Key point: Iranian companies have struggled to produce all the specialized parts that the Tomcat requires.
Tensions have escalated in the Persian Gulf region in the aftermath of U.S. president Donald Trump’s decision unilaterally to withdraw the United States from the agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program.
The U.S. military has implicated Iranian agents in several summer 2019 attacks on civilian ships sailing near Iran. The U.S. Navy sent the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and her strike group to the region. The U.S. Air Force deployed B-52 bombers and F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters.
If war breaks out, American forces likely will attempt to secure Gulf air space by destroying or suppressing Iran’s air forces. The regular Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force and the air wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps militia together operate around 700 aircraft.
The IRIAF’s 1970s-vintage F-14s could be U.S. forces’ first targets. According to a survey by Flight Global, the Iranian air force in 2019 operates around 24 F-14 Tomcats from a batch of 79 of the Grumman-made, swing-wing fighters that Iran acquired in the mid-1970s before the Islamic revolution.
The U.S. Navy retired its last Tomcat in 2006. But with its long range and powerful radar, the F-14 remains one of the world’s most capable fighters. For that reason, the Americans for many years have been trying to ground the Ayatollah’s F-14s.
Sixty-eight of Iran’s F-14s survived the Iran-Iraq War that ended in 1988. Sanctions that the United States imposed after the 1979 revolution prevented Iran from openly acquiring spare parts for the heavyweight fighters.