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Bombed by Blinders - Part 2 PDF Print E-mail
Contributed by Tom Cooper, Farzad Bishop and Arthur Hubers, with Brig. Gen. Ahmad Sadik (IrAF, ret.)   
Dec 05, 2010 at 11:55 AM
Part 2 deals with the rest of the Irak-Iran war, starting from early 1984, including the "War of the Cities" and the final strikes on Khark; the Libyan adventure in Chad and actions against Sudan from the 1980's, plus the little known Soviet usage of the type in the last stages of the intervention in Afghanistan as an escort jammer.

Weapon of Terror

Strenuous efforts on behalf of the IrAF and with plenty of Soviet help, ensured that by early 1984 eight Tu-22Bs – including the example damaged by engine fire before the war – two Tu-22Ks, and both Tu-22Us were operational again. A new group of personnel was trained and there were finally enough spares and Soviet maintainers to keep the fleet at a high readiness rate. As a result, IrAF Blinders could now fly more missions than ever before, even if the number of available airframes never again reached previous levels. In response to a direct order from the Iraqi dictator, the IrAF changed its overall strategy and started targeting Iranian cities along the border, thus initiating what later became known as the “War of the Cities”. Iraqi Blinders were deployed intensively, mainly to strike targets deeper inside Iran – mainly in the Tehran area. Quite a few sorties reached their target areas and the Iraqi bomber fleet soon became a major headache for the Iranian people and the IRIAF.

As the Iraqi bombers increased their attacks on different cities, the Iranian religious and military leadership, as well as the public, began exerting severe pressure on the IRIAF to stop the bombardments. Iraq’s apparent success led the Iranian people to doubt that the IRIAF was capable or willing to intercept enemy bombers. In reality, however, Iranian interceptors were flying at every opportunity and going after every Iraqi aircraft they could detect. Indeed, flying was so intensive that normal maintenance schedules had to be ignored. While most of the Iraqi strikes were spoiled by Iranian interceptors, each raid that managed to get through sapped the people’s view of their air force, its capabilities and determination.

The first Tu-22 strikes of the “War of the Cities” were flown in mid-February 1984. Within a few days a number of cities in northern Iran – including Zanjun, Qazyin, and Rasht – had been hit, and soon enough the Blinders were attacking targets in the Tehran area again. The 4th Composite Bomber Wing – now equipped with Tu-16s and Tu-22s only – was still operating from the H-3 complex, but, most of the missions were staged via al-Huriyah AB, near Kirkuk, where pairs of Blinders would refuel before starting their 550km long high-speed runs against the Iranian capital. They would cruise at a very high speed, which made them extremely difficult to intercept - in order to catch any Iraqi bombers the Iranians had to be in the right place at the right time, and – of course – the Iraqi crews were not there to make their job easier.

For a while, the situation was so precarious that the IRIAF considered deploying two or three F-14As to TFB.2 at Tabriz. However, this idea was dropped because the Tomcat fleet was already overstretched by the need to defend the oilfields in the south, as well as tanker convoys and Khark Island in the Persian Gulf. Instead of Tomcats, the whole 32nd TFW, equipped with F-4Es, was deployed to Tabriz in early March 1984, in a bid to deter Iraqi bombers.

Dramatic photgraph illustrating the ferocity of Iranian efforts to intercept Iraqi bombers - images like this had not been seen since the end of World War Two. The picture was taken by the tail gunner of an IrAF 8th BS Tu-16 bomber while on a mission against Orumiyeh, in north-western Iran, on 1 February 1985, when two F-5Es from TFB.2 intercepted a formation of two Tu-16s, escorted by four MiG-23s. Although outnumbered and outgunned, the Iranian pilots managed to force the Tupolevs to jettison their bombs prematurely and abort the mission. Just a single MiG-23 was damaged by a Sidewinder and crashed while trying to return to Iraq. Nevertheless, the Iraqi MiG-23 pilots did a good job and succesfully coverd the vulnerable Tu-16s, none of which were damaged. Although both Iranian fighters survived, the official caption was: "Iranian figher being driven off and destroyed by an Iraqi Air Force Tu-16 tail gunner who was defending the Iraqi people from more criminal attacks by the Iranian air force". (former Iraqi Government, via authors)

Ghost bandits

A former F-4 Phantom II pilot with the 12th TFS, Capt. H. Mohammadi, recalled one of the missions he flew during which he experienced the full complexity of intercepting Tu-22s, as well as fighting new Iraqi tactics and capabilities:

On 15 March 1984 (soon after the seizure of Iraqi Majnoon artificial islands during an Iranian offensive), a formation of five fast-moving Iraqi planes were detected by a lone IRIAF F-14A, unarmed but acting as a radar-picket, on station some 44km east of the Qazyin City, just west of Tehran. This F-14 of the 73rd TFS was – together with two other Tomcats – based at Mehrabad for testing equipment and weapons, and also for some crew training. On this day, it happened to be testing new repairs to its radar system, and was thus on the right place at the right time...

The five Iraqi planes were identified by the AWG-9 radar as four Tu-22 bombers, all underway at about 40,000 feet and high speed, and one Tu-16 bomber flying at about 45,000ft, just behind the Blinder formation. The TFB.1 immediately scrambled our pair of F-4Es and began to prepare four more Phantoms for take-off, while our SAM units were alerted that Tehran would soon come under attack. However, as luck would have it, the Iraqi bombers detected the emission of the AWG-9 on the lonesome F-14 and were no longer intent on just flying into the open arms of the IRIAF and Tehran’s air defences: instead, these bombers and their Iraqi crews (that is if they were Iraqis) behaved somehow different than before and we were not to see this right from the start of the following action.

I led my wingman along the intercept vector towards the Iraqi bombers: initially after take-off, I had a very good feeling that these five Iraqi planes had showed us their plan early, and that they would now pay a high price for this. For once in the time as we climbed into our Phantoms we had solid information on our side: how many, what type, and where the Iraqi planes were. Plus the air force had fighters in place to intercept them. However, I was still feeling somewhat apprehensive as we climbed to intercept these Iraqi bandits – for two main reasons.

The first was that this was a large group of bombers and second that we did not know why was there a lone Tu-16 tagging along behind the much faster Blinders. IrAF bombers were very rarely seen in such large numbers: it was more common for them to attack as single bomber or in pairs or trios at most. I was thinking at first that the Iraqi Badger was acting as "pathfinder" for the Tu-22s, but the Blinders were instead clearly leading the Tu-16 into the battle. Then I came to the idea that the Tu-16 might have acted as a tanker, so to extend the endurance of the Blinders: my wingman, 1st Lt. S. Maleki, agreed with me that this must have been the case. It would not take long to learn that we were both wrong.

As we closed, my WSO and me started setting up an AIM-7 Sparrow attack, but, as I – briefly – attempted a lock-on onto the lead Tu-22, any hope for a missile attack immediately vanished. The two leading Blinders both initiated their high-speed dashes, pulling ahead of the others in their flight. I thought at that moment, that perhaps they were going to intercept my flight, but then they both climbed, and then made abrupt U-turns, one bomber going to the left and one to the right. It appeared to me at that moment, that the Iraqi pilots had chosen to run back home, and my wingman confirmed that he was thinking the same over radio.

