked them up with their radars. Then they both fired an AIM-7 Sparrow Semi-Active Radar guided missile at the Phantoms.
One of the Phantoms exploded into a fireball, resulting in the death of both crewmen. The other is often reported as having been destroyed as well, but it seems instead to have been heavily damaged and managed to limp back across the Gulf to make a landing at Kish Island. However, the damage is reported to have been so bad that the aircraft had to be scrapped.
From the limited information available it doesn’t seem like the Iranians even knew they were being engaged. That is entirely possible, as I suspect that their radar warning gear, no doubt rigged for picking up the emissions of Soviet and French radars as used by the Iraqi air force, may not have been calibrated to pick up the radar of the Eagles.
Iran levelled accusations that the F-15s had actually been American, which further muddies the waters around the whole affair, and for many the shooting down of the older aircraft by the more sophisticated later-generation seems a logical result
But all this disguises the real lesson that was demonstrated.
In combat, confusion rules. The side that has greater clarity will likely win. With their airborne controllers, in this engagement that was clearly the Saudi’s.
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