News / Middle East

Amid US Air Strikes, Iraq Struggles to Build Own Air Force

Newly graduated airmen hand over their flag to the next class during a graduation ceremony at Al-Hurria airport in Kirkuk, 250 km (155 miles) north of Baghdad, Feb.1, 2010.
Newly graduated airmen hand over their flag to the next class during a graduation ceremony at Al-Hurria airport in Kirkuk, 250 km (155 miles) north of Baghdad, Feb.1, 2010.
Reuters

President Barack Obama told a recent interviewer he did not want the U.S. military to become Iraq's air force. But he may have little choice.

Iraq had only a fledgling air force when the United States withdrew in 2011. Washington has agreed to bolster Iraqi air power by selling Baghdad 36 sophisticated F-16 multi-role jet fighters and 24 Apache helicopters.

But lengthy contract negotiations, long manufacturing lead times and slow bureaucracies have taken a toll. The Iraqi planes are just beginning to roll off the production line, four years after Congress was first notified of the planned sale and just as Baghdad is fighting for survival against jihadist militants.

FILE- Five U.S. Air Force F-16 "Fighting Falcon" jets fly in echelon formation over the U.S. en route to an exercise in this undated photograph.FILE- Five U.S. Air Force F-16 "Fighting Falcon" jets fly in echelon formation over the U.S. en route to an exercise in this undated photograph.
x
FILE- Five U.S. Air Force F-16 "Fighting Falcon" jets fly in echelon formation over the U.S. en route to an exercise in this undated photograph.
FILE- Five U.S. Air Force F-16 "Fighting Falcon" jets fly in echelon formation over the U.S. en route to an exercise in this undated photograph.

As of August, only two of the $65 million Iraqi F-16s had been handed over by Lockheed Martin Corp to the U.S. government and none had reached Iraq. The jets are now held up by payment problems and deteriorating security, which has prevented work needed to prepare Balad air base for the planes.

“The F-16s are not being delivered at this time because the Iraqis did not make the latest installment and because the installation security plan at Balad was not completed because of the security situation in Iraq,” a U.S. defense official said on condition of anonymity.

U.S. strikes this month have helped drive Islamic State back from sensitive Kurdish regions. Islamic State militants beheaded American journalist James Foley in face of the strikes.

The slow delivery of U.S. attack aircraft to Iraq has angered some Iraqi officials and raised questions about whether the Obama administration could have moved more quickly to speed the flow of helicopters and warplanes to Baghdad at a time when it was under increasing threat.

Nuri al-Maliki speaks during an interview with Reuters in Baghdad, Jan. 12, 2014.Nuri al-Maliki speaks during an interview with Reuters in Baghdad, Jan. 12, 2014.
x
Nuri al-Maliki speaks during an interview with Reuters in Baghdad, Jan. 12, 2014.
Nuri al-Maliki speaks during an interview with Reuters in Baghdad, Jan. 12, 2014.

Nuri al-Maliki, who resigned as prime minister last week in the face of widespread criticism over his country's political fragmentation, and other Iraqi officials have criticized the slow delivery of the F-16 aircraft. They blamed the slow-moving U.S. bureaucracy and said Baghdad expected the planes sooner.

Iraqi officials were not available to comment on the planes, as incoming Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi prepares to form a new government.

Hassan Jihad Ameen, an Iraqi lawmaker on the security and defense committee in the previous parliament, said he thought the United States had been slow to deliver because of concerns Maliki's Shi'ite-led government would use the planes in a way that intensified sectarian divisions with Sunnis.

“Now ... there is a hope that we have this new government which doesn't differentiate between Iraqis and [is] able to create better atmospheres,” Ameen said.

While Iraq is running budget deficits, Ameen said he didn't see the payments issue as a significant barrier.

“Iraq has money and allocations, and the payments will be agreed upon,” he said.

Pentagon officials deny any deliberate slowing-down of the aircraft deliveries. They note the United States has a $15 billion foreign military sales program with Iraq and has worked to accelerate deliveries of equipment where possible.

Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp said production of the Iraqi planes will be completed in late 2017. That is months ahead of the time frame projected in the initial contract announcement.