However, even as we were talking, my WSO reported that the other three Iraqi bombers were holding their direction and speed. Thinking to myself again that this was bad, and that the Iraqis were splitting their formation in order to make it more difficult for us to intercept them, I can assure you that moments later things went from bad to worse, as all the Iraqi planes disappeared like ghosts from the radar display of our Phantoms...

What happened? They jammed our radars using SMALTA-5 ECM systems, and then also jammed my radio communication with the wingman and with our base: instead I could hear the low- and high-pitched sounds of jamming from the Soviet Pelena II electronic radio jammer in my earphones (I knew how the Pelena II sounded as I’ve heard it before). Later, while reconstructing the Iraqi operation on debriefing, we determined that the lead two Tu-22s had pulled ahead and climbed to drop a large package of chaff, forming a huge chaff cloud barrier in front of the remainder of their formation, before turning back towards Iraq. We guessed that their bomb-bays must have been fully-loaded with chaff for them to be able to create a chaff cloud large enough to hide them all from our radars.

But, now we did not only have to contend with this chaff cloud, but we also did not know that at least one of the remaining three Iraqi bombers was also equipped with a powerful electronic warfare suite – manned obviously by a capable operator, who knew how to operate it against us: the Iraqis dropped chaff and jammed us before, but not like this (IrAF Tu-22s were carrying flare and chaff cartridges usually in the rear of both of their main landing-gear pods, along with strike cameras).

Having no other plan in my mind, I used hand signals to tell my wingman to follow me into the chaff-cloud, and switch to Sidewinders. We still had enough fuel and a total of eight AIM-9s between us that could not be jammed by chaff – plus four pairs of good Iranian eyes, which were now our only hope for intercepting Iraqi bombers.

As we flew into this man-made “blind-zone” scanning the sky overhead for our targets, we did not know that the remaining two Tu-22s had dropped to a lower level and speed. Simultaneously, the lone Tu-16 was climbing at its top-speed to a higher altitude: soon it would become all too clear to us that the powerful jammers and the good electronic warfare specialist were located aboard that Badger. The two Blinders, by then at only 600ft, launched a single AS-4 missile each towards Tehran: the missiles ignited properly and started climbing to a higher altitude for a maximum efficiency cruise, and then the bombers turned away back to Iraq.

The lone Tu-16 continued towards Tehran at first, approaching to only some 30km from the city, and supplied the mid-course guidance update to the two missiles that were now at a high altitude, until they approached close enough for their own terminal guidance systems to activate and acquire the target: Mehrabad TFB.1. The air was suddenly free of most of Iraqi jamming, and the Tu-16 then also turned back towards Iraq, allowing the two of our radars near Tehran to detect the AS-4s in their terminal dive at a very high speed from high altitude. The noise, surprise, and confusion caused by this attack did far more damage to the people of Tehran than the two 1,000kg warheads ever could.

Meanwhile, we had regained a clear picture on our radars, but by now it was too late for them to help us catch the Iraqi bombers: we were short on fuel and had to return back to TFB.1 even as the tower informed us that the airfield was hit. There was no joy for the IRIAF and Iran on that day.

Iraqi Tu-22U in the USSR, shortly after the end of the First Persian Gulf War, having been sent there for refurbishment. The two Tu-22U were apparently serialled 1115 and 1116. (authors' collection)

Iraqi missile variety

Despite such sound tactics, the massive use of EW and deception, the Iranian interceptors sometimes had better luck. Barely ten days later, on 25 March, a Tu-22B was shot down by an Iranian F-14A – using an AIM-54A Phoenix missile – over the Majnoon islets, while still inside Iraqi airspace, but over positions held by Iranian troops. What an achievement this was for the IRIAF, but how the Iranian Tomcats maintained their success against improved Iraqi Blinders, their jammers, and tactics, was explained by Capt. Y, a former IRIAF intelligence officer:

We knew that the Russians flew “special” Tu-22s for Iraqis on missions over Iran, in 1984, 1985, and again in 1988, and that they tested a large variety of different weapons, tactics, and equipment. Many of these weapons were new, some were just early prototypes, and some were not even in production but only in later stages of the development. The Russians fired from Iraqi Tu-16s and Tu-22s many AS-4, AS-5, and AS-6 missiles against targets in Iran (frankly, the Iraqis even fired a large number of HY-2 Silkworm and CSSC-3 Seersucker anti-ship missiles against different land targets as the war neared its end: the Russian anti-ship missiles had obviously many applications), and also dropped many new free-fall weapons, like FAE bombs, air-dropped mines, and anti-armour cluster bombs. Many of these weapons worked fine against our troops dug-in on the front.

They also tested top-of-the-line special electronic gear – although, the ECM and ECCM systems used on their Tu-22 in general had only mixed results. The old Soviet SMALTA-2 jammer, used initially on Tu-22s, and the TAKAN-1 ECM system, used on Tu-16s, were actually useless against our MIM-23B I-HAWK SAMs. But the SMALTA-3, installed on their Tu-22s and Su-22s from 1983, functioned against the I-HAWKs, even if only from very short ranges – two or three kilometres. Of course, we would be fireing our SAMs from longer ranges and before the Iraqis could get as close.

After 1983, however, the Russians also started using the very powerful SMALTA-4 and -5 systems on some of their MiG-25s and Tu-22s deployed in Iraq, and the ECCM capabilities of their systems were also improved. We did not think that the Russians ever have let any Iraqi pilots to fly the aircraft equipped with these systems, which could blind the MIM-23B from a distance of between 10 and 15 km for short periods of time. The SMALTA-5 was the only system capable of jamming our I-HAWK radars and at the same time also “whiting out” the radar scopes of our F-4s from ranges of around 10 km. Interestingly, neither SMALTA-4 nor -5 could jam the F-14’s AWG-9 radar.

Consequently, the Iraqi and Soviet Tu-22B and Tu-22K/KD crews were still advised to avoid Iranian F-14s and F-4s at all cost, or – if already too close to the target – to execute a supersonic toss attack, thus simultaneously releasing bombs and initiating an evasion manoeuvre that could not be tracked even by the AIM-54. Exact details remain sketchy, but it seems that by using this tactic Tu-22s evaded several Phoenix missiles.

Iron bombs and supersonic lobs

The main weapon of the Iraqi Tu-22Bs remained the FAB-500, a free-fall “iron” bomb, 12 of which were usually carried. The model used on the Blinder had a tail shroud covering the fins and proved very accurate when dropped from higher altitudes and speeds. Besides, the FAB-500 was also very reliable, as it was equipped with a number of different fusing systems, which also ensured great versatility. As already indicated, however, during the war the Iraqi Blinders used other different free-fall weapons, including the giant FAB-5000 and FAB-9000 bombs – especially when they had to hit from stand-off ranges. These huge weapons were usually released with the help of the supersonic toss technique, which saw the bomber approaching the target at a supersonic speed and altitude of 50,000ft (15.240m) before releasing the weapon. Once free of the load – and still kilometres away from the target – the aircraft would then complete an Immelmann and roll-out to return to Iraq at a high speed.

