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.

By , Correspondent

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    Help from above: Iraqi soldiers are dropped into a simulated battlefield by an Iraqi Air Force helicopter in Baghdad.
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    The Iraqi Air Force mainly uses Cessnas, such as this one at the Kirkuk Air Base equipped with a US Hellfire laser-guided air-to-surface missile.
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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.

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.

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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.

In a country at war with insurgents rather than its neighbors, the immediate goal of the Iraqi Air Force is reinforcing domestic security by supporting the Iraqi Army. Its pilots and Cessnas – both 208Bs and smaller 172s – conduct aerial surveillance on suspected insurgents and on oil installations and power lines.

While a far cry from the Soviet MiGs and French Mirage fighter jets that Mr. Hussein bought with oil money and international loans, Iraq’s current fleet is suited to its immediate priority: fighting insurgents rather than another air force.

“Where we are today is what this country needs. What can a Mirage do against the terrorists?” says Third Squadron leader Colonel Bayati, who spent three years in France in the 1980s training in the fighter planes. “With these small airplanes we can see better, stay in the air longer.”

In a landmark test in late October, Bayati fired the Iraqi Air Force’s first laser-guided air-to-ground missile since before the war. The US Hellfire missile is intended for precision strikes on individual targets. Three of the Cessnas flown by the 30-pilot squadron led by Bayati, who did not want his full name used, are fitted to carry Hellfire missiles.

While Iraq’s security forces have made huge strides since 2003, logistics remain the weakest link. On Kirkuk Air Base, despite the $100,000 Hellfire missiles, there aren’t enough blankets for the airmen. A request for pilots’ headsets made a year ago hasn’t come through.

Despite that, the former fighter pilots have the cross-cultural swagger that comes with having flown the most technologically advanced and lethal aircraft in the world.

“There’s a kind of brotherhood – you know you’ve become a member of the fraternity,” says US Air Force Maj. Brian Grill, an F-16 pilot advising the Iraqis.

Historic role of Iraqi Air Force

Iraq’s Air Force has played a central role in Iraq’s war-torn history – statues were erected in their honor during the bitter 1980-88 war with Iran, when they inflicted severe damage on Iran’s Air Force.

After the US-led invasion in 2003 opened all of Iraq’s borders, Iranian-backed groups hunted down and assassinated hundreds of Iraqi pilots for their role in the war. As a result, many pilots left the country or went underground. Most are still afraid to give their names or have their photos taken, and none of them wear their flight suits in public.

Bayati, who doesn’t tell his neighbors what he does for a living, says gunmen came to his home looking for him shortly after he joined the new Air Force. He thought of quitting but decided to stay to set an example.

“We are warriors – we wouldn’t be afraid to fight them face to face but they go to your weak point, to your families and your children,” says Bayati; his former commander and the man’s son were killed three years ago.

After the Hellfire missile launch, Bayati’s teenage son told him that all his friends at school were talking about the news and he wanted to tell them it was his dad.

Bayati says he told his son that that piece of history could wait to be told. “You will tell them in the future, ‘That was my father.’ Now is not the time.”

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