Air Superiority in Gulf Strike

In Scenario 1 of Gulf Strike (VG, 1983), the Iranians are set to invade the Gulf Council States. With the US presence in the area growing more powerful each turn, Iran has to move very quickly to gain control over and consolidate its hold on the Straits of Hormuz. Time is of the essence and an Iranian player who does not move quickly will almost certainly lose the game.

One of the keys to keeping your armies moving is to gain and keep air superiority. Iran’s army has a lot of ground to cover in its march through the region, so its long supply lines that are quite vulnerable to attack from enemy aircraft. Even a rusting pile of junk is able to fly interdiction missions that will create havoc among your ground forces and slow your advances considerably. Yes, you have air defenses and aircraft – but they cannot be everywhere at once. As Stanley Baldwin once said, “The bomber will always get through.”

With that in mind, the Iranian player needs to have a solid strategy for knocking out the enemy’s air forces before they have a chance to do any real damage. To that end, the Iranian player needs to dedicate his fixed-wing air units to the task of eliminating enemy airbases until they have achieved supremacy.

The scenario setup gives Iran the following air units:

  • 10 x F-4 Phantoms
  • 8 x F-5 Tigers
  • 3 x AH-1 Cobras
  • 2 x CH-47
  • 1 x C-130
  • 1 x P3
  • 1 x S-3

The AH-1 Cobras should be the only aircraft dedicated to ground support for the early turns. The Iranian army is strong enough to take care of itself without needing to call on tons of CAS, especially when dealing with Kuwait. Plunk an airbase down in 1140 and put these guys on Offensive missions.

As for the other planes, we’ll focus entirely only on combat aircraft. That’s the F-4 and F-5s.

The Phantoms are excellent fighters with a “6” rating for anti-air. However, they are also your best bombers with a “5” bombardment rating. The F-5 Tigers are poor bombers (“3”) and decent fighters (“5”) so this should be a no-brainer. The F-4 Phantoms will deliver your air-to-ground ordnance and your F-5s will escort them or be sent on air superiority missions. Of course, the F-5s have a much shorter range than the Phantoms and here’s where things get hairy. In order to gain and keep air superiority, the Iranians will either need good luck and a lot of patience or they’ll need to make some incredibly aggressive moves from the first turn onward.

To Strike or not to Strike

On the first turn of Scenario 1, the Iranian player has the choice of either restricting their attacks to Kuwait or going all out. If they keep their units out of the other countries, the Gulf Council States will mobilize on Turn 2. On the other hand, moving into or attacking any countries besides Kuwait will result in the GC states mobilizing immediately.

Although the former may sound like a good way for the Iranians to catch the other countries with their pants down on Turn 2, I’ve come around to thinking that it hurts Iran more than helps it. If the Iranian player wants to win the scenario, they need to go all out from the very start. Turn 1 should be about taking out Kuwait as fast as possible while beginning the process of dismantling enemy air. My buddy Mark has written about Kuwait at length over at Boardgaming Life and the article is so perfect that I have little to add. On the subject of airpower, though, I think there is room to consider a possible approach.

The Opposition

Let’s go country by country and look at what we have to deal with:

Saudi Arabia

The Saudis have, by far, the most powerful air force in the game outside of the major powers and Iran. They have:

  • 2 x F-15 Eagles
  • 3 x F-5 Tigers
  • 1 x Lightning

The F-15 Eagles are better than your Phantoms with an impressive “7” anti-air rating. The F-5s are certainly no joke here either. Coupled with the AWACS for early warning, these become deadly interceptors.

Kuwait

The Kuwaiti Air Force is very small but can still throw a punch. The single Mirage squadron has a “6” anti-aircraft rating. With only one airbase and one scramble opportunity, they won’t be able to do much though. The two A-4 Skyhawk squadrons are poor fighters with only a “2” rating. They are probably more effective at making ground attacks for the short time they manage to stay alive.

Qatar

A single Mirage squadron. Not too much to worry about in the first turn but should be taken care of soon. These long-range aircraft are able to provide air cover for its small army. They might also be used for interdiction as the Iranian army marches down the peninsula.

