DefenseNews.com describes what an attack against Iran might look like. The scenario they paint is consistent with past speculation on the topic. A strike against Iran would be a Navy and Air Force show, with the aircraft and surface ships of the 5th fleet taking the lead role.
The story, by Defense News reporter William McMichael, does contain a few minor errors. For example, he notes that the USAF has not deployed its stealth fighters–the F-117 and F-22–to the region, nor the B-2 stealth bomber. In reality, the F-117 and F-22 would be among the last assets to arrive (to avoid tipping our hand prematurely), and the B-2 would probably start the war from its home station (Whiteman AFB, MO), flying on to Deigo Garcia after initial bombing runs over Iran.
McMichael is also a bit off in his characterization of Iran’s Air Force, though much of his information comes from noted defense analyst Anthony Cordesman. Tehran actually purchased 60 F-14s from the U.S. during the days of the Shah, but today, the number of flyable Tomcats is probably less than 10. Additionally, there is convincing evidence that the F-14’s “big stick,” the long-range AIM-54 Phoenix missile, is no longer operational on the Iranian jets. As we reported last year, Tehran was experimenting with I-HAWK surface-to-air (SAM) missiles on their F-14s, in an effort to find a replacement for the Phoenix. There are a number of potential problems with that little science project, and no indication that it has actually been successful. At this point, Iran’s remaining F-14s would be nothing more than a minor nuisance to coalition aircraft, and I don’t think their AIM-54s would make much “noise” at all.
In fact, Iran’s “front line” fighter is still the venerable F-4 Phantom, purchased from the U.S. more than 30 years ago. On most days, Tehran can muster no more than 30 of these jets, armed with older models of the AIM-7 Sparrow (radar-guided missile), and the AIM-9 Sidewinder, an IR missile. McMichael’s “experts” are correct in noting that Iranian fighter and air defense crews must rely on a chaotic command-and-control system for guidance, making them easy targets for USAF F-15s and F-22, and Navy F/A-18s.
While Iran does have some newer aircraft in its arsenal (notably, the Russian-built MiG-29), they have suffered from operational and logistical problems, and tactically, they are employed less proficiently than the F-4s and F-14s. As for those Iraqi aircraft that “defected” to Iran in 1991, most are derelicts, or used as decoys. Bottom line: the “real” air threat faced by our forces would consist of roughly two dozen F-4s, 6-8 F-14s, and perhaps a dozen MiG-29s, thrown into combat piecemeal, if they get off the ground at all.
The article is more on track in its characterization of ground-based air defenses, although the only “medium altitude” missile system that causes any real concern is the recently-acquired SA-15. Iran’s older SAMs, including the U.S.-built I-HAWK and the Chinese-produced CSA-1 (SA-2) are well known, and we have very effective countermeasures for them. Potential aircraft losses from enemy fighters, SAMs and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) would probably be very low, particularly if SA-15 batteries can be identified and targeted quickly.
The rest of the report is a pretty good read. Obviously, the real question is when the U.S. might pull the trigger on Tehran, and the Defense News story closes with recent reports (from senior U.S. officials) downplaying chances for a conflict with Iran.