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Last Updated: Mon Jan 27 11:18:09 UTC 2014

The Gulf Crisis - Order of Battle

First published in Australian Aviation
November 1990
by Carlo Kopp

[Editor: this article is notable as it is one of only two accurate a priori predictions of the impending defeat of the Iraqi Air Force in Desert Storm published during that period.]

Iraq's invasion of Kuwait represents the boldest yet political and military move by Saddam Hussein, Iraq's totalitarian leader. It is the culmination of a military build-up without precedent in the Middle East, which has seen an impoverished Third World nation squander oil revenues for well over a decade, all to the end of building the greatest military machine in the Arab world.

While the political aspect of this situation is well beyond the scope of this discussion, it deserves some attention as it clearly illustrates the inevitability of this situation. Saddam Hussein has built up a strong reputation as a heroic defender of Arab interests, particularly in the eyes of working class Arabs, many of whom have traditionally felt that their leadership has yielded to US and Israeli interests. This view has been repeatedly reinforced by the Iraqi propaganda machine, which grew in size and ability during the protracted conflict with Iran. Hussein apparently sees himself as the eventual leader of the Arab nations with the divine task of uniting the Arab world against Israel and the Western world, and thus protecting Islam from the infidels.

The glossy propaganda imagery belies more fundamental issues. Iraq has suffered enormous economic damage as a result of a decade worth of sustained war with her equally extremist neighbour, Iran. The massive buildup in Iraq's military capability over the last three years has been largely at the expense of economic development and has left the nation with a staggering foreign debt. With a belligerent neighbour to the East and unsympathetic neighbours in Turkey, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, Hussein found himself in the situation where he could no longer afford to sustain the military machine which is his principal power base.

The oil glut on the international market since the end of the Iran-Iraq war has if anything reduced Iraq's ability to pay its debts, therefore it was clear to Hussein that any major disturbance in the Gulf region could be exploited financially to alleviate the nation's debt. How this perception extended to the point of seizing oil rich Kuwait is unclear, it appears that if anything Hussein misjudged the Western nation's interest in the region. Certainly in regional terms the seizure of Kuwait could have made good sense, in that Iraq would control and benefit from Kuwait's rich oil reserves while being in the position to coerce Saudi Arabia into a more compliant stance on oil pricing and Arab world politics in general. A side benefit would be relief from Iraq's sizeable debt to Kuwait, while gaining access to shipping terminals other than the disputed Shat-al-Arab.

However, that situation if anything means that a single party has effective control of anything between 30-50% of the world's oil production, thus placing a knife at the jugular of both Japan and a large part of the EEC. The effects upon the collective Western economy could be devastating, if for no other reason than by introducing major uncertainties into the accessibility of oil.

The strong reaction of the US was in this context quite predictable, in that intervention in the Gulf via the Rapid Deployment Force has been a major policy item since introduced by Jimmy Carter - any threat to Gulf oil supplies by any major player (ie traditionally the USSR) would be met by immediate military intervention. Iraq had clearly failed to study the superpowers' position on the region before embarking upon its adventure. A 'non-superpower' technology intensive war with a major Third World power would provide major political capital for the Western World's military-industrial complex which has been facing austere times with the now inevitable collapse of the communist empire.

The Iraqi Air Force Order of Battle

Any conflict between the Western powers and Iraq will see the massive application of Western air power. This is the result of several factors - Iraq's geography and dependence upon extended land lines of communication, Iraq's massive numerical superiority in armour, artillery and infantry and ultimately Iraq's reasonably well developed infrastructure. Unlike Vietnam which was truly rural and agricultural, Iraq's lifeblood is its oil industry which is inherently geographically concentrated and hence a textbook target for the Western military machine. Also unlike Vietnam, Iraq has no friends in its neighbourhood willing to suffer air strikes or geographically equipped to provide sanctuary for Iraq's military.