Most of the targets attacked by Iraqi Blinders were large, fixed objects, often heavily defended, such as cities, radar sites, oil refineries, and open bulk-storage areas; hard to miss with “iron” bombs. Some Iranians are sure that in most of the attacks - in which the supersonic toss technique was applied - the Soviet pilots flew Iraqi Blinders: other sources, however, indicate that several Iraqi crews mastered this manoeuvre as well, and applied it successfully. It is certain that no Tu-22 using this technique was ever shot down by Iranian defences.

The FAB-5000 proved an exceptionally destructive weapon: it would kill and destroy anything within 50 meters of the impact point, and cause heavy blast damage out to 100 meters. The FAB-9000 was usually carried only on shorter-ranged missions and would kill and destroy everything within 75 meters of the impact point, while heavy blast damage was caused out to 200 meters and – of course – other kinds of damage caused out to over a kilometre. Along FAB-1000s, FAB-3000s, and FAB-5000s, the FAB-9000 remained also a major weapon against concentrations of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) troops during the war with Iran. One of its primary targets was the Iranian military camp at al-Jufair, near Ahwaz , which was a main disembarkation point for troops committed to Iranian offensives in the region of Howeizeh Marshes; the Majnoon Isle, in the Howeizeh, was hit several times through 1984, after it was occupied by the Iranians.

A particular mission that saw deployment of FAB-9000s with help of supersonic toss technique was one undertaken by three Tu-22s on the evening of 16 February 1986, against Iranian troops that occupied the city of al-Faw. The Iranians used the small docks in the local harbour to ship their men and materiel across the Shatt al-Arab waterway by night. Each of the three Tupolevs dropped one FAB-9000, equipped with South-African Jupiter proximity fuses, set to detonate the weapon eight meters above the ground. In addition to INS and RSBN-navigation aids, our pilots used radar to approach at a level of 7.000m and a speed of Mach 1.2; targeting was conducted with the help of the tank farm in al-Faw, which made a superb radar echo. Once the weapons hit, all hell broke lose on Iranian communication networks: their casualties were very heavy. The deployment of this weapon in combat was complex, but the ballistic computer of the Tu-22 was working quite well, and Iraqi pilots proved capable of dropping the FAB-9000 from subsonic or supersonic speeds (up to Mach 1.2).

Eventually, the FAB-9000 was used so excessively, that IrAF again almost run out of stocks. For this reason, the Iraqi military industry developed a home-made version, which entered production at the Nassir Establishment, some 25km north of Baghdad - the Soviets provided no help even if they were aware of Iraqi efforts. The IrAF Safety Board subjected this version, called Nassir 9, to extensive ground and flight testing. The weapon was test-dropped from both types of aircraft that were to use it, Tu-16 and Tu-22, and static detonation testing was conducted, necessary to measure the overpressure and patterns of shrapnel distribution, as well as to compare them with the Soviet original, which - as concluded by the Iraqis – was developing a higher overpressure and had a wider shrapnel distribution pattern than any comparable Western weapon. Nassir 9 matched the Soviet model to 90% of its capabilities , and entered service in 1988. The last remaining FAB-9000s and Nassir 9s were destroyed by IrAF in 1993, on a weapons range.

Nassir-9, the Iraqi reverse-engineered version of the FAB-9000, put on display in front of the former IrAF HQ building in downtown Bagdad. (authors' collection)

The Tu-22Ks continued using Kh-22: most of the missiles were still fired against Iranian radar stations and SAM sites, but a number were also fired against highly reflective radar targets, including oil refineries and industrial sites. Eyewitnesses recalled a Kh-22-strike against Rasht, a city on the coast of the Caspian Sea, in February 1985, which came without any previous warning: suddenly there was a terrible explosion that blew away a large house and severely damaged several others.

Despite using Kh-22s and the supersonic toss attack technique, deception, and heavy electronic countermeasures, the situation remained difficult for Iraqi Blinder crews, and they still had to abort their attacks on numerous occasions. From March 1985, IrAF Tu-22s, were often accompanied by MiG-25RBs and Mirage F.1EQs, and in the middle of that month they spearheaded a kind of aerial offensive against the largest Iranian cities. On 10 March, Tabriz was attacked and hit by three bombs from high altitude, killing 22 and injuring 21 civilians. On the same day, a single Iraqi bomber – either a Tu-22K or one of the updated MiG-25RBs sent to Iraq by the Soviets for testing – fired two missiles at Esfahan, killing one and injuring 19 civilians. On the same evening, a sole Tu-22K fired one Kh-22 towards Esfahan after approaching at a very high altitude, and before IRIAF fighters could intercept it, killing two civilians and injuring four others.

On the next morning, the heaviest series of strikes of the whole war so far were unleashed. Three heavy bombs – each leaving a 4 meter deep crater – hit Tabriz, killing eleven civilians. Shortly after, a single Iraqi bomber approached Qazvin but was surprised by the Iranian air defences, which fired two MiM-23 HAWKs. Both SAMs missed and landed in the fields nearby, causing no damage. The heaviest strike then hit Kermanahsh, where Tu-16 and Tu-22 dropped massive bomb loads killing 110 civilians and security personnel. Shortly after, at around 11:20, the fourth wave, consisting of two Tu-22s, attempted to approach Tehran from the west, but two F-14s were scrambled to intercept and the Iraqi bombers were forced towards the border at high speed. Finally, the port of Bandar Khomeyni was bombed and damaged. By attacking different targets far apart from each other, the Iraqis frequently managed to stretch the IRIAF to the limits, and find “holes” in Iranian air defences.

The Iraqis continued their attacks on the following day as well. On the morning of 12 March 1985, two Tu-22Ks launched Kh-22s against two points in north-eastern Tehran, killing five and injuring eight. Slightly later, Arak was attacked, but the air defences were alert, and the Blinders were caused to jettison their bomb loads. In face of such problems, Saddam Hussein still considered the “War of the Cities” to be a useful method for pushing Iran towards an armistice, and the IrAF was compelled to continue similar operations, even if it had to overcome considerable problems due to lack of suitable targeting information, precision, and properly-functioning weapons.

On 14 March, and then especially on 25 May 1985, seven Tu-22Bs attacked Tehran again, this time penetrating successfully and causing damage to some industrial targets. Additional raids were also flown against Esfahan and Shiraz. All crews of the 7th BS participating in this raid were decorated, and Col. Hamawi advanced to the rank of Lieutenant General (he was later to become the Commander of the IrAF, only to be executed by the regime during the Gulf War II, in 1991).

