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F-16s to Iraq? An Analysis

F-16s, Iraq
USAF F-16s, Iraq
(click to view full)

Iraq's military has made significant strides in recent months, and the country is beginning to order more advanced military equipment to match. A slew of recent requests would spend over $10 billion to buy advanced armored vehicles, strengthen its national military supply chain, build new bases and infrastructure for its army, and even buy advanced scout helicopters.

That last purchase was significant, because an Air Force that had once been one of the strongest in the region is currently reduced to few dozen planes and helicopters, with no front-line fighters or attack helicopters. The ARH order would give Iraq's military its first real aerial combat power, though they will be employed in the internal anti-terrorist battle rather than acting to secure Iraq's sovereignty against neighboring countries.

Establishing that kind of external security requires the ability to control the air over one's own country, which is why the USAF has always planned to remain in Iraq for a number of years as a guarantor. Now, the Wall Street Journal reports that Iraq is pushing to begin flying its own fighters within the next couple of years - and is looking to buy American F-16s, rather than the Soviet and French fighters that made up Saddam's air force...

Technology Options

On Sept 5/08, the Wall Street Journal reported that Iraq is seeking 36 "advanced model" F-16s, which probably means the standard F-16 C/D Block 50/52+ models requested or bought by recent customers like Chile, Greece, Morocco, Poland, Pakistan, Romania, Turkey et. al.

Those back-channel requests have yet to become a formal US DSCA request. Nevertheless, if recent F-16 sales are any guide then the likely cost of that order, plus the associated spares, weapons, et. al. required to give Iraq's air force a working fighter fleet once again, would be about $4-6 billion. Even a formal DSCA request would be just the beginning of the process, however; as DID's readers know from our coverage, actual signed contracts can take anywhere between 30 days and 4+ years after the official request. Fighter aircraft delivery times add another 1-3 years.

Even the eventual DSCA request will not come to pass without technology export approvals, however; clearance for various F-16 types, equipment, and weapons sold in conjunction with the aircraft will be an issue for discussion in the USA. Fortunately for Iraq, the F-16 is already flown by a number of countries in the region, including Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. These aircraft include a number of early F-16A/B models, plus a larger set of upgraded early models and F-16C/Ds. A request within those parameters should be uncontroversial, though requests for some air to ground weapons like GPS-guided JDAMs could become a separate issue.

Other F-16 variants exist in the region. Israel flies all F-16 models including its own F-16I, which modifies the F-16D block 52+ and adds a lot of Israeli electronics, equipment, and weapons. The UAE is a another exception, flying the world's most advanced F-16s: the Block 60 Desert Falcon with built-in infared surveillance and targeting, the AN/APG-80 AESA radar, and an engine upgrade, among other improvements. Iraq would not request F-16Is, however, and F-16 E/Fs are unlikely to receive approval at this stage in Iraq's evolution.

Political Background

F-16 armed, Balad
USAF F-16, Balad AB
(click to view full)

While events can always overtake even the best of plans, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki recently told reporters that he wants all American forces to be able to leave Iraq by 2011.

Iraq's request for F-16s certainly fits with that strategy. No country can remain sovereign if it cannot control its own air space, and having its own fighter aircraft available for missions would give Iraqis far more leeway to make independent decisions about the future direction, training, and use of their military.

Even if the US agrees to the sale as expected, however, that 2011 timetable would be a tall order. The USAF currently operates about 300 aircraft of all types in Iraq, supplemented by US Navy fighters and US Army transports and helicopters. That force will not be replaced by 36 F-16s - nor would such a force provide sovereignty insurance against Iraq's neighbors. Indeed, the need for US government sale approval, training, and logistics stand-up means that the new Iraqi Air Force is unlikely to have any operational F-16s before 2010-2011.

If Iraq wishes to go beyond air-air roles for its F-16s and perform close air support as well, its air force will find that this is a demanding task all its own, requiring practice and combined-arms training and equipment in order to be effective. The USAF has deliberately slowed Iraq's progress in this area for various operational and political reasons, and so there is no current base of expertise or equipment for the IqAF to build upon. If the IqAF wishes to be able to replicate the crucial role performed by American and British fighter jets in the Iraqi Army's March 2008 Battle for Basra, therefore, or to support Iraqi troops in the even of hostile incursions from its neighbors, it will need to allocate even more lead time before it can be effective.