With over 500 combat aircraft Iraq has a very large air force by any standards for a nation of 17 million. Its aircraft are of mixed origin, predominantly Soviet with a solid fraction of French, Chinese, Czech and Swiss origin.

The spearhead of the Iraqi air force are its tactical fighter and air defence fighter squadrons. These are a very mixed bag both in terms of capability and background. The air defence force has its best capability in a wing of 60 or so Fulcrums which are the only truly current aircraft in the inventory. These serve beside a mixed force of 100 MiG-21 Fishbeds of the MF, PFM and Chinese J-7 variants, 50 or so MiG-23 Flogger E/G aircraft, 25 MiG-25 Foxbat A aircraft and 60+ Dassault Mirage F-1EQ aircraft. Many of the interceptors have been modified to carry the heatseeking Matra R-550 Magic AAM, although many of the Soviet supplied aircraft still carry various variants of the AA-2 Atoll, AA-8 Aphid heatseekers and AA-7 Apex semi-active radar guided missiles. The Foxbats are reported to carry the large AA-6 Acrid AAM, while the Mirages carry the Matra R-530 semi-active radar guided AAM.

The MiG-21 has been the mainstay of Iraq's air defences. The numerically most significant variant is the Chinese new build Shenyang J-7 which is essentially the VFR gun/heatseeker equipped MiG-21F typically fitted with a GEC Marconi HUD and five weapon pylons, three of which are plumbed for drop tanks. The remainder of the force is comprised of older Soviet built sixties PFMs and seventies MFs, these have some IFR interception capability against targets at altitude, although their mediocre Jay Bird AI radar sets are not considered a serious system in the West. The weapon load will be comprised of Magic and Atoll AAMs.

The status of Iraq's Mirage F-1EQ aircraft is unclear in this context. Iraq acquired several squadrons of the F-1EQ during the Iran-Iraq war, these aircraft being a custom variant equipped with the Thomson-CSF Agave maritime attack radar which is used to target AM-39 Exocet anti-shipping missiles (the Agave/Exocet was used in the Falklands). It is not known how many of these aircraft where lost during air raids on Iran, or what the serviceability levels are.

Similar uncertainty must surround the Fulcrum force, which may not have achieved full combat readiness, given the relatively recent arrival into service. The size of the Fulcrum force is unclear as published accounts vary considerably. The Fulcrums may also belong to the downgraded export variant with a less capable radar and electronic warfare fit. That is certainly the case with the Flogger E aircraft which are fitted with mediocre Jay Bird radars common to the MiG-21MF and stripped of the infrared search/track equipment used on Soviet PVO Floggers. The more capable MiG-23MF Flogger G has been acquired only recently and is much a dedicated interceptor, with questionable air combat performance.

Iraq's tactical strike forces are much stronger numerically in comparison with the dedicated air defence squadrons.

The numerically most significant and also tactically most useful force is that of 70 or so MiG-23BN Floggers. These are the 'duck billed' ground attack version without radar, capable of VFR day only strike operations. They lack the 23 mm Gatling gun and avionics of the Soviet front line MiG-27 Flogger G. These aircraft have good payload radius performance and are fast at low level, they are however quite vulnerable to fighter attack given their poor manoeuvrability.

The Floggers are supplemented by a mixed force of 80 or so Fitters, a third of which are old Su-7BMKs and the remainder of which are swing wing Su-20/22, export variants of the Su-17. These aircraft have inferior payload radius performance to the Floggers resulting from lower internal fuel capacity and thirstier AL-7F turbojet propulsion. The avionic fit will be rudimentary, in comparison with Soviet aircraft. The Su-7/20 are primarily close air support aircraft.

Dedicated close air support is provided by 30 relatively new Su-25 Frogfoot aircraft, a type employed by the Soviets previously in Afghanistan. The Frogfoot is similar in role to the A-10 but is somewhat smaller and more agile. The remaining tactical aircraft are two squadrons of Chinese J-6 aircraft, derivatives of the Shenjang F-6, itself a copy of the MiG-19, and Czech built L-39 tactical trainers which can be used for light close air support work.