Twilight of Service in Iraq

In response to these fierce bombing attacks, by early 1986 the Iranian air defences had been revamped following a complete reorganization of all its assets, some indigenous improvements, but also a series of massive – and clandestine – arms shipments from Israel, USA, South Korea, Singapore, and elsewhere. As a result the Iraqis began to consider their Tu-22s as too vulnerable to be used for attacking targets inside such well-defended areas like Tehran. The well-prepared and executed Iranian Valfajr-8 offensive, initiated in February 1986, which resulted in the capture of most of the Iraqi Faw Peninsula, brought Iraq on the verge of military defeat, and the IrAF was compelled to deploy all available assets, regardless of the price.

Together with Tu-16s, Tu-22Bs and Tu-22Ks were initially thrown into the attacks against Iranian troop concentrations - the Iranian air defences along the front were more effective than ever before, however, and the IrAF started suffering excessive losses among its tactical fighters. Unable to recapture Faw, or hit the Iranian units on the front with air power, the regime in Baghdad lost patience. On the early morning of 15 February 1986, Blinders – supported by MiG-25RBs and escorted by MiG-25PDs – bombed Tehran twice before the third formation was intercepted by F-14s. The Tomcats shot down a MiG-25RB, but the Tu-22s escaped undamaged. The next morning, the Tu-22s were sent back to the front at Faw, and deployed against the Iranian “Kowsar-3” MIM-23B SAM site, that was operational near the city.

This SAM site had previously presented an immense problem to the Iraqis, and it was to do so again on 16 February. Early in the morning, Kowsar-3 started work by downing a single MiG-23BN, and causing the rest of the Iraqi formation to abort. Shortly after, the second strike appeared, this time the Iranian SAMs shot down an Iraqi Tu-22K.

With this, the IrAF was down to only one Tu-22 capable of carrying Kh-22s: unsurprisingly, there are no reports of Kh-22 usage in this war after that date. As a matter of fact, the whole Iraqi Blinder fleet did not reappear in the war until July 1986 when – this time escorted by Mirage F.1EQs as well as MiG-25s – several were sent to resume daily strikes against Tehran and Esfahan. Most of the time, they were still capable of finding blind spots in the Iranian radar network, and – when needed – they would be supported by tactical fighters dropping chaff canisters, or employing heavy jamming.

On several occasions, the appearance of the Blinders was not detected by their opponents until their bombs had started to fall. However, the number of missions aborted because of Iranian F-14s was still too high for the ocontribution of the Tu-22 to be characterized as “useful.” Besides, the Soviets had now started supplying more advanced tactical aircraft and weapons to Iraq, among them Su-22M-4Ks and Su-22UM-3Ks, equipped with smaller but more effective anti-radar missiles, like the Kh-28M and Kh-25MP, and the effectiveness of MiG-25RBs in Iraqi service was also constantly increasing. By 1987, therefore, the Iraqi Blinder fleet was again largely grounded.

An IrAF Tu-22B, apparently photographed in 1989 or 1990, during refurbishment in the USSR. Note the dark appearence of the aircraft, painted in olive green, contrary to the usual descriptions of Iraqi "Blinders" being painted in sand and dark earth. (authors' collection)

Final strike

By late 1987, the strategic circumstances in Iraq had changed dramatically. Temporarily unleashed from the tight control by the regime, the IrAF took the war deep into Iran, flying hundreds of sorties each day mainly to hit targets of economic significance. This – together with the clever tactic of avoiding unnecessary air-to-air battles, the use of stand-off weapons by Iraqi pilots, the massive employment of chemical weapons along the frontlines, and the increasing US support for Baghdad – caused great problems and concerns for Iran, which soon found itself exhausted by the long conflict, even to the point of experiencing manpower shortages.

Despite very intensive Iraqi operations, however, one target survived relentless attacks: the oil storage and export installations on Khark Island. The IrAF had launched several aerial offensives against Khark, a few of them a couple of months long, hitting the installations on the island with dozens of strikes, in 1984, 1985, and 1986. Most of these operations, however, either missed the target or suffered extensive losses for no gain in exchange. Nevertheless, by early 1988, US support for Iraq became widespread, influential, and effective, that by then, US Navy ships were directly supplying targeting information for Iraqi anti-ship strikes in the Khark area, as well as for the oil installations on the island. This support led to the last large operation involving Iraqi Tu-22s.

In late 1987, the IrAF purchased four Xian B-6D (H-6D) bombers and between 30 and 50 2,440kg (5,379 lb) C.601 semi-active radar-guided anti-ship missiles from China, hoping to be able to use them against Iranian shipping – mainly oil tankers – underway in the southern Persian Gulf. For various reasons, however, the B-6Ds and C.601s were no more successful than the Mirage F.1EQ-5 and AM.39 Exocet combinations: the C.601’s 225kg (496 lb) warhead would not cause more damage than an Exocet when hitting super-tankers, which proved highly able to withstand attacks due to their huge size and massive construction. Besides, the Iranian defences were still vigilant and very active, downing more Iraqi aircraft over the Persian Gulf than ever before. In total, oil exports from Khark were still flowing, and were barely disrupted by Iraqi strikes.

On the evening of 16 April 1988, however, US Navy ships underway in the central Persian Gulf reported a convoy of Iranian tankers heading towards Khark, and supplied all the relevant data to the Iraqis. Throughout the next day, additional reports arrived in Baghdad about the minimal activity of Iranian interceptors in the air over the Persian Gulf. To the IrAF, which had suffered extensive losses in the area during February 1988 (no less than eight Mirage F.1EQs and one B-6D were shot down by Iranian F-14As during separate battles), this seemed to be the opportunity it was looking for. It could now conduct a massive strike against the convoy while it was loading crude oil at Khark, delivering a decisive blow to the Iranian oil exports.

By this time, only six Tu-22Bs and two Tu-22Us remained operational, and the IrAF needed most of the following 48 hours to get them ready for the strike – along with six MiG-25RBs, and a total of 18 Mirage F.1EQs, six MiG-23BNs, and two Su-22s (the last were to act as SEAD escorts). Meanwhile, additional reports from the US Navy effectively declared the area around Khark a “shooting gallery,” full of “excellent targets.” Finally, at around 01:00 on 19 March 1988, on the eve of the Persian New Year, the first wave, including four Tu-22Bs and six Mirages, took of from Shoaibah AB, near Basrah. This attack was devastating - first two of the Mirages first launched their Exocets, scoring two hits in the accommodation block of the tanker Kyrnicos - it was so badly damaged that it had to be towed back to Larak Island.

Then, 32 minutes later, and supported by heavy jamming from escorting Mirages carrying Caiman ECM pods, the Blinders arrived, dropping 12 FAB-500 bombs each. Their attack came as a complete surprise: Ava’i, a super-tanker of 316,398dwt, was hit by several bombs, causing a horrible conflagration. Massive explosions ripped the giant ship apart, killing 22 of the crew. Nearby, Sanandaj, weighting 253,837dwt, was also hit with equal precision: 26 of the crew perished, and the ship was gutted by flames. The Blinders disappeared before even a single IRIAF interceptor could scramble from Bushehr.

