Inspired By The IAF: the Iraqi Operation Moked

On the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, Col. (res.) Pesach Malovany reexamines the Iraqi "Operation Moked" of 1980, which aimed at neutralizing the Iranian Air Force at the outset of the Iran-Iraq war, and was inspired by the original Operation Moked executed by the Israeli Air Force in 1967

(Photo: AP)

Operation Moked, executed by the Israeli Air Force (IAF) as the opening move of the Six-Day War of 1967, inspired the planners of the Iraqi Air Force when they prepared their opening move for the war against Iran, on September 22, 1980. The Iraqi decision to go to war against Iran was made, among other things, against the background of the weakening of the Iranian military, notably the Iranian Air Force, pursuant to Khomeini's Islamist revolution
During the days of the Shah, Iran's aerial arm constituted a significant threat to Iraq, as it had enjoyed undisputed quantitative and qualitative advantage over the Iraqi Air Force. This fact deterred the Iraqi regime from operating against Iran during that period. In those days, the Iraqis estimated that the Iranian Air Force, which had a personnel of about 100,000 men, possessed a good offensive capability, based on some 460 fighters and fighter-bombers of various types (some estimates maintained that the Iranian aerial OrBat was even more substantial). All of the Iranian strike fighters were advanced models fitted with modern systems and capable of carrying cutting-edge armament. The bulk of the Iranian aerial OrBat consisted of F-4 Phantom strike-fighters. Additionally, the Iranians had about 80 F-14 Tomcat fighters fitted with cutting-edge Phoenix air-to-air missiles, as well as F-5 Tiger fighters. They also had about 1,000 helicopters of various types, including about 200 Huey Cobra helicopters fitted with Tow antitank missiles and heavy machine guns. In those days, the Iranian Air Force had about twenty airbases, some of which had been built close to the border with Iraq, out of which the Iranians could cover most of Iraq's territory. Additionally, they enjoyed an important advantage over the Iraqi Air Force owing to their airborne refueling capability provided by their Boeing-707 tankers, which enabled them to carry out deep-penetration strikes inside Iraq.
Prior to the war, the Iraqis estimated that the Iranian Air Force had suffered the most severe damage, compared to the other branches of the Iranian military, as a result of the implications of the Islamist revolution, and that its OrBat had been significantly reduced with only about 170 aircraft remaining operational. Additionally, hundreds of helicopters had been disabled owing to a severe shortage in spare parts. For these reasons, the Iraqis estimated that the Iranian Air Force was less capable than their own air force, that the competence and training standards of the Iranian pilots were mediocre and that the Iranians' ability to launch air strikes against objectives inside Iraq was limited.
Iran had a cutting-edge air-defense system made up of US-made HAWK surface-to-air missiles and British-made Rapier missiles, plus various types of anti-aircraft guns. The Iranian air-defense system included a nation-wide early-warning and control layout with cutting-edge, US-made Radar systems deployed throughout the country as well as close to the border with Iraq. These Radars covered the territory of Iraq all the way to the Habbaniyah area, about 100 km to the west of Baghdad.

The Operational Plan

The primary mission of the Iraqi Air Force at the outset of the war was to neutralize the Iranian Air Force and keep it disabled during the first stages of the war, so as to clear the airspace of enemy aircraft (to the maximum extent possible) from the outset, owing to the concerns that effective operation by the Iranian Air Force against the Iraqi ground forces at the outset of the war could severely disrupt or even thwart their plans. After the war, senior Iraqi officials stated that it was a fundamental precondition for the decision to go to war, as the Iraqi supreme command was still apprehensive of the Iranian Air Force and its capabilities.
For this purpose, the Iraqi Air Force planned a large-scale operation intended to precede the ground offensive, where the Iraqi Air Force would stage a surprise attack against the Iranian Air Force and destroy its aircraft on the ground, in a manner similar to what the Israeli Air Force had done to the Arab air forces at the outset of the Six-Day War in 1967.
According to this plan, the Iraqi aircraft were to attack the primary airbases of the Iranian Air Force, as well as other objectives like ground control stations, command and control centers and SAM units. Additionally, the Iraqi Air Force had planned to take part in the ground operations and provide close air support to the Iraqi ground forces, as well as to defend the national airspace in the context of the over-all air-defense plan. The plan also called for the helicopters to provide close air support to the Iraqi ground forces through various missions –attacks against enemy forces, logistic support and medical evacuation.
The operational plan had been prepared by the Air Force Staff, based on the intelligence collected beforehand and the operational situation appraisal regarding the capabilities of the two rival air forces. The planning process, carried out under strict confidentiality, set out three primary principles: attack a diversified range of enemy targets in the context of the first strike wave (runways, command and early-warning assets, aircraft on the ground, aircraft pens and air-defense assets); in the context of the second strike wave, attack some of the targets already attacked in accordance with the results of the first strike, along with additional targets; and finally – step up the air-defense effort and reinforce the air patrols over the airbases of the Iraqi Air Force and other critical objectives in order to prevent any Iranian attempt to stage counterattacks in the event that Iranian aircraft do manage to take off from any airbase during the Iraqi air strike.
With the planning completed, the preparations for the attack were initiated under the personal supervision of the commandant of the Iraqi Air Force. These preparations included, among other things, the enhancement of the technical and operational competence of the Air Force, the assignment of specific missions to the individual airbases and squadrons, practice runs by the entire executing force and the task of preparing the air-defense layout for war, which included practical training and drilling.
Whereas the element of surprise was essential to the success of the operation, the airbases of the Iraqi Air Force were closed on September 20 and all leaves were revoked. Additionally, other strict security measures were taken to prevent the exposure of the planned operation. The cover story for individuals who were not 'in the know' was that the arming of the aircraft and all of the other preparations for the attack had been carried out in the context of an extensive training exercise (codenamed Nasur-4) involving the entire Iraqi Air Force. The plan was presented to the members of the high command on September 20. Several adaptations were introduced pursuant to remarks made by the members of the high command and after the plan was endorsed by Saddam Hussein, the Air Force HQ issued the mission order on the following day, with copies delivered by messengers to the Air Force bases and to the command centers of the air-defense sectors. The mission order contained instructions for an attack by 192 aircraft against ten airbases of the Iranian Air Force along with several other high-value installations in Iran.