Oman

Oman has an antiquated air force with only a single squadron of ageing Hunter aircraft (“1” bombardment and “2” anti-aircraft) and Jaguars apiece. The Jags have a very decent bombardment rating (“5”) so shouldn’t be underestimated. Not likely to do much against your armies in the early game but would almost certainly be used for strike missions against eastern Iran or enemy ships that stray too close to its shores.

UAE

The UAE has a pretty decent air force with two Mirage squadrons that could do well enough as interceptors or ground attack aircraft. They also have a Hunter aircraft that would almost certainly be assigned to interdiction.

Aircraft comparisons

AircraftAnti-airBombardmentRange
F-4 6510
F-5534
F-157510
Mirage648
Hunter212
Lightning315
Jaguar153
A-4235

As you can see from the table above, there are only really three types of enemy aircraft that pose any real threat to Iran’s air force: F-5, F-15, and Mirage. Two of these three aircraft are owned by the Saudis. Consequently, the bulk of our air activity in the first turns should be dedicated to destroying their air force. There are just two problems:

  1. The AWACS provides long-range detection of Iranian aircraft, allowing the Saudis to scramble far in advance of our arrival over target. Since we cannot club the Saudi Air Force over the head with better aircraft, Iran will have to rely on good ol’ quantity to get the job done.
  2. If the Saudis set up their air bases in a defensive area around Riyadh (thereby ceding air defense of the other allied nations around it), the airfields will be out of range for Iran’s F-5 aircraft to use as escorts for the F-4 Phantoms. Thus, the Iranian Air Force will be forced to pair up the Phantoms and use them exclusively against Saudi Arabia. It will take several turns to knock the Saudis completely out of the air. The Iranian Air Force will be hurting by the end of it.

This dilemma reveals the true limitations of Iran’s air capabilities (namely, its limited range) and highlights the need for a much more aggressive strategy based on the fact that Iran, if it is going to survive the game, will need to take drastic measures early on to capture and seize airfields. This will play a key role in keeping the Americans out of the Gulf and the Soviets in a position where they will be able to protect Iran’s gains in the region.

The options in the early turns include capturing Bahrain immediately with a marine landing in 2157 (after sinking their FAC, of course). It’s also a supply source. You might try for a foothold on the Saudi coastline by landing near Al Kubar in 1957 but the enemy Corvette and Frigate will both need to go first. A safer option might be to grab Al Hufuh at 1760. This could also be captured by a C-30 airlifted brigade in the first turn. The only problem is that reinforcement in subsequent turns can only be achieved by air.

In my experience, achieving at least two of these three objectives will at usually get the ball rolling. From the second turn, you’ll be using C-130s and your ships to transport your airbases into the newly captured airfields. Start ferrying your air units down there next. This will give you a huge advantage from Turn 3 onwards. You’ll hopefully have two dedicated airbases that can be used to launch F-5 escorted region-wide strike missions with your Phantoms.

You’ll also have a place to hang your F-14 Tomcat EW aircraft. These bases will help protect your ground forces as they move south from Kuwait. They’ll also be a great staging area to move your airmobile and naval forces east when you’re ready to attack the UAE and Oman (which should be very soon).

If the Soviets can be handed a toehold for their MiG-23s based at 4458 at the tip of the Strait of Hormuz, the Iranian forces will have a chance of pulling off a win. The key to this game is air superiority and any strategy that begins with considering how to achieve this will win over a commander who focuses only on the ground war.

6 thoughts on “Air Superiority in Gulf Strike”

  1. The problem with these ratings is they don’t take into account pilot quality. Saudis are notoriously poor pilots. I’d take an Iranian Phantom veteran of the Iran-Iraq war in an F-5 over some prince flying America’s best strike fighter any day.

      1. First I heard of that.

        I’m sure you’re familiar with the two Iraqi strike fighters a KSA F15 took down in ’91. The American AWACS commander was screaming at the KSA pilot to engage them as he was too afraid to do so.

        It’s like Viper taking out Maverick in an ancient A4. Pilot quality.

        KSA pilots don’t like to fly at night unless they can see the lights of a city.

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