In the end, all of the relevant decisions will be political, rather than military, choices. At present, the odds are that Iraq will fly F-16 C/D aircraft in the Block 25-50 range, beginning around 2010. Alongside a reduced but still present USAF, which will remain in Iraq beyond 2011.

Additional Readings


Hopefully not too advanced - I'm sure Iran would love to "borrow" an F-16 with hopes of replicating it (and/or selling it to China, though I'm sure the Chinese have other avenues if they wanted to get one). Also, I know most wouldn't be interchangeable, but a steady supply of diverted F-16 parts might help the Iranians with their aging F-14 fleet.

So, while on the one hand the Iranians need to be assured that the rearming of Iraq with tanks and fighters doesn't mean a return of an aggressive Iraq on their border, on the other hand we do need security built into any deal to make sure the Iranians don't get any advanced tech that gets sold to the Iraqis. Given the influence of the Shia in the Iraqi government (and military), I don't know how that could be assured.

I reserve my judgment on this one.

I'm surprised Iraq didn't put out a request for tender to all the major fighter-producing nations for the aircraft, given that (1) as you say, they are going to need more than 36 fighters, (2) there are lots of countries apart from the USA that produce F-16 class (and better) aircraft, and (3) they would probably get a better deal on price and delivery timescale that way.

Regarding JDAM-type munitions, perhaps Iraq envisages creating an indigenous capability to manufacture this type of weapon, since it is presumably not particularly difficult to do.

tagryn... why would China bother with that charade? It already has Pakistan for that.

As for F-16 and F-14 parts, they're not interchangeable at all. They problem systems on the F-14 (swing wing, engine esp.) have no counterpart whatsoever on the F-16, and parts, pieces, et. al. aren't remotely the same. Heck, they can't even get that kind of compatibility in different versions of the upcoming F-35 fighter.

"...on the other hand we do need security built into any deal to make sure the Iranians don't get any advanced tech that gets sold to the Iraqis."

Same way you build it into other deals. If you displease the weapon supplier badly, no more spares, no more support, and your fighters become very expensive paperweights. Indonesia had that problem with its F-16s, and Venezuela is having that problem too. Which is why both went and bought new SU-27/30 fighters from Russia.

With respect to tech transfer, anything that isn't more advanced than the equipment given to Pakistan represents no incremental risk re: China, and it isn't like Iran could do anything useful with that tech. Russia? Already has better stuff of its own.

The deeper story here is that Maliki is chafing, and wants to call his own shots in Iraq and control his own destiny. Including his country's destiny within the region. I suspect many Iraqis feel that way, and are going to be pushing on multiple fronts to make that happen. That means diminishing the USA's role in country, even if hey can't quite replace it, yet.

Which is success, from my point of view.

tagryn: Hopefully not too advanced - I'm sure Iran would love to "borrow" an F-16 with hopes of replicating it (and/or selling it to China, though I'm sure the Chinese have other avenues if they wanted to get one).

I'm not quite sure what you mean here. If by "replicating it" you mean manufacturing their own copies, I'd be very surprised if either Iran or China would consider doing this. Iran already operates the MiG-29 which is roughly comparable with the F-16 and in the interests of commonality would probably prefer to copy that aircraft rather than the F-16. Not that Iran has the money of industrial base to produce a world-class fighter aircraft anyway.

China also manufactures several aircraft of roughly equal capability with the F-16, e.g. the J-10, J-11, and JF-17. China also is developing the J-XX. Why would China therefore want to manufacture the F-16?

On the other hand, if you mean copying certain technologies within the F-16, which ones do you have in mind?

Also, I know most wouldn't be interchangeable, but a steady supply of diverted F-16 parts might help the Iranians with their aging F-14 fleet.

Don't these points contradict each other?

"The USAF has deliberately slowed Iraq's progress in this area for various operational and political reasons..."

Could you expand on that?

