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.

Tom A. Peter/The Christian Science Monitor
Lt. Haider Jassim flies a simulator in Kirkuk, Iraq. The young Air Force pilot, who’s always dreamed of flying, says he doesn’t have much to learn from Saddam Hussein-era pilots.

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.

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."

Most of the planes in the IQAF fleet were recently purchased and have the latest avionics systems that are even more advanced than those in most US Air Force planes. While young pilots have learned the system with few problems, American advisers say it's a struggle for many older pilots.

Additionally, American advisers have introduced a more rigorous safety system, a process that was extremely limited in the old Air Force. For pilots who managed to operate without such a rigorous system in the past, they often require more convincing.

"We are more rules- and regulations-oriented, and they were more brought up with a just-go-out-and-do-it [mentality]," says Lt. Col. Mark Brunworth, squadron commander for the 370th Air Expeditionary Advisory Group, from Dallas, Texas. "The boss told you to go out and do it, so therefore you're going to go out and do it."

The combination of languishing experience and a different philosophy has made it difficult for many old pilots to transfer to the new Western standards required by the US advisers and high ranking Iraqi officials. As a result, top graduates from IQAF flight school are often retained as flight instructors.

For older pilots who grew up in what used to be considered one of the fiercest air forces in the Middle East, watching new recruits become flight instructors can be a source of tension.

Less glory, more safety

On the eve of America's first war with Iraq in 1991, the IQAF had 50,000 airmen with over a thousand aircraft, making it the second largest in the region, surpassed only by Turkey.

Now, the IQAF has about 70 planes, almost all of which are new. And while the old Air Force had fighter jets – MiG-25s and Su-25s – the new Air Force only has propeller planes and helicopters without any strike capabilities.

"From a national pride prospective, from a perspective of knowing where they were in the past and seeing where they are now, there is a feeling on their part that it is a less adequate aircraft, that it's a less manly or a less prestigious aircraft to be flying," says USAF Lt. Col. Nathan Brauner, a native of Northridge, Calif. and commander of the 52nd Expeditionary Flying Training Squadron that trains Iraqi pilots.

Although the Iraqi government is considering purchasing F-16 fighter jets, US advisers and most senior Iraqi airmen agree that for the current mission, Iraq's Air Force is best served by propeller planes, such as the Cessna Skyhawk and the Cessna Caravan.

Unlike jets, these planes are more fuel-efficient, better equipped to handle Iraq's dusty conditions, and can fly at the slow speeds necessary for conducting surveillance missions – the bread and butter of the IQAF.

In December, though, the IQAF will acquire combat capabilities when it receives Caravans equipped with Hellfire air-to-ground missiles. Still, the planes have limited range and will pose little threat to Iraq's neighbors.

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