The US Navy ships nearby monitored the unfolding attack, and reported that it was executed in good order. But then, either the skipper of the carrier USS Ranger (CV-61) or USS Guadalcanal (LPH-7) issued a message that the Iraqi attack was “...deplorable in nature,” followed by a general order to all the other skippers of USN ships in the area to “...stop acting like Iraqi guardians.” The repercussions from this decision were far-reaching, as this happened exactly at the moment the second Iraqi wave – consisting of two Tu-22Bs, four MiG-25RBs, six MiG-23BNs, and two Su-22M4-Ks – was approaching Khark from northwest, while at least two Iranian F-14As were doing the same from southeast, and two F-4Es from the south!

Turning the tables

What happened when these aircraft met over Khark at 0932hrs that morning, can only be described as a complete catastrophe for the IrAF, even if full details are still not available. The IRIAF F-14 crews were working extremely well and lucky that their planes and missiles were in excellent condition. Swiftly establishing proper firing parameters, they launched at least five Phoenix missiles within a very short period.

While it is possible that more Iraqi aircraft were shot down, the radars onboard USN ships confirmed the downing of one Tu-22Bs, and a single MiG-25RB. Not one of the seven crewmembers from these aircraft was rescued. While the high-speed pursuits were going on at high levels, MiG-23s and Su-22s made low approaches, but by this time the IRIAF MIM-23B system on Khark was operational and fired several HAWKs in quick succession, It was confirmed that the site shot down one MiG and a Sukhoi within 30 seconds. The strike upon Ava’i and Sanandaj was certainly the heaviest and – for both sides – the costliest of the whole “Tanker War.” The Iraqis destroyed two of the largest Iranian “shuttle tankers,” used for transporting crude oil to the lower Persian Gulf, where it was loaded into ships sent by customers. Iran was forced to postpone further oil exports for quite some time. However, they not only did they once again fail to destroy the oil installations at Khark, but Iraq also certainly lost at least two precious Tu-22Bs, together with a single example each of a MiG-25RB, MiG-23BN, and Su-22M-4Ks, as well as their irreplaceable crews.

It should be explained that the number of Iraqi planes lost during this battle was based on radar monitoring by USN ships: as they were not stationed very close to Khark these results may not have been very accurate. It is, therefore, very likely that the Iraqis suffered even more losses – because it is known that their third wave arrived in the Khark area at around 15:00hrs, and that by that time the IRIAF MIM-23B site on the island had apparently fired all of its rounds, as numerous urgent Iranian radio messages were intercepted, requesting replacement rounds to be sent from the mainland.

Certainly the IrAF never tried anything similar again against Khark, and the Iranian tanker shuttle did not suffer any further losses of this nature. There were far fewer Iraqi anti-shipping strikes after this, and even though the “War of the Cities” continued afterwards it was mainly with surface-to-surface missiles. For IrAF Blinders, the strike against Khark flown on 19 March 1988, was their “swan song,” because they did not fly any more combat missions again.

In total, during the First Persian Gulf War, the 7th BS IrAF lost four Blinders in combat: two Tu-22Bs to Iranian F14As and AIM-54A Phoenix missiles, one Tu-22B and one Tu-22K to MIM-23B Improved-HAWK SAMs. Not a single crewmember known to have ejected from these aircraft, was recovered - although six were captured by the Iranians, the rest died. Another two were claimed by the Iranians, one to F-14As and one to AIM-7E-2 Sparrows fired by F-4E Phantoms, but these claims remain unconfirmed. Additionally, at least three Blinders are known to have been so severely damaged by Iranian defences that they had to be written off even if returning safely to Iraq, and – as already described – two other Iraqi Blinder pilots were captured after being shot down while flying other aircraft.

Questionable success in Chad

Meanwhile, Libyan Arab republic Air Force (LARAF) Tu-22Bs became involved in yet another struggle in Africa, this time in Chad, a former French colony. In 1973, Libya annexed the Aouzou strip in northern Chad, an area supposedly rich on oil and uranium reserves. By 1980, this along other foreign influences and political rivalries between two factions – one led by Hassan Habré and the other by Goukouni Oueddei – caused the outbreak of a fierce civil war. After last French troops left Chad, in August 1980, Habré organized an uprising against his former compatriot Oueddei, fording him to call Libya for help.

On 9 October 1980, two Libyan Tu-22Bs flew a long-range strike successfully targeting Habré’s forces around the Chadian capital. From then on, the 1110th Sqn LARAF permanently held two Blinders on alert at al-Jufra/Hun AB. High Command in Tripoli had requested that the unit be able to launch them within four to six hours of being put on notice for a mission (a very tall order for the LARAF at the time, and especially a unit equipped with Tu-22s!). The Soviet, East German, Syrian, and Pakistani crews, supported by their hosts, and the crews of the 1120th Sqn, worked intensively to make such schedule work, and the Libyan ruler Ghaddafi soon showed little restraint when using the Blinders in Chad.

In 1981, Libyan troops arrived in N’Djamena, fighting on Oueddei’s side. Indirectly, this caused a French and US reaction in support of Habré’s “Forces Armée du Nord” (FAN) with arms and supplies mainly coming from the West via bases in Sudan. By mid-1981, the civil war in Chad had resulted in total chaos in the country, and it is very likely that the operations of the USN’s 6th Fleet in the Gulf of Syrte, in August 1981 (that led to an air battle in which two F-14As shot down two Libyan Su-22s) were also influenced by this fact.

With Western help, the FAN developed into a small but effective army, well equipped with light weapons, but lacking heavier punch, especially SAMs. Meanwhile Oueddei’s forces were supported by a strong LARAF contingent, including Mirage 5s and Su-20/-22s, as well as SIAI-Marchetti SF.260WL Warriors, and Tu-22Bs of the First Bomber Squadron, which were now frequently forward-deployed at Ma’atan Bishrah AB, in southern Libya. From September 1981, after finishing work on enlarging the airfield near Aouzou, in north-western Chad, Libyans also deployed a number of aircraft there – sometimes including Blinders - the possession of Aouzou enabled the LARAF to react more swiftly to calls for air strikes against FAN, targeting places in Chad, but also inside Sudan, mainly using Tu-22Bs.

FAN and Sudanese air defences at the time were poor, and in most cases the Libyans were able to carry out surprise attacks. However, on 16 September 1981, the Sudanese shot down a Libyan SF.260 over the border - this was initially reported to be a “bomber,” or even a “Tu-22,” because it was known at the time that Libyan Blinders had flown a number of strikes against targets in Sudan.

