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...
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.
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.
- The Long War Journal (Aug 4/08) - Iraqi Security Forces Order of Battle: August 2008 Update . Overall analysis of Iraq's recent purchases, and their likely destinations.