Iraq updates Hussein-era Air Force
By the end of 2009, the number of airmen is expected to triple to 6,000. Managing that growth won't be easy.
After only five months in the Iraqi Air Force's new training program, Lt. Haider Jasim has already gotten more time behind the yoke of a plane than the average pilot in Saddam Hussein's Air Force got all year. Old regime flyers spent most of their time on the ground due to limited resources following the Gulf War in 1991.Skip to next paragraph
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But today, as Hussein-era pilots mix with fresh recruits, Lieutenant Jasim and many other young officers – who've trained on equipment that rivals that of their US counterparts – say the old pilots are hardly the mentors one might expect senior officers to be. "The pilots from the Saddam regime don't have very much experience," says Jasim. "I speak with them, but they don't have enough experience to learn from."
After nearly evaporating following the US-led invasion in 2003, the Iraqi Air Force is making a comeback. Now, fresh recruits and old regime pilots must come together to create a new Air Force that will be radically different from Hussein's massive assault-capable fleet that operated with notoriously loose safety standards. But scaling back the force's historically aggressive posture while managing its rapidly swelling ranks will be a delicate balance.
"We are not really thinking like before. Before, [Hussein] made the Air Force too big for our country," says Col. Samir Agarr, commander of Iraq's 23rd Squadron. "We need an Air Force to defend ourselves from any attack from our neighbors; that's all we need."
Air Force to triple by 2009
Although the new Iraqi Air Force (IQAF) has been operational for the past 3 1/2 years, only in the past year has the fledging force begun to take off. At the beginning of this year it had about 800 airmen, but that figure has already more than doubled to just over 2,000, and by the end of 2009, the IQAF is set to triple to over 6,000 airmen.
By 2018, only about 5 to 10 percent of pilots will have more than 10 years' of experience, meaning that many of today's officers like Jasim will shoot through the ranks to the top of the IQAF at a pace considered blistering by any military organization, creating a young core of leadership.
"Their biggest challenge right now is related to their growth," says US Air Force Brig. Gen. Brooks L. Bash, commander of the Coalition Air Force Transition Team responsible for advising the IQAF. "Just that scale of growth causes an enormous amount of problems to the point where the IQAF is counting beds on a monthly basis to make sure people have a place to sleep when they come out of training."
Until this year, all pilots had flown previously in Hussein's Air Force and many of these have struggled to translate their previous experience to meet the demands of the new Air Force.
"We were connected with the Russians before, with the Eastern powers; it was different training," says IQAF Brig. Gen. Wamdih Mahmoud, a senior IQAF commander. "Now we're working with the Western powers and it's different training. I think the Western side also uses more technology."