Wreck of a LARAF SIAI-Marchetti SF.260WL Warrior, shot down over Sudan on 16 September 1981. The aircraft was initially incorrectly claimed as either a "Libyan bomber" or even a "Libyan Tu-22". Of interest is the squadron crest, carried on the fin, together with the LARAF seial "341". Libya purchased over 260 SF.260s in different versions, and these saw widespread service with the military, as well as with civilian air clubs, enabling dozens of new pilots to be trained - several of whom subsequently flew Tu-22s. (US DoD, via authors)

The Libyan ruler was so enraged by the loss of the Warrior that he ordered another “power projection” to be undertaken by the 1110th Sqn. This time Omdurman, the second largest city in Sudan, was to be attacked. The mission was flown in late September by a single Tu-22B that dropped three FAB-500 bombs. All the weapons missed and instead blasted three civilian houses, killing three and injuring another 20 civilians in the process. Nevertheless, the attack caused considerable dismay in Sudan, Egypt, and the US. The Egyptians promptly dispatched a squadron of F-4Es to the Sudanese border, while the US deployed two carrier battle groups to the Gulf of Syrte, as well as eight F-15Cs and a single E-3A AWACS to Cairo West AB, in Egypt.

Unperturbed, the Libyans continued to send Tu-22Bs to strike other targets in Chad and Sudan, attacking some 20 additional objectives by November, when the Organization of African Unity (OAU) managed to negotiate a ceasefire between FAN, Oueddei and the Libyans. By early 1982, a OAU peace-keeping force was positioned at N’Djamena, however, the peace would not last for long. In the spring of the same year, the FAN started a swift offensive and captured the Chadian capital, installing Habré as the new president and forcing Oueddei to flee to Libya.

Of course, Ghaddafi was not amused by the new situation, so he helped Oueddei organize a new and better-equipped armed force under the auspices of the “Gouvernment d’Unité Nationale Tchadienne” (GUNT). By April 1983, the GUNT – supported by the 2,000 strong Libyan “Islamic Brigade” (essentially a mechanized unit manned by Libyan and other Arab volunteers) – moved into northern Chad, and launched an offensive against the FAN, supported by intensive LARAF operations. Habré’s forces were unable to stop the onslaught of the much improved enemy, and soon Ghaddafi felt strong enough to reinforce the Libyan contingent and start a fully-fledged invasion of Chad.

Spearheading this attack was again the LARAF, and its aircraft flew hundreds of missions over following weeks. Tu-22Bs were foremost used to pound the airfield and base at Faya Largeau. The bombing campaign was not only intensive, but also precise, and in July, Habré – after suffering considerable losses – was forced to pull FAN back into southern Chad. When the GUNT and the Libyan “Islamic Brigade” continued their advance southward, however, Zaire came to the aid of the FAN, dispatching 1,750 soldiers and three Mirage 5Ms to N’Djaména. This, and at least 35 tons of French aid in arms and ammunition, gave the FAN the ability to counter the offensive, retaking Abéché and Faya by 31 July 1983.

Habré’s counter-offensive provoked a fierce Libyan response, and over the next few days, LARAF – now operating from Faya Largeau as well – dispatched dozens of Tu-22Bs, Mirage 5Ds, Mirage F.1ADs and Su-22M-2/-3Ks to attack various targets, successfully scattering several FAN units that were underway in the barren and open desert. Simultaneously, Libyan Mirage F.1EDs patrolled along the 16th parallel to keep any eventual French reinforcements or Zairian Mirages away from the battlefields in the north. Operating from Aouzou and Faya, Libyan aircraft were much closer to the front and able to give constant air support. In addition, LARAF Ilyushin Il-76, Lockheed C-130 Hercules, and Boeing-Vertol CH-47 Chinooks transporters were able to fly supplies closer to the units, while Mil Mi-8 and Mi-24 helicopters were also deployed on a number of smaller forward strips to support ground troops.

The FAN lacked means to counter Libyan air power - during the whole campaign only one Su-22M-2K was shot down (on 4 August 1983; the pilot was captured). Since the LARAF continued to cause heavy losses to FAN forces, Habré was finally forced to call France for direct assistance, and on 5 August 1983, up to 2,000 French soldiers were deployed to N’Djamena with the help of US C-141 Starlifter transports as part of “Operation Manta”. Within days, French reinforcements were deployed along the 16th Parallel, blocking the Libyan advance.

After the short war with Egypt, in the summer of 1977, new markings were introduced by the LARAF, so also on "Blinders of the 1110th and 1120th BS, consisting of simple green fields, as illustrated on this Tu-22B intercepted by USN fighters high over the Mediterranean Sea, in the summer of 1981. During the 1980s many aircraft began to show signs of their heavy use and permanent exposure to the elements - the green colour eventually became "bleached" to chocolate brown. (USN photo, via authors)

The “Toyota Wars”

The situation in Chad had stabilised by early 1984, and both sides tried to consolidate their positions. With northern Chad under the firm control of the GUNT and Libyan expeditionary forces, the LARAF established a major air base at a barren location called Ouadi Doum, where a 3,800m long runway was built, defended by one SA-6 SAM site and numerous ZSU-23-4 flak batteries. This base had barely become operational, when in 1986 fighting erupted once again with a new GUNT offensive towards N’Djamena.

France, whose forces had been pulled back to the Central African Republic, initiated “Operation Épervier”, deploying a larger contingent of the Foreign Legion into Chad. This time, however, the French decided to achieve air superiority over the battlefield by removing the threat of the Libyans operating out of Ouadi Doum AB. On the morning of 16 February 1986, French Jaguars and Mirage F.1Cs – originally based at Bangui in the Central African Republic – flew a very successful strike against this airfield, causing considerable damage to the runway and also several air defence systems.

Although taken completely by surprise by the fierce French reaction, Libyans prepared its revenge in under 24 hours - on the next morning, a single Tu-22B crossed the 16th Parallel along a commercial air corridor, and descended to very low level while continuing on a southerly course. Approaching N’Djamena, the bomber swiftly climbed to 5,030 meters and accelerated past Mach 1. This time it was the French who were taken by surprise - the sole Blinder dropped three bombs very precisely: one hit the taxiway and two others struck the runway, closing the airfield for several hours.

The precision and success of this attack – as well as a subsequent reconnaissance run over N’Djamena by a lonesome Libyan MiG-25R – shocked the French, and forced them to deploy a MIM-23B I-HAWK SAM site to the Chadian capital – with the help of USAF C-5A Galaxy transports.

This build-up of French forces in March 1986 coincided with a decline in LARAF strength, partly caused by very intensive operations, and partly because at the time most Pakistani ‘advisors’ had left the country. Contrary to some reports, there was no spares shortage - in fact, one of the reasons that Libya purchased so many combat aircraft in the 1970s was that Ghaddafi was shocked by the huge losses of Arab air forces during the war against Israel in 1973. He became obsessed with purchasing not only more aircraft than the LARAF could need, operate, or maintain, but also stockpiling vast quantities of spare parts (so many that the LARAF would never be able to use them all up).

Yet, Libyan Tu-22 operations were so intensive in 1986 that the Second Bomber Squadron abruptly ceased flying, when its personnel and most of the aircraft were transferred to the First Bomber Squadron to help lessen the maintenance load caused by the permanent alert status and frequent combat operations. Additional strain was put on the LARAF, when a unit each of MiG-23MS, Mirage 5Ds, Mirage F.1ADs, Su-20/-22s, and at least a pair of Tu-22Bs were permanently stationed in Chad, causing the supply lines from northern Libya to the limit.