The Air Strike 

On the morning of the attack, the pilots were briefed with additional updates regarding the enemy and the weather, and then took off on their missions. In the first strike wave (for which the H-Hour had been set at 12:00 so as to achieve the element of surprise), the Iraqi aircraft attacked ten airbases of the Iranian Air Force, as planned. These airbases included Tehran (Mehrabad), Shiraz, Bushehr, Dezful (Vahdati), Hamdan (Shahrokhi), Isfahan (Khatemi), Tabriz, Aghajari (Omidieli), Kermanshah and Ahvaz. Owing to the long distances to some of the objectives, the strike was arranged and executed by geographic allocation, so that aircraft departing from airbase in northern Iraq attacked targets in the northern part of Iran, and the same principle was maintained in the other sectors as well. Some of the aircraft had to cover a distance of a few hundreds of kilometers to reach their objectives. In preparation for the operation, the Iraqis had redeployed aircraft from remote airbases to front-line airbases. The flight routes were selected, among other things, while taking advantage of "loopholes" in the coverage of the Iranian Radars. The Iraqi Tupolev-16 bombers were sent to attack the airbases at Khatemi (Isfahan), Shiraz and Mehrabad in Tehran.
The second strike wave was executed on the same day, between 15:00 and 18:00 hours. In the context of this wave, some of the targets attacked during the first strike wave were attacked again. These targets included six of the Iranian airbases: Hamdan, Bushehr, Dezful, Kermanshah, Aghajari and Ahvaz, along with new targets, such as early-warning Radar bases in the central sector (Dehloran and Naft Shahr). According to the pilots' reports, most of the targets had been hit. Two aircraft failed to return to their bases (one of them crashed after having been hit by fragments from a bomb dropped by the formation leader; the other aircraft, a Tupolev-16 bomber, was lost on the way to Khatemi airbase, according to one version – having been shot down by an Iranian SAM, and according to another version – having crashed into a mountainside owing to bad weather and poor visibility conditions). Saddam Hussein, Defense Minister Adnan Khairallah and other senior officers of the Iraqi military were present at the main operations center during the attack and monitored its progress and accomplishments.
The entire strike operation was an attempt to emulate the opening strike staged by the Israeli Air Force against the Arab air forces at the outset of the Six-Day War. The Israeli Air Force, regarded by the Iraqis as a major threat, also served as a role model. Iraqi propaganda depicted this operation by the Iraqi Air Force as one of the symbols of success of the Iraqi military, where the Air Forced demonstrated its ability to execute a complex operation, having carefully planned all of its details – the selection of the targets, the assignment of the missions, the flight routes, the types of ordnance used and the process of preparing the pilots for the execution of their missions. The Iraqi attack managed to take the Iranians by surprise, probably because of the fact that the Iraqi aircraft had flown to their objectives at a low level and the Iranian Radars failed to spot them, so they were only challenged by sparse anti-aircraft fire. As proof of the success of their air strike, Iraq stated that the counterattack staged by the Iranian Air Force on the same day was feeble and ineffective. In this strike, the Iranians attacked various objectives, including Iraqi Air Force bases, and several Iranian aircraft were shot down by the Iraqi air-defense forces. Moreover, on the following day (September 23), when the Iraqi ground forces marched into Iranian territory, the Iranian Air Force operated against them on a limited scale and failed to prevent them from accomplishing their missions according to the planned timetable. On the other hand, the Iraqi Air Force pressed on with its attempts to gain complete domination of the airspace over the battlefield, to the maximum extent possible.