Iraq's tactical air force is thus quite limited by Western standards and certainly unable to hold its ground against Western teen series tactical aircraft. The inability to contest airspace successfully will render the usefulness of the tactical strike aircraft questionable.

Iraq's long range strike force is also largely antiquated, a squadron of Tu-22 Blinders and a squadron of mixed Soviet and Chinese built Badgers. While these aircraft are reported to carry AS-4 and AS-5 ASMs, their obsolete avionics and limited aerodynamic performance render them extremely vulnerable to fighter aircraft. These aircraft have been recently supplemented with Su-24 Fencer aircraft, which offer the only useful long range strike capability Iraq has. The question remains of course, as to the level of readiness given the recent introduction of this type which is unlike any previous aircraft in mission profile and tactical application.

In summary it is fair to say that Iraq will be unable to defend its airspace against Western aircraft, as it lacks the air superiority aircraft and skills to stand up to Western fighter aircraft, while most of its air defence aircraft lack the avionic performance and numbers to seriously threaten Western strike aircraft. The presence of the Fulcrum and Fencer will require more care in the planning of offensive operations, but given their numbers and the inexperience of their crews they are unlikely to have a significant impact once serious operations commence. An Israeli observer has commented that it would take the Western forces 'about a week or less to disable the Iraqi air force' and 'two more days to shut down the Iraqi army' with sustained air strikes.

The MiG-29 Fulcrum is the most capable aircraft in the Iraqi inventory with about 60 aircraft reported in service. The inexperience of their air and ground crews and the considerable demand for spares will however greatly reduce the effectiveness of these aircraft (© Miroslav Gyurosi).

The Soviet Scud B ballistic missile and its Iraqi built derivatives are the most effective long range weapon in the Iraqi inventory. With a 2,000 lb class high explosive or chemical warhead, they can threaten targets at ranges of up to 150 nautical miles.

Probably the most effective AAA system in the Iraqi army is the ubiquitous Soviet ZSU-23-4P. Mounted on a tracked chassis and fitted with a Gun Dish tracking radar with optical backup, the ZSU-23 is a serious threat to helicopters and low flying tactical aircraft.

Iraq's Ground Based Air Defence Forces

A substantially greater threat to Western air forces are Iraq's ground based air defence weapons. The Iraqis possess an estimated 4,000 pieces of AAA equipment, including mobile ZSU-23-4P quad 23 mm radar directed AAA guns, ZU-23 AAA, M-1939 37 mm AAA, mobile ZSU-57-2 twin 57 mm radar directed AAA guns and an assortment of 85 mm, 100 mm and 130 mm AAA guns. Of principal concern are the ZSU-23-4P guns which inflicted heavy casualties upon the Israelis in 1973, while the ZSU-23 may be easily jammed it has backup optical fire control and under clear sky VFR conditions can be quite lethal against tactical aircraft and helicopters.

The AAA guns are supported at longer range by SAMs. The Iraqi army is primarily equipped with Soviet SAMs although some 130 Franco-German Roland SAMs are in use as point defence weapons. The numerically most significant weapons are 250+ Soviet SA-2 Guideline and SA-3 Goa missiles both of which are area defence radar guided weapons of Vietnam era vintage. The Guideline will be supported by Fan Song and Spoon Rest radars, the missiles have poor low altitude performance and are vulnerable to mid-course guidance (uplink) jamming. Newer heatseeking versions have been reported in service but this remains to be confirmed. The Goas are somewhat smaller and shorter in range, but are reasonably effective at low level. Supported by a mix of Flat Face and Squat Eye acquisition radars, the Goa relies on midcourse guidance support from a Low Blow radar system. Both are static relocatable systems.