From March to April 1986 the Libyans were also engaged in a series of clashes with US forces in the Gulf of Syrte that culminated with the combined USN-USAF strike against Benghazi and Tripoli, on 15 April. The situation in Chad calmed down, especially after Oueddei was wounded in a firefight in the Libyan capital, and arrested by Ghaddafi’s police.

By the end of 1986, reinforced by deliveries of MANPADs and guided anti-tank missiles, and encouraged by the absence of the LARAF, Habré felt strong enough to begin an offensive that would eventually expel over 10,000 Libyan troops deployed in the country. On 2 January 1987, forward elements of FAN overrun southern Libyan positions and advanced toward north, causing heavy losses, while suffering only minimal casualties. Again, the LARAF reacted with a series of air strikes, flown mainly by Tu-22Bs, Su-22s and MiG-23BNs, however, the French Air Force was now active over the front, and its Mirage F.1Cs prevented the LARAF from being as effective as before by making it too risky for the Blinders to strike concentrations of FAN troops and their supply bases. Instead, on 19 March 1987, FAN crushed two powerful Libyan counter-attacks in central and eastern Chad, and forced Libyans to flee toward Ouadi Doum. This base fell to FAN troops two days later, after catastrophic Libyan losses.

The Chadians, French, and Americans were delighted to find stores of Soviet-built equipment that the Libyans had left behind, including two Tu-22B Blinders, three Mi-24 Hind helicopters, eleven L-39ZO trainers, and two SF.260s, all of which were captured intact, together with all the equipment for at least one SA-6 and one SA-8 SAM site, plus a large amount of communication equipment and ammunition.

On the morning of 23 March, the LARAF responded by dispatching two Tu-22Bs that bombed Ouadi Doum, trying to destroy the captured equipment. Additional Blinders and other Libyan fighters then also bombed Faya Largeau and several other towns captured by FAN. Such attacks continued for the following months. However, by this time the FAN was equipped with US-supplied Redeye and Egyptian SA-7 (Sakr-Eye) MANPADs, which claimed several Libyan aircraft. In addition, the Chadians rushed one of the SA-6s – captured from the Libyans – into service as well. On 8 August 1987, two Tu-22Bs attempted an attack against the airfield at Abéché and one Blinder was hit by one of two SA-6s fired: the crew was killed instantly.

Libyan ZRK-KUB SA-6 launcher vehicle, captured by FAN during the fighting near Ouadi Doum, and inspected by Chadian troops in 1987. Later that year, this type of missile was turned against its former owner, and used to shoot down a Tu-22. (US DoD, via authors)

The spoiled Blinder-raid was too much for Habré - by late August 1987, he clandestinely gathered 2,000 fighters in northern Chad. On the night of 4 September 1987, they drove over the border and 300km deep to the main Libyan air base at Ma’atan Bishrah. Arriving in the middle of the night, the FAN caught the Libyans in their underwear - within two hours the airfield and the adjacent base were completely demolished, and the Libyans suffered catastrophic losses, including 26 Su-22s, MiG-21s, MiG-23s, Mirages, and two Mi-24s (both shot down while attempting to take-off). Before dawn, FAN troops withdrew back into Chad.

Once again, Ghaddafi was outraged, and many of his military staff paid with their heads for this catastrophe. However, the Libyan leader was determined to show his might, and ordered one more raid to be undertaken by the Tu-22Bs of the 1110th Sqn.

On the early morning of 7 September 1987, four Blinders penetrated the Chadian airspace, two closing on Abéché and two on N’Djamena. This time, however, the French were ready. Their ground control in N’Djamena detected the approach of the Blinders and vectored a pair of French Air Force Mirage F.1Cs to intercept. Realising these could not catch the TU-22s in time, however, they then ordered the Mirages to stay away and handed the intercept to a battery of the 402nd Air Defence Regiment, French Army, that was defending the airfield of the Chadian capital instead. This fired one or two MIM-23B I-HAWK SAMs, scoring a hit that caused one of the Blinders to explode into several large pieces – which were then targeted by Crotale SAMs of a locally based French Air Force battery. Eventually the French recovered much of the wreckage, including the landing gear that is now on display at the entry gate of the artillery regiment that scored the kill. They also recovered the wreckage of the cockpit – with the bodies of the crew. These turned out to have been Europeans, later identified as East Germans.

Both in this, and in the case of the Blinder downed by Chadian SA-6 on 8 August, the Libyans initiated intensive SAR operations for any survivors, and promised a considerable reward for them being recovered alive, but it seems that not a single of the six crewmembers survived the downing of their bombers. Interesting, the controller that initiated the intercept had subsequently to report to the commander of the French Air Force detachment in N’Djamena, and was blamed – in front of all the pilots – for depriving the Armée de’l Air of its first combat aircraft kill since the end of the World War Two!

The other Tu-22 en route to attack N’Djamena aborted and disappeared without dropping any bombs. The second section was not much more successful either, and even if it managed to drop its bombs all 24 missed the target and hit houses near the Abéché airfield, killing several civilians.

Although afterwards the Libyans amassed several brigades on the Chadian border, the war was actually over, and on 11 September 1987, a cease-fire was signed by all the parties involved and – with the exclusion of a few more air raids by the LARAF, flown in early October, during which the FAN shot down a Su-22M-3K and a MiG-23MS using newly acquired FIM-92A Stingers – it was largely observed by both sides. By early 1988, the LARAF MiG-25Rs also stopped flying reconnaissance missions over Chad.

End of the line in Iraq and Libya

By 1989, both the Iraqi and the Libyan Tu-22 fleets were in the same condition they had been more than ten years previously, except that there were far fewer of them and that most were beyond their anticipated airframe life or beyond repair. Only five Tu-22Bs and Tu-22Us remained intact in Iraq, but they were hardly used at all. When Gulf War II broke out, in the early morning of 17 January 1991, all were stationed – still with the 7th Bomber Squadron – at al-Taqqadum AB. This unit was now added to all the remaining six Tu-16s and H-6Ds of the 8th Bomber Squadron (at least one of which was equipped with Soviet-supplied UPAZ-1 Sakhalin pods and acted as a tanker), which in turn re-qualified on Sukhoi Su-24MKs.

It appears that although all surviving Tu-22Bs were refurbished in the USSR in 1989 and 1990, the Iraqis were actually planning to completely replace them with Su-24s. Consequently, when on the first night of Operation “Desert Storm” the USAF F-117As appeared undetected over al-Taqaddum, the Iraqi bombers were caught still inside their revetments and reduced to piles of scrap by direct hits from laser-guided bombs. The sole surviving B-6D was recovered and made operational only in the year 2002; US and UK pilots detected it airborne several times as late as March 2003 – occasionaly accompanied by the sole surviving Iraqi Su-24MK. This bomber should have been destroyed by US air strikes in the following month. When al-Taqaddum was captured by the units of the Australian SAS in May 2003, the wrecks of the former proud and sizeable bomber fleet of the IrAF were still lying in their revetments: all were given to two scrap merchants from Baghdad, and turned into aluminium ingots. Through analyzing satellite and ground level images, it can be concluded that there was a total of 8 Tu-22 wrecks present at al-Taqaddum before being melted down.