Mr Blue:

Well, I'm certainly not in Joe's league when it comes to mil intel, but it was clear to me from the originally-published IqAF Table of Organization post-Saddam that what Iraq was being allowed was nothing very useful (especially nothing intended) for air-to-ground attacks or air-to-air combat. Mostly observation planes, with maybe a tiny bit of airmobile capability.

Rather like the original intent of what became Japan's Self-Defense Force, before the Korean conflict reframed that.

Not to put too fine a point on it, it's unwise to hand such A/G and A/A capabilities to folks you aren't either rock-ribbed sure about or able to wash your hands of plausibly.

Iraq has not fallen into either category. Its de-facto "client" status could have led, and might still lead, to US being considered complicit in sectarian air attacks on ground targets, deep incursions into other nations' airspaces, and other provocations, were any such to occur.

Imagine US forces flying high cover having to shoot down rogue Iraqi Air Force elements. In the early days, burrowed Baathists might have pulled that sort of thing. Imagine Iraqi planes hitting the vicinity of Kirkuk in response to on-ground Kurd activity. That still might happen.

Bad all around.

Nort pretty much nails it.

I'll add that the USAF's concern also included the worry that neither Iraq's ground forces nor its pilots were sufficiently trained to call for and use air support with any kind of precision. Even with the best intent, against enemy targets, that's going to create collateral casualties.

If you believe, as the US military does, that counterinsurgency is about being the protectors of the population to gain its support (note: Russia and many others have a very different doctrine, which has also worked), then this is a problem. Hence the ISR (Intel, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) and transport focus to date.

From my point of view, that's a gamble that turned out OK, but it was extremely risky. If the Michael Moore "jihadi minute men" crowd had won and the US had pulled out, Iraq's government would have had nothing with which to protect its territory, and no air options that might have helped it continue the internal fight on its own. That's a sure-fire recipe for Vietnam, 1975" all over again.

I would have pushed a lot harder to get an IqAF running with used F-16s flying aerial border patrols by 2006.

But it all worked out, and so that's water under the bridge.

As it is, the F-16s will serve 3 main functions if they enter service with the IqAF. All are Political/military, note big P and small m:

(1) Reinforce Iraq's border sovereignty. Make neighbours think twice about attacking it, and have them start taking Iraq seriously as a regional actor in its own right. In the Arab world, having F-16s on hand will make a difference.

With that in hand, Iraq has options like credible regional alliance overtures to the Gulf Cooperation Council (which includes Kuwait), while continuing its own efforts. Whatever happens, the combination internal/external politics will be appropriately Byzantine - but you can't play unless you have cards in your hand.

(2) Make the tribes and militias think twice. It's a little known fact that a lot of "air support" in Afghanistan and Iraq has consisted of having armed fighters do those window-rattling, teeth-rattling low flybys, with no weapon releases. Maliki has taken the fight to the Sadrists, and warned the Sunni militias that have been so helpful in Iraq that they, too will need to disarm at some point. IqAF F-16 flybys are an excellent way to make that point with key tribes and militias, should it become necessary. Expect something of a "tour of Iraq" once the IqAF gets F-16s (they will also stoke a lot of national pride, based on Iraq's experiences with its T-72s, helicopters, et. al.), followed by more pointed flybys if it becomes necessary later.

If equipped with items like Lockheed Martin's Sniper surveillance and targeting pod, F-16s can become decent close air support aircraft. Maliki's battle for Basra had the tide turned by that capability - and he isn't about to forget it. If push comes to shove, he wants that.

(3) Help Iraq call its own shots. The more resources and options a government has, the freer it is to do as it sees best, rather than being constrained by other governments who give top priority to their own interests and calculations.

Air power is a very important resource and option. Being able to handle items #1 and #2 by itself would Iraq a whole new level of independence. Come to think of it, its best regional peer comparison in that respect would become... Israel.

Joe, your #2 is particularly noteworthy in context with concerns expressed upthread: it could keep Ali Baba's head down even better than US forces could, due to high credibility of the locally-administered mailed fist (vide how roughly IqA officers treat their men, etc).

Of course balancing that against the (re-)emergence of tyranny and corruption is one big part of the magic act.

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