Mobile area defence is provided by the ubiquitous SA-6 Gainful of Yom Kippur infamy, a semiactive radar homing ramjet missile on a triple round tracked launcher. The SA-6 is the most effective area defence weapon in the Iraqi inventory, it is supported by mobile Long Track acquisition radar and Straight Flush guidance radar. While the missile has respectable performance, it is susceptible to continuous wave jammers such as the ALQ-162 and its reliance upon a single Straight Flush radar unit per battery renders it highly susceptible to anti-radiation missile attack. Over 100 launchers are reported in service.

SAM point defence is provided by a mix of mobile and man portable weapons. The most effective system will be the radar guided Roland, which has acquisition and guidance radars colocated on the mobile launcher vehicle. The 130 Rolands are supplemented with about 50 mobile command link guided SA-8 Gecko and 100 or so SA-9 Gaskin heatseekers which employ the Gun Dish radar common to the ZSU-23-4P, located on the system's BDRM-2 wheeled launcher vehicle. The newer SA-13 Gopher is also reported in service, this weapon employs a two colour infrared seeker and is capable of rejecting most flares. The SA-13 launcher is a MT-LB tracked vehicle with a Dog Ear ranging radar and backup optical guidance. Both the SA-9 and SA-13 carry four rounds per launcher. More than 60 SA-13 launchers are reported in service.

The Iraqi army also operates an undisclosed number of SA-7, Chinese HN-5 and newer SA-14 heatseeking man portable SAMs (see TE). The latter weapon can be quite effective against helicopters and slow fixed wing aircraft, if used correctly.

The Iraqi SAM force is respectable in size but will be highly susceptible to jamming, given that examples of every missile in its inventory have fallen into Western hands. The older weapons where quite ineffective during the Vietnam war and there is no reason to believe that current ECM equipment would be any less effective in degrading their guidance systems. The principal threat to Western aircraft will be the AAA guns, most of which can be aimed optically thus avoiding the effects of jamming by onboard ECM equipment.

Iraqi Ballistic Missile Forces

Probably the most effective weapons in the Iraqi inventory are its ballistic missiles, the pride and joy of the Iraqi army. Iraq has made a large commitment in resources in order to build up a respectable missile force. The mainstay of the force is the Soviet built SS-1 Scud B, a 150 NM range class single stage 14,000 lb gross weight missile with an 1,800 lb warhead. The Scuds are carried on an 8x8 MAZ-543 Transporter-Erector-Launcher (TEL) vehicle, of which about 40 are reported in use. The warhead may be high explosive or chemical, the latter either a blistering or nerve agent. The Soviet Scuds are supplemented by the Iraqi built Husayn, which is reported to carry a smaller warhead over a 220+ NM range.

While the accuracy of the Scuds is limited to a CEP of about 0.5 NM or less, the use of high explosive warheads against civilian or 'soft' military targets such as airfields renders this limitation academic. If chemical warheads are used, such accuracy is certainly not an operational limitation.

The Scuds and their Iraqi built derivatives are relatively unsophisticated weapons, but are extremely difficult to stop. Considerable effort has been expended by the US Army and the Israelis on adapting the Patriot and Hawk SAM guidance and control systems to enable intercepts of such weapons, and successful trials have been carried out by both parties. This is however an untried defensive technology and it is not not clear how effective it would be in practice, if deployed. The reported availability of up to 200 Scud/Husayn rounds is thus of some concern, although informed observers have commented that the force would not have a serious impact on military operations.

The Iraqi tactical air, air defence and missile forces represent the more developed aspect of the Third World's attempts to match Western and Soviet capability. As with most forces structured about the classical Soviet model, great reliance is placed upon SAMs, AAA and ballistic missiles, at the expense of air superiority. In practice this creates a force incapable of projecting power beyond the immediate boundaries of its land forces' coverage and thus highly susceptible to interdiction by air forces well equipped for air superiority and defence suppression missions. It is this fundamental weakness which will prove decisive in any major engagement with Western forces.

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