Soviet support for Iraq during the Iran–Iraq war

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During the Iran–Iraq War from 1980 to 1988, the Soviet Union (USSR) sold or gave more military equipment and supplies to Iraq than did any other country,[1] as well as providing military advisers.[citation needed] The public position of the Soviet Union was officially neutral, especially early in the war. They clandestinely provided a smaller amount of support to Iran. Later in the war they more visibly supported Iraq, but still maintained official neutrality.[citation needed]

At the start of the Iran–Iraq War, while Iraq was on the offensive, the Soviet Union stopped all overt and most covert arms shipments to Iraq for 18 months.[2] Rather than wanting to help Iran, the Soviet Union was probably annoyed with Iraq's president Saddam Hussein, who had refused the Soviets more access to Iraqi ports in exchange for arms. Soviet prestige was at stake if its arms were defeated, so the Soviets began to provide spare parts and ammunition. They later replaced complete vehicles and weapons in one-to-one exchanges.[3] France supported Iraq as the second greatest military supplier, and tended to supply higher-technology equipment than the Soviets.[4]

Motives for policy towards Iraq[edit]

"Although the Soviets might not receive payments for several years, the sale of military hardware remained a critical source of revenue for them, and they have tried to retain Iraq as a customer ...

In early 1988, Iraq owed the Soviet Union between US$8 billion and US$10 billion in military debts alone."

– Helen Chapin Metz, 1988[5]
Further information: Iraq–Russia relations

When the Iran–Iraq war began, the United Nations (UN) responded with Security Council resolutions calling for a ceasefire and for all member states to refrain from actions contributing to continuing conflict. A key resolution in 1987 was Resolution 598.

The Soviet Union opposed the war and cut off arms exports to both Iran and Iraq, the latter being an ally under a 1972 treaty.[6]

Despite strong policy disagreements with Iraq, the Soviet Union was concerned about the reputation of its weapons and arms deliveries resumed in 1982.

The Iraqi Communist Party, driven from Iraq by the Ba'athist regime, was allowed to broadcast calls for the end of the war from the Soviet Union.[2] This may have been more due to Soviet irritation at the war than a serious attempt to harm Iraq: Iran was not seen as pro-Soviet.

Competition with other countries[edit]

France supported Iraq as the second greatest military supplier, and tended to supply higher-technology equipment than the Soviets.[4] Iraqi leaders were inclined to blame their Soviet-supplied equipment for failings rather than admit their own organizational and training problems. While Soviet equipment may have been inferior to others, it was effective when handled properly, but the Iraqis supplemented or replaced it with French equipment. The competition between France and the Soviet Union as an arms supplier was a continuing issue for Iraq. Iraq approached the French in late 1980 with requests to buy Crotale and Roland surface-to-air missile systems (SAMs) to augment their depleted Soviet SAM arsenal.[7]

Many other nations provided materials or encouraged client states to do so, and private arms traders also sold arms to both sides.[citation needed]

Support for Iran[edit]

Timmerman quotes "World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers", United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Washington, DC, 1985, as conservatively estimating Iran's arms imports over the 1979–83 period at $975 million from the Soviet Union.[4]

Soviet training[edit]

Iraqi pilots were less aggressive because of their more conservative Soviet training. Yet, French, Indian and Egyptian trainers indicated that Iraqi pilots could be extremely effective after Western-style training that put the initiative in the air in the pilot's cockpit and with his flight leader.[citation needed]

Movement away from Soviet doctrine was also seen in land warfare, where the Iraqis also learned to place greater emphasis on training and preparation for complex combined arms operations. This was seen in the training provided to new recruits and the use of large-scale battle rehearsals.[8]

Intelligence support[edit]

Iraq improvised an AWACS using a British Thompson CSF Tiger radar on a Soviet Il-76 airframe, the combination called the Baghdad 1.[9]

Cordesman cites Jane's Defense Weekly[10] as reporting that the Soviet Union had to reschedule its satellite coverage during the more intense periods of tension between Iran and the West.[9] In November and December 1987, the Soviet Union lowered its Kosmos 1983 photo-reconnaissance IMINT satellite to monitor the battlefield between Iraq and Iran. Similarly, it altered the orbit of Kosmos 1985 in a way that implied it either had night coverage of the battlefield or was covering U.S. activity at Diego Garcia.[citation needed] There have been numerous reports that Iraq received intelligence from third countries, especially satellite imagery from the U.S.[11] The Jane's article suggests that the Soviets also might have provided imagery.[9]

Air warfare[edit]

At the start of the war, the Iranian air arm had superior equipment to what was largely Soviet equipment in Iraqi hands.[citation needed] The Iraqis used the Soviet air defense model, which gave pilots relatively little initiative.[citation needed]