The Results 

In effect, the Iraqis failed to accomplish their objective – to keep the Iranian Air Force out of the operation from the beginning. The Iraqi failure was reflected in the extensive air strikes staged by the Iranian Air Force on the following days against objectives inside Iraq. Even officers of the Iraqi military, who subsequently joined the opposition to the regime, claimed in retrospect that the operation failed to accomplish its objectives and that the Iraqis failed in their attempt to recreate the Israeli success in the 1967 war. There were different reasons for this failure – the distant locations of some of the Iranian airbases, which affected the amount of ordnance the Iraqi aircraft could carry owing to the need to carry larger amounts of fuel; the defenses of the Iranian airbases pursuant to the lessons drawn by the Iranians from the Israeli air strike of 1967, and in particular the fortified aircraft pens; the scope of the attacking force, which was insufficient for the mission at hand, and the limited operational capability of a substantial percentage of the Iraqi aircraft used for the strikes, like the outdated Sukhoi-7 and MiG-21 aircraft, which were not up to the task; the fact that some of the aerial ordnance employed by the Iraqi pilots was unable to penetrate the fortified objectives they attacked; the insufficient experience of the Iraqi pilots in the execution of this particular type of operation, which included inadequate training and the selection of the wrong time (noon) for the attack, which shortened the timeframe during which repeat strikes could be carried out against the same targets – this enabled the Iranian Air Force to stage a massive counterattack on the same day. The failure of the operation had also stemmed from the incomplete and outdated intelligence available to the Iraqis regarding the objectives being attacked, which had an adverse effect on the planning of the strikes, as well as from other reasons like failures in the actual execution of the strikes.
According to the Iraqis, the actual execution of this move injected them with confidence regarding their ability to operate against the Iranians in the aerial arena, where up until then they had felt inferior. On the other hand, the attack had an adverse effect on the fighting spirit and morale of the men of the Iranian Air Force, which had been low since the ascent to power of the Islamist regime. The surprise, to the Iranians, was not merely tactical but strategic as well, owing to the audacity demonstrated by the Iraqi Air Force in staging such a move and becoming the long arm of the Iraqi military. Senior officers in the Iraqi Air Force claimed that this move was highly important to the way the war evolved from the outset in Iraq's favor, as the Iranian Air Force was forced to invest the lion's share of its efforts in defending its critical objectives, thereby compromising its ability to attack the Iraqi ground forces that had entered Iran's territory. Iraq regarded it as an important factor that led to the success of the initial stage of the Iraqi offensive.
At the same time as the first wave of their air strike, the Iraqis also launched a salvo of nine Scud-B type TBMs (Tactical Ballistic Missiles, having a range of 300 km) at Iranian Air Force bases and other high-value targets in areas inside Iranian territory that were within the range of their missiles (such as logistic bases in the area of Dezful).
While September 22 is known in Iraq as "Air Force Day", the following day, September 23, became known as "SAM Day", as on this day the Iranians responded to the Iraqi air strike with a massive air strike of their own, in which about 160 Iranian aircraft participated. This, more than anything else, reflected the failure of the Iraqi air strike. The Iranian air strike was aimed at various objectives inside Iraq, including Baghdad (Baghdad alone was attacked by 60 Iranian aircraft) and economic infrastructure objectives associated with the oil industry primarily. The Iraqis had taken into account the possibility that their air strike would not completely eliminate the Iranian Air Force and that the Iranians might respond, and prepared themselves for coping with this eventuality by using their air-defense layouts – interceptors, anti-aircraft guns and SAMs. According to the Iraqis, these elements (mainly the SAM batteries) succeeded in shooting down 67 Iranian aircraft. This figure was probably inflated compared to the actual Iranian losses. Based on these claims, however, the day became a memorable festive occasion for the Iraqis.
The preemptive air strike against the primary Iranian airbases at the outset of the war was, for the Iraqi Air Force and its pilots, the breaching of a psychological barrier, as up until then they did not dare tackling the Iranian Air Force, which they had regarded as a formidable opponent. Although the Iraqis failed to neutralize the Iranian Air Force, as Baghdad had hoped, this operation enhanced their belief that they were capable of dealing with the Iranian enemy, which at that time was at a low point since the change of government in Iran. This operation was the opening signal for the Iraqi ground offensive, which began when the ground forces marched into Iran's territory in the central and southern sectors (Khuzestan province).
The failure of the opening air strike followed by the failure of the Iraqi ground offensive to accomplish its objectives within a week, as the Iraqi leadership had hoped, led to a prolonged, bloody war which lasted eight long years. This put an end to the Iraqi dream of staging a decisive Blitzkrieg-type offensive against Iran in the style of the IDF offensive in the Six-Day War of 1967. 

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