The fate of the Libyan Tu-22s was different - out of the airframes that survived attrition, the war in Chad, and dozens of combat sorties flown against targets in Sudan, only five Tu-22Bs and a single Tu-22U remained operational by 1992: the last flight of a Libyan Blinder was recorded on 7 September of that year. As in Iraq, they were replaced in service by Su-24MKs. With the relatively recent advent of publicly available satellite imagery, it can be definitely confirmed that 7 Blinders, in apparently good condition, are stored at al Jufra / Hun AB, while another is derelict at Mitiga AB. Four were lost in Chad – two shot down and two abandoned at Ouadi Doum – and one example was lost in an accident in the 1980’s, while trying to land at Brach. The fate of the remaining three airframes out of the total 16 delivered is unknown, but it is likely that some – if not all three – were lost in accidents over the years.

Right from the start of their service with these two Arab Air Forces, the Iraqi and Libyan "Blinders" carried different camouflage colours, though applied in the same pattern of broad dark green stripes over tan (in the case of Libyan examples) or olive green (on Iraqi examples) on the upper sides of the fuselage and wings, while lower surfaces were pale grey. Unfortunatly, in the case of Libyan Tu-22s no serials are known, none being visible on any of the available photos. (artwork by Tom Cooper)

Iraqi Air Force Tu-22B serial 1113, showing the typical camouflage of the Iraqi Blinders. It appears that Tu-22Bs were serialed 1101 to 1114. (artwork by Tom Cooper)

Silent Service in Afghanistan

The last combat sorties flown by Libyan Blinders in 1987, and Iraqi examples in 1988, were not to be the final missions flown by the Tu-22. The last combat sorties flown by the type were undertaken by examples in service with their original user, Soviet Long-Range Aviation, during the final stages of the Afghanistan War.

In the late 1980s, Soviet involvement in Afghanistan was losing political and popular support, and the cost of the ongoing conflict became unbearable by the economically precarious USSR. The Gorbachev government decided it was time to end the military presence in Afghanistan, and completed the withdrawal of Soviet contingent by February of 1989.

To cover the retreat a massive use of firepower was deemed necessary, to prevent the Afghan Mujaheddin from overrunning every position abandoned by the Soviets. Although Tu-16 Badgers, as well as Tu-22M2 and Tu-22M3 Backfire bombers had been used over Afghanistan before, during the withdrawal Long-Range Aviation’s bombers had to take over the role from departing Frontal Aviation units and delay the Mujaheddin.

In October 1988, two squadrons of Tu-22M3 Backfire bombers from Poltava’s 185. TBAP were deployed to Mary-2 AB in the Soviet Republic of Turkmenistan. During their bombing missions over Afghanistan, they dropped mainly FAB-1500 and FAB-3000 heavy bombs, which were used against known targets, and also as area denial weapons with delayed fuses that would detonate the bombs up to six days after they had been dropped.

Since a lot of targets for Badgers and Backfires were located in the Khost region, near the border with Pakistan, there was always a potential threat from the Pakistani Air Force (PAF) F-16A Fighting Falcon interceptors, which had already downed numerous Soviet and Afghan aircraft over that area. As a result, Backfires needed ECM cover to jam PAF early-warning radars. Consequently, the Tu-22PDs of the 314 DBAP, usually based at Ozernoye, were also deployed to Mary-2 AB. During missions over Afghanistan, the jamming capabilities of the Blinder-E proved successful, and no PAF interceptor was encountered, even if some other Soviet and Afghan aircraft – including the Su-25 flown by Alexander Rutskoy, who later became Russian Vice President and later Governor of Kursk– were intercepted and shot down by PAF F-16s during the same time-frame.

In December 1989, Tu-22M-3s from Poltava were replaced with similar aircraft from Orsha-Balbasovo AB, and in January of the following year the jammer-Blinders were replaced with four Tu-22PDs from the 203 DBAP, usually stationed at Baranovichi AB. However, they were pulled back after only several weeks, leaving Mary-2 in February as soon as the last Soviet troops had been pulled back from Afghanistan. There are reports that the Tu-22PD Blinder-E’s of the 203 DBAP entered Pakistani airspace several times completely unnoticed by PAF’s air defences, but such rumours were never confirmed. This last short combat deployment of Tu-22 Blinders ended with three Tu-22RDs of 199 ODRAP from Nezhin AB, being stationed at Mozdok AB, on 3 November 1989, for photographic reconnaissance duties over Afghanistan. Their only mission was cancelled, however, and the aircraft returned to Nezhin within a week.

The subsequent collapse of the USSR eventually sealed the fate of the remaining Blinders. Although nominally still on strength with the Ukrainian Air Force well into the late 1990s, their last mission had been flown several years earlier.

In summary, the Tu-22s were used against enemies and over areas they were never intended to fly. Instead of being deployed in regiment-sized formations against larger NATO bases in the western Europe, or against USN carriers in the Mediterranean Sea, in most cases Iraqi and Libyan Blinders flew one-, two-, or three-ship missions, dashing at high speeds over targets in their neighbouring countries, in order to remain out of reach of ground based defences or interceptors. While they managed to evade most of enemy fighters sent against them, the results of their bombing attacks were rather mixed. This was caused foremost by usual need to develop proper bombing-techniques for use in conjunction with an exceptionally tricky weapon aiming system, a malfunction-prone aircraft, the lack of proper targeting information, and also poor tactics.

In total, the Tu-22s never proved entirely satisfactory, and even the Soviet blaming of “poorly trained” Arab crews for the lack of success could not avert the fact that the precision of every single attack undertaken by the type was not only depending on the training of the weapons operator, or his skills and experience, but also – due to technical reliability – to a great degree also on a fair amount of luck. The Tu-22B, its bomb-aiming system, and most of its weapons – with exception of the FAB-500 bombs – were too malfunction-prone to allow better bombing results – regardless of the plane operating at high speeds and altitudes, or from low levels. The same must be concluded about the Tu-22K: the Kh-22 was a highly unreliable weapon, and available reports about its deployment in Iraq, in the period between 1981 and 1986, indicate that only one in 12 missiles functioned as advertised by the manufacturer, and expected from the crews. Even this result was only achieved by intense efforts of Iraqi ground and flying crews, which were the only ones to regularly deploy this acid-propelled weapon in combat. Soviet and East German pilots and weapons system operators could not improve the situation: as a matter of fact, even the Tu-22M-2/-3s deployed over Afghanistan were still suffering from similar problems.

The raids of the lonesome Libyan Tu-22Bs against the airfield at N’Djamena in 1986, as well as the strike against the Khark, in 1988, remain the two best-known of very few perfect examples of what could have been achieved with this aircraft – if it was more properly developed in the first place.

Last Updated ( Dec 07, 2010 at 01:38 PM )
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