The Iraqis and Soviets had different priorities for waging air warfare, shown by how each assigned their best pilots to different aircraft types. This conflicted with Saddam Hussein's strict control of the Iraqi military, but over the course of the war some flexibility did emerge.[8] The Iraqis considered ground attack to be the most important and put their best pilots into their French Mirage F-1s rather than Soviet air-superiority fighters and interceptors such as the MiG-25 and MiG-29.[12]


Soviet MiG-29

In 1979, the Soviet Union supplied Iraq with 240 fixed-wing and helicopter aircraft, along with military advisors, initially stationed at as-Shoibiyah Air Base 45 km SW of Basra.[13] In early 1987, the Soviet Union delivered a squadron of twenty-four MiG-29 Fulcrums to Baghdad. Considered to be the most advanced Soviet fighter, the MiG-29 had previously only been provided to Yugoslavia, Syria and India. The MiG-29 export deal to Iraq gave a more advantageous payment schedule than any offered by the West: Iraq was caught in a financial crisis and needed the low-interest loans provided by the Soviet Union.[5]

Ground support[edit]

Su-22 version of Su-17

In the ground support role, the IQAF provided aircraft for close air support and strike roles and, to a limited extent, for air superiority over the immediate battlefield. In 1980, the Iraqi air force had 12 ground attack squadrons-4 equipped with MiG-23Bs, 2 with Su-7 (NATO reporting name FITTER), 4 with Su-20s (i.e., the export version of the Su-17 FITTER C), and 1 with British Hawker Hunters. They also had some Su-22's, the final upgrade of the Su-17 with Russian/French avionics. Also, the IQAF had two bomber squadrons equipped with Tu-22s (NATO reporting name BLINDER) and Il-28s (NATO reporting name BEAGLE) respectively, though the latter were probably inoperable.


Iraq had two transport squadrons whose primary aircraft were Soviet Il-76s (NATO reporting name CANDID) and An-12s (NATO reporting name CUB).[7]


The 11 helicopter squadrons included Soviet Mi-8s (NATO reporting name HIP) and Mi-24s (NATO reporting name HIND), as well as European-designed models.[7] Soviet helicopters had troop transport capability rather than being attack-only.

Air defense[edit]

SA-6 launcher in desert camouflage
SA-2 on camouflaged launcher
SA-3 surface-to-air missile

Iranian pilots avoided Iraqi S-75 Dvina (NATO reporting name SA-2 GUIDELINE) and S-125 (NATO reporting name SA-3 GOA) anti-aircraft missiles using American tactics developed in Vietnam, though they were less successful against Iraqi SA-6s optimized for low and medium altitude engagements. "Iran's Western-made air defense system seemed more effective than Iraq's Soviet-made counterpart."[14]

Surface-to-air missiles[edit]

Iraq's ground-based air defense suffered from poor leadership as well as both a lack of understanding of the Soviet operational doctrine and technical characteristics of their Soviet SA-2, SA-3, and SA-6 surface-to-air missiles.[15] Iraq adopted Soviet deployment and fire techniques, and relied on standard Soviet tactics without adapting to Iraqi needs. The SA-2, and SA-3 were designed for a medium- to high-altitude threat, tactics which the Iranian Air Force rarely if ever used. By the time of the 1988 ceasefire, Iraq had obtained from the Soviet Union approximately 120 SA-2 launchers, 150 SA-3 launchers, 25–60 SA-6 launchers. The Soviet weapons depended on a low-altitude system of anti-aircraft artillery with SA-7, SA-8, and SA-9 missiles, and eventually the SA-14.

Some Israeli experts came to regard Iraqi ability to manage the command and control and electronic warfare aspects of their Soviet-supplied surface-to-air missile systems as far inferior to those of Syria, even considering the poor Syrian performance in 1982.[16]

Interceptors and air-to-air missiles[edit]

Each interceptor squadron was deployed at a separate base for defense of a specific target. Their five interceptor squadrons had limited all-weather capability and were all equipped with MiG-21s (NATO reporting name FISHBED).[7]

The Iraqis were displeased with Soviet air-to-air missiles. Pakistani technicians were reported to have helped the Iraqis modify some MiG-21s to carry the French-made R550 Magic air-to-air missile. The Iraqis claimed to have used a MiG-21 so equipped to down an F-14.[7]

Land warfare[edit]

The Soviet Union initially cut off supplies in response to being caught by surprise, but this position was later reversed.[8] Iraq was not prepared for effective infantry combat when the war began. In accordance with Soviet doctrine, the Iraqis placed great stress on the use of tanks and mechanized units during the first stages of the war.[citation needed]

