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Why A U.S. Navy F-14 ‘Top Gun’ Tomcat Intercepted a Supersonic Concorde Jet

F-14 Concorde
Image Credit: Creative Commons.

During the early days of Operation Desert Shield in August 1990, a U.S. Navy F-14 Tomcat intercepted a supersonic Concorde passenger jet. The reason why dates back to an Iraqi attack on an American warship three years earlier.

The Iran-Iraq War that endured for most of the 1980s involved a series of bloody land battles, but the conflict did also spill over into the maritime realm. The so-called “Tanker War” that took place as part of the larger Iran-Iraq War began with the Iraqis targeting Iranian oil tankers, to which Iran responded by sinking Kuwaiti tankers. The United States inserted itself into the conflict when it responded to Kuwaiti calls for military escorts.

In 1987, the USS Stark guided-missile frigate, while escorting a Kuwaiti tanker, was struck by a missile fired from an Iraqi aircraft.

The aircraft in question was not a warplane, but was instead a modified Dassault Falcon 50 business jet. Iraqi officials had made the decision to outfit the Falcon 50 with offensive weaponry for use in anti-shipping operations in the Persian Gulf, and carried out a technical study involving the incorporation of the radar and fire-control system used by the Iraqi Mirage fighter aircraft on the Falcon. The Iraqis lacked the technical capabilities to carry out these modifications, and so the country’s single Falcon 50 was flown to Paris, where it was modified to include both cockpit controls and the pointed nose of the Mirage F.1, along with that aircraft’s Cyrano radar. The modified Falcon 50 was also equipped with a single launcher for the AM.39 Exocet missile under each wing.

The modified aircraft came to be known as Suzanna after the French girlfriend of one of the Iraqis involved in the project, and was deployed for its first and only combat operation on May 17, 1987. Armed with its Exocet missiles, Suzanna launched with an escort of Iraqi Mig-23s and Mig-25s before heading out into the Persian Gulf on an eastward trajectory. Suzanna acquired a target and released two Exocet missiles, both of which struck the USS Stark. Only one of the two missiles detonated, but the successful detonation resulted in the deaths of 37 American sailors. The Iraqis immediately issued an apology for the accidental attack.

The U.S. military was now aware of Suzanna, and when the first air patrols were conducted as part of Operation Desert Shield in 1990 the Navy was on alert for possible attacks by the aircraft.

During one such patrol, two F-14s were scrambled following reports of a fast-moving Iraqi aircraft approaching American warships from the north. The crews of two additional F-14s, returning from a training flight over Saudi Arabia, were also dispatched to perform an intercept. Visual identification by the crews, however, found that the aircraft in question was a commercial Concorde passenger jet, which was allowed to continue its flight.

The military would later learn that the Iraqis had evacuated Suzanna to Iran in late 1991 without its weapons systems, where the aircraft has been used to transport Iranian VIPs ever since.

Written By

Eli Fuhrman is an Assistant Researcher in Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest and a current graduate student at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he focuses on East Asian security issues and U.S. foreign and defense policy in the region.

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