Once mighty Iraq Air Force rebuilds – but pilots keep low profile
The Iraq Air Force is slowly reclaiming control of the country's airspace – the last bit of Iraqi national sovereignty to be returned as the Americans pull out.
Near Kirkuk, Iraq
Twelve thousand feet above Iraqi soil, piloting a propeller-driven Cessna AC 208B is so easy for Iraqi Air Force Lt. Col. Mustafa Kamil Khaleel that he barely blinks when the radar screen malfunctions. Khaleel, who racked up 1,300 hours flying supersonic Soviet fighter jets during two decades in the old Iraqi Air Force, is one of dozens of pilots flying the workhorse Cessnas but dreaming of F-16s.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Once the sixth largest in the world, Iraq’s Air Force was hit hard in the 1991 Gulf War and then grounded when the United States, Britain, and France seized control of Iraq’s airspace in the 1990s. Before the US invasion in 2003, Saddam Hussein was so intent on protecting his remaining fighter jets he buried them in the sand.
As the US helps establish the new Iraqi Air Force ahead of an American pullout, air-traffic control channels are taking on an increasingly Iraqi accent in the expectation that this last bit of national sovereignty – the airspace – will become truly Iraqi.
But despite a US-Iraqi agreement for all US forces to withdraw by the end of 2011, neither Iraqi nor US officials envision that Iraq will be ready to protect its skies by then – a worrying prospect for a country with five neighbors, including Iran.
“They are increasingly coming to understand that on Jan. 1, 2012, they will need American help on their airspace,” says John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security in Washington, who expects any security agreement past 2011 to allow a significant US Air Force presence in Iraq.
What Iraq needs to defend itself
The Air Force Iraq envisioned by 2020 – with 350 aircraft and about 20,000 airmen at an estimated cost of roughly $2 billion a year – is now in jeopardy since lower oil prices have sparked a budget crunch. Iraq’s current Air Force, started in 2004, has fewer than 100 small planes and helicopters and about 3,200 airmen. The Cessnas are used to keep an eye on suspected insurgents and infrastructure, but it will take fighter jets to be able to ward off any challenges to Iraq’s airspace.
Baghdad is looking into buying 36 F-16 fighter jets, a deal that Congress would have to approve and could take years to complete. Pricing is still being calculated, but each jet is likely to cost more than $100 million. The US has donated 17 Cessnas, each a tiny fraction of a fighter jet’s cost.