Tanks and armored fighting vehicles[edit]

Type 59 tank in Iraqi colors, captured in 1991 war

Soviet doctrine emphasized tanks, and Iraq followed its example. It consistently improved its skills with tanks, both Soviet-made and Chinese copies. It also used its attack helicopters with some of the Soviet "flying tank" methods. Most Iraqi tanks were Soviet, or Chinese copies of Soviet tanks, with more and more acquired during the war. They started in 1979 with 2,500 older T-55 and T-62 model Soviet tanks, and a few more advanced T-72 tanks, probably less than 100. Iraq had roughly 2,750 tanks in late 1980. In early 1988, it had more than 4,500 Soviet T-54s, 55s, 62s, and 72s, some 1,500 Chinese Type 59 and Type 69-II main battle tanks (copies/derivatives of the Soviet T-54A), 60 Romanian M-77s, and some captured Iranian British-made (30?) Chieftains. It is believed that France sold also about 100 AMX-30 to Iraq.

Captured Iraqi BMP-2

Iraq had about 2,500 other armored vehicles in late 1980. By late 1985, Iraq had about 3,000 AFVs. It had about 5,100 such systems in early 1988, including roughly 1,000 models of the Soviet BMP-1 and BMP-2 armored fighting vehicle. Even during the opening stages of the war, Saddam Hussein was aware that Soviet tank types were individually inferior to those used by the Iranians. In October 1980, he said: "Their [Iran’s] cannons are greater in number, their tanks more advanced, their navy can reach long distance targets, and they have better arms."[17] The Iraqis were unprepared for urban warfare, even using Soviet methods that cost the Soviets heavily in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.[citation needed]

Iraq's tanks were more effective against Iranian helicopter gunships. The Soviet 12.5mm anti-aircraft machine guns on the Iraqi tanks were of adequate range and lethality to hold Iranian helicopters out of the range of their most lethal anti-tank guided missiles.[17]


Iraq still kept most of its helicopters in its air force at the beginning of the war, which created major problems because of a lack of effective coordination between the air force and forward deployed army units. In mid-1980, it had 35 Mi-4s, 15 Mi-6s, 78 Mi-8s, 18-34 Mi-24s, 47 Alloutte IIIs, 10 Super Frelons, 40 Gazelles, 3 Pumas, and 7 Wessex Mk-52s. By early 1988, it had a strong Army Aviation Corps with 150–200 armed helicopters, including 40–80 Soviet Mi-24s with the 3M11 Falanga (NATO reporting name AT-2 SWATTER), and the rest French, and 86 U.S. designs (either U.S. made or built under license) lightly armed helicopters: 26 Hughes 530F, 30 Hughes 500D, and 30 Hughes 300C.[17]

Army aviation had 10 Mi-6 (NATO reporting name HOOK) heavy transport helicopters, and 100 Mi-8 (NATO name HIP), 20 Mi-4 (NATO name HOUND), and an additional 10 French Puma medium transport helicopters.


The Iraqis made logistic oversupply a key operational principle. They operated on the Soviet system of "supply push", rather than the U.S. system of "demand pull". Iraqi forces at the front were given massive ammunition stocks and war reserves. This was necessary given their Soviet-style extremely heavy artillery bombardments.

"By the end of 1982, Iraq had been resupplied with new Soviet materiel, and the ground war entered a new phase. Iraq used newly acquired T-55 tanks and T-62 tanks, BM-21 Stalin Organ rocket launchers, and Mi-24 helicopter gunships to prepare a Soviet-type three-line defense, replete with obstacles, minefields, and fortified positions."[14]

The Iraqi Army had about 200,000 men under arms in September 1980, with another 250,000 in the reserves. It was equipped with almost 3,000 Soviet-built tanks, including about 100 T-72s, 2,500 armored fighting vehicles (AFVs), and about 1,000 tubes[clarification needed] of artillery. The tank force was a mixture of T-34/55/62s and PT-76s of Soviet origin and some 100 French AMX-30's, of which more were on order. Mechanized forces included Soviet BTR 50/60/152s, and BMPs, French Panhards and British Ferrets.[18]

Naval warfare[edit]

The Iraqi Navy was largely ineffective due to a poor state of training and inadequate Soviet weaponry. Most of the Osa class missile boats were at the lowest level of training and readiness for operations.[18] The Iraqi Navy numbered about 4,000 men and consisted of submarine chasers, patrol boats, missile boats, torpedo boats and minesweepers of Soviet, British and Yugoslavian origin.[citation needed]

Missile technology[edit]

While the Soviet Union assisted Iraq with long-range missiles like the SCUD, there is little evidence that they helped the Iraqi development of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.[citation needed]

Chemical warfare[edit]

A raw, redacted CIA report suggested that the Iraqis used Soviet chemical defense equipment.[19] All units in the Iraqi army had some chemical defense capability, using principally Soviet equipment. The basic vehicle-mounted system was composed of: "BBAR" and "RCH 469" chemical attack detectors; "GSP12" chemical concentration measuring device; a small chemical laboratory; night flares and flags to signal the direction of attack.