'Washington bureaucracy'

Loren Thompson, an analyst at the Washington-based Lexington Institute think tank who has close ties with Lockheed, noted that “on schedule for the Washington bureaucracy is not the same thing as being timely in the war zone.”

“The U.S. acquisitions bureaucracy is not good at getting things quickly to allies who are under threat,” he said. “Whether it's planes for Afghanistan or planes for Iraq, the system always finds some reason to bog down.”

The kind of air power Iraqis are trying to buy from the United States would be an ideal tool for striking Islamic State militants as they travel in convoys across the country's vast open spaces, said Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.

“If it becomes an emergency, which it clearly is, then I think there are various ways to get them some limited amounts of air power fairly fast if we decide to make a point of it and go around the usual bureaucratic rules a little bit,” O'Hanlon said.

Almost no air force

Iraq's air force under late dictator Saddam Hussein was one of the mightiest in the region, with about a thousand planes, including Soviet MiGs and French Mirages, according to GlobalSecurity.org. It was badly damaged by the first Gulf War and the sanctions imposed on the Iraq in the late 1990s.

By the time of the U.S. invasion in 2003, the Iraqi air force had between 100 and 300 combat aircraft in service, most of them poorly maintained and eventually scrapped in the aftermath of the conflict.

Today, Baghdad has about a dozen Russian SU-25 warplanes and a half a dozen Russian-made attack helicopters, analysts who study Iraq's military forces estimate.

The remainder is comprised of small- and medium-sized U.S.- and Russian-made helicopters and light, multi-passenger U.S.-made aircraft used for reconnaissance, some of which can launch Hellfire air-to-surface missiles.

“When the U.S. left, it left the Iraqis with almost no air force,” said Ben Barry, a former British army officer who is now a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “That has put them at a considerable disadvantage.”

The United States spent $20 billion to build up an 800,000-strong Iraqi military force and banked on its ability to keep the peace when the U.S. military withdrew in 2011.

That hasn't happened.

Islamic State militants captured U.S.-made military equipment worth millions of dollars from the Iraqi army, which folded in the face of the initial onslaught by the jihadists.

The failure to leave behind a more substantial air force or find ways to help Baghdad rapidly strengthen its force leaves the United States few alternatives to assisting Iraq until Baghdad can secure its own air space, despite administration assertions that use of U.S. air power would be limited.

“We're willing to help and to coordinate a little bit with them, but as the president said, we're not going to become the Iraqi air force,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, told reporters.

Militant threats

Building an air force that can control Iraqi air space has been a long-term project. The Pentagon first notified Congress of plans to sell F-16s to Iraq in September 2010, but the contract for the first 18 was not signed until December 2011. The contract for the second 18 came in April 2013.

The first Iraqi plane was flown in May this year and ceremonially presented to the Iraqi ambassador in early June at an event at the Lockheed plant in Fort Worth, Texas.

Even as the initial planes were rolling off the assembly line, Islamic State militants were swarming into northwestern Iraq, pushing close enough to Baghdad to threaten Balad air base, about 50 miles (80 km) north of the city.

Lockheed evacuated about two dozen staff who had been working with the Iraqi air force preparing for the arrival of the jets and helping with training. A second defense official said the decision by Iraq and its contractors to withdraw personnel from Balad meant needed work at the base was not yet complete.

Officials in June were predicting four F-16s could be ferried to Iraq by the end of the year. But the second defense official this month would only say that two of the planes were expected to be delivered to Iraq sometime this autumn.

“I wouldn't want you to think the security situation is the only thing. The security situation is one factor but there are other issues,” the official said on condition of anonymity, noting that “payment has been an issue for some time, even before the security situation became a factor.”

Defense officials said it was still too early even to talk about a delivery date for the Boeing-made Apache attack helicopters.

The Pentagon first notified Congress in January about the planned deal, which calls for Iraq to lease six helicopters temporarily and to purchase 24 others in the coming years.

Steven Bucci, a former Army special forces officer who heads the foreign policy center at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, said the foreign military sales process “is hardly ever fast or efficient.”

“It's generally not a priority unless there is some emergency going on where somebody intervenes and kicks it through the system faster,” he said.   

You May Like

Will Cuba Follow the Southeast Asia Model?

