By Dr Adam Leong Kok Wey
The 12 May 2019 tanker attacks off the United Arab Emirates coast in the Persian Gulf by suspected Iranian or Iran-backed saboteurs reminded us of the high-stakes Tanker War during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988).
During the Iran-Iraq War, from around 1984, merchant tankers sailing through the Persian Gulf were regularly targeted by both Iraqi and Iranian forces in the Tanker War. The Iraqis frequently used air power to target Iranian oil tankers and merchant ships in an attempt to wage economic warfare against Iran – a strategic move to strangle Iran’s economic lifeline. One of the primary aircraft used by the Iraqis to conduct anti-shipping operations was the Dassault Mirage F1, which was armed with Exocet missiles.
The Mirage F1 was the Dassault’s answer to several technological challenges faced by the famous delta-winged Mirage III. The Mirage III made its mark during the Six Day War when the Israelis used their Mirage IIIs successfully in their opening pre-emptive strikes against its Arab neighbours. The Mirage III, however, had inherent weaknesses – its delta wing meant that the Mirage III had to land with a high pitch at high speeds, often causing accidents with inexperienced pilots. It also required long airstrips for its take-off run and landing, making these large airfields easy to spot and vulnerable to enemy counter strikes. The Mirage IIIs were also unable to operate from robust forward air bases. The Mirage III, with its delta wings, was less agile at low altitude compared with other non-delta winged aircraft and had a short operational radius.
All these weaknesses were remedied in the new Mirage F1. The F1 featured a high mounted swept wing and a conventional tail design, dumping the use of delta wings. These changes enabled the F1 to carry 40 per cent more fuel, translating to a longer operational radius, a shorter take-off run and slower landing speed, and all-around better manoeuvrability. The F1 was armed with two DEFA 553 30-mm cannons with 135 rounds per gun with a typical intercept load of two Matra Super 530 and two R.550 Magic anti-aircraft missiles.
The Mirage F1 was a success with the French Air Force, which acquired and used it as their primary interceptor aircraft in the 1970s and 1980s. It was also exported to numerous countries including Spain, South Africa (where it saw combat as a strike aircraft), and Iraq.
The Iraqis acquired the Mirage F1 in the late 1970s, and its first F1s were delivered just in time to participate in the Iran-Iraq War. The Mirage F1s performed remarkably well in obtaining air superiority (shooting down the first Iranian F-14 Tomcat in a dogfight in November 1981), ground attack roles (both close air support and interdiction strikes) and anti-shipping missions. Armed with Exocet missiles, the Mirage F1 made its mark in conducting anti-shipping operations against Iranian-flagged oil tankers and merchant ships during the Tanker War.
Mirage F1s attacked and damaged numerous oil tankers and conducted air raids against Iranian oil terminals at Kharg Island. Their use culminated in the attack on USS Stark (an Oliver Hazard Perry guided missile frigate) on 17 May 1987. The Stark was hit by two Exocets launched from an Iraqi Mirage F1. The attack damaged the Stark and killed 37 US sailors but did not sink it. The Iraqis claimed that the pilot had mistaken the frigate as an Iranian oil tanker. Interestingly, recently, there have been questions raised regarding the type of aircraft that launched the attack.
Iraqi Mirage F1s continued to operate during the First Gulf War. In a desperate attempt to hit back at the US-led coalition forces, two Mirage F1s armed with incendiary bombs took part in an air strike attempting to destroy the Saudi oil refinery in Abqaiq, but both were shot down by a Royal Saudi Air Force F-15.
Although the Mirage F1 has mostly been retired from service, limited numbers still serve in a few air forces today, ironically including Iran, which had confiscated 24 Iraqi Mirage F1s that were flown into Iran during the First Gulf War to prevent their destruction. The non-delta winged Mirage F1, although not as famous as the Mirage III, has given extraordinary service for its users and should be given better recognition than it deserves.
Dr Adam Leong Kok Wey is Associate Professor in Strategic Studies, and the Deputy Director of Research in the Centre for Defence and International Security Studies (CDISS) at the National Defence University of Malaysia. He has a PhD in strategic studies from the University of Reading and is the author of two books on military strategy and history including Killing the Enemy: Assassination operations during World War II (2015) published by IB Tauris.
Header Image: A US sailor scans for mines from the bow of the guided missile frigate USS Nicolas during an Operation Earnest Will convoy mission, in which tankers are led through the waters of the Persian Gulf by US warships, c. 1988. (Source: Wikimedia)
 Sam LaGrone, ‘The Attack on USS Stark at 30,’ USNI News, 17 May 2017. For the report into the circumstances surrounding the attack, see: Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff to the Secretary of Defence, Formal investigations into the circumstances surrounding the attack on USS Stark (FFG31) on 17 May 1987, 3 September 1987.
 See Tom Cooper, ‘In 1987, a Secret Iraqi Warplane Struck an American Frigate and Killed 37 Sailors,’ War is Boring, 27 July 2016.
2 thoughts on “#Commentary – The Iran-Iraq Tanker War and the Non-Delta Winged Mirage F1”
When I was an analyst for Army Intelligence back in the 1980s we studied the ongoing Iran-Iraq War. I recall being not too impressed with the Iraqi Air Force performance during the “Tanker War.” I seem to recall that they attacked two or three hundred “large naval targets” as they referred to them. Fewer than a hundred hits, if I am recalling correctly. The Iraqis always flew down the western side of the Persian Gulf, as far from Iranian airspace as possible, and generally attacked those tankers from 90 degrees off the starboard beam, aiming for the “center of mass.” Close to maximum range, although there didn’t seem to be any meaningful air defense put up by the Iranians in the Gulf. More effective would have been attacking from astern, at close range, hitting the engineering spaces, crew quarters, etc. Would have left many of those large naval targets dead in the water. The Iraqi Air Force was hyper-conservative and casualty-averse, I think.
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[I wrote a comment earlier but WordPress may have gobbled it, so just in case. . . ..]
Studying the Iran-Iraq War as an analyst for Army Intelligence back in the 1980s I was distinctly unimpressed with the Iraqi Air Force’s performance in the “tanker war.” My imprecise recollection is that they attacked close to 300 “large naval targets” as they called them, and recorded fewer than a hundred hits with their Exocet missiles. They always flew down the west side of the Gulf, as far from Iranian airspace as possible, and attacked tankers from 90 degrees off the starboard (right) beam at fairly long range. Many hits in the POL storage compartments on those tankers did relatively little damage. Far more effective would have been attacking from astern at close range, targeting the engineering spaces and crew quarters, etc. I concluded that the Iraqis were extraordinarily conservative and casualty-averse. One way to fight a war, I suppose.
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