Iraqi army units of approximately 3,000 men had a 20-man chemical defense unit assigned. This unit was equipped with two "R469" chemical attack detectors; one RS-19, RS-12, or RS-14 vehicle for decontaminating weapons, buildings and roads; and two "DDA" vehicles for decontaminating soldiers. Smaller-units had one-man chemical defense units with a Soviet chemical attack detector and a German Kärcher pressure washer for decontaminating soldiers.

Individual soldiers had Soviet gas masks, and one of three types of chemical defense suits. "Number one" suits, which gave the greatest protection, were used only by chemical units. "Number two" suits covered the torso, hands and legs (in addition to the gas masks), and the "Number three" suits issued to troops consisted of long gloves. All received Yugoslav first-aid packets with two atropine injectors, "tablets for nuclear radiation", and two bottles for spot-cleaning unknown chemicals.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ TIV of arms imports to Iraq, 1980–1988, Arms Transfers Database, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute
  2. ^ a b Shalom, Stephen R. (February 1990), "The United States and the Gulf War" (– Scholar search), Z magazine [dead link]
  3. ^ Sonnenberg, Robert E. (1 April 1985), The Iran–Iraq War: Strategy of Stalemate, Marine Corps Command and Staff College 
  4. ^ a b c Timmerman, Kenneth R., "Fanning the Flames: Guns, Greed & Geopolitics in the Gulf War", Iran Brief  |contribution= ignored (help)
  5. ^ a b Metz, Helen Chapin, ed. (1988), "Arms from the Soviet Union", Iraq: a Country Study, Library of Congress 
  6. ^ Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (April 9, 1972), Embassy of the Republic of Iraq in Moscow website, 21 July 2014 
  7. ^ a b c d e Bergquist, Ronald E. (1981), The Role of Airpower in the Iran–Iraq War (PDF), Airpower Research Institute, United States Air University 
  8. ^ a b c Clark, Robert (2000), Symmetrical Warfare and Lessons for Future War: the Case of the Iran-Iraq Conflict, Canadian Forces College, Advanced Military Studies Course 3 
  9. ^ a b c Cordesman, Anthony; Wagner, Abraham R. (2003-09-26), "Chapter XI: Command, Control, Communications, Intelligence and Battle Management", The Lessons of Modern War: Volume II, The Iran–Iraq War (PDF), Center for Strategic and International Studies  Cite uses deprecated parameter |coauthor= (help)
  10. ^ Jane's Defense Weekly, December 19, 1987, p. 1400
  11. ^ Woodward, Bob (15 December 1986), "CIA Aiding Iraq in Gulf War; Target Data From U.S. Satellites Supplied for Nearly Two Years", Washington Post 
  12. ^ United States Gulf War Air Power Survey, IV: Weapons, Tactics, and Training and Space Operations, Air Force Historical Research Agency, 1993 
  13. ^ Exhumating the Dead Iraqi Air Force
  14. ^ a b Iran–Iraq War, 
  15. ^ Cordesman, Anthony; Wagner, Abraham R. (2003-09-26), "Chapter XIII: The Air and Missile Wars and Weapons of Mass Destruction", The Lessons of Modern War: Volume II, The Iran–Iraq War (PDF), Center for Strategic and International Studies  Cite uses deprecated parameter |coauthor= (help)
  16. ^ Hurley, Matthew M. (Winter 1989), "The BEKAA Valley Air Battle, June 1982: Lessons Mislearned?", Airpower Journal (Air University, United States Air Force) 
  17. ^ a b c Cordesman, Anthony; Wagner, Abraham R. (2003-09-26), "Chapter XII: The Combined Arms and the Land War", The Lessons of Modern War: Volume II, The Iran–Iraq War (PDF), Center for Strategic and International Studies  Cite uses deprecated parameter |coauthor= (help)
  18. ^ a b Martinson, Martin J. (1 April 1984), The Iran–Iraq War: Struggle Without End, Marine Corps Command and Staff College 
  19. ^ Central Intelligence Agency (1989), Subject: Iraqi Chemical Weapons and Defense Capabilities, CIA 369862