Decision to restore ties between US and Cuba has some debating whether it will lead to an enhancement or regression of democracy on the Communist island nation More

Kenyan Designer Finds Her Niche in Fashion Industry

‘Made in China’ fabrics underlie her success More

Report: CIA, Israel's Mossad Killed Senior Hezbollah Commander

The Washington Post story says Imad Mughniyah was killed instantly by a bomb "triggered remotely" from Tel Aviv by Mossad agents More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Jefferson's Library Continues to Impress, 200 Years Lateri
X
Deborah Block
January 31, 2015 12:12 AM
Two hundred years after the U.S. Congress purchased a huge collection of books belonging to former President Thomas Jefferson, it remains one of America’s greatest literal treasures and has become the centerpiece of Washington’s Library of Congress. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.
Video

Video Jefferson's Library Continues to Impress, 200 Years Later

Two hundred years after the U.S. Congress purchased a huge collection of books belonging to former President Thomas Jefferson, it remains one of America’s greatest literal treasures and has become the centerpiece of Washington’s Library of Congress. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.
Video

Video Egypt's Suez Canal Dreams Tempered by Continued Unrest

Egypt plans to expand the Suez Canal, raising hopes that the end of its economic crisis may be in sight. But some analysts say they expect the project may cost too much and take too long to make life better for everyday Egyptians. VOA's Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Threat of Creeping Lava Has Hawaiians on Edge

Residents of the small town of Pahoa on the Big Island of Hawaii face an advancing threat from the Kilauea volcano. Local residents are keeping a watchful eye on creeping lava. Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Pro-Kremlin Youth Group Creatively Promotes 'Patriotic' Propaganda

As Russia's President Vladimir Putin faces international pressure over Ukraine and a failing economy, unofficial domestic groups are rallying to his support. One such youth organization, CET, or Network, uses creative multimedia to appeal to Russia's urban youth with patriotic propaganda. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Filmmakers Produce Hand-Painted Documentary on Van Gogh

The troubled life of the famous 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh has been told through many books and films, but never in the way a group of filmmakers now intends to do. "Loving Vincent " will be the first ever feature-length film made of animated hand-painted images, done in the style of the late artist. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Issues or Ethnicity? Question Divides Nigeria

As Nigeria goes to the polls next month, many expect the two top presidential contenders to gain much of their support from constituencies organized along ethnic or religious lines. But are faith and regional blocs really what political power in Nigeria is about? Chris Stein reports.
Video

Video Rock-Consuming Organisms Alter Views of Life Processes

Scientists thought they knew much about how life works, until a discovery more than two decades ago challenged conventional beliefs. Scientists found that there are organisms that breathe rocks. And it is only recently that the scientific community is accepting that there are organisms that could get energy out of rocks. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports.
Video

Video Paris Attacks Highlight Global Weapons Black Market

As law enforcement officials piece together how the Paris and Belgian terror cells carried out their recent attacks, questions are being asked about how they obtained military grade assault weapons - which are illegal in the European Union. As VOA's Jeff Swicord reports, experts say there is a very active worldwide black market for these weapons, and criminals and terrorists are buying.
Video

Video Activists Accuse China of Targeting Religious Freedom

The U.S.-based Chinese religious rights group ChinaAid says 2014 was the worst year for religious freedom in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. As Ye Fan reports, activists say Beijing has been tightening religious controls ever since Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to office. Hu Wei narrates.
Video

Video Theologians Cast Doubt on Morality of Drone Strikes

In 2006, stirred by photos of U.S. soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners, a group of American faith leaders and academics launched the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. It played an important role in getting Congress to investigate, and the president to ban, torture. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Former Sudan 'Lost Boy' Becomes Chess Master in NYC

In the mid-1980’s, thousands of Sudanese boys escaped the country's civil war by walking for weeks, then months and finally for more than a year, up to 1,500 kilometers across three countries. The so-called Lost Boys of the Sudan had little time for games. But one of them later mastered the game of chess, and now teaches it to children in the New York area. VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York has his story.
Video

Video NASA Monitors Earth’s Vital Signs From Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, is wrapping up its busiest 12-month period in more than a decade, with three missions launched in 2014 and two this month, one in early January and the fifth scheduled for January 29. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the instruments being lifted into orbit are focused on Earth’s vital life support systems and how they are responding to a warmer planet.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid