In late September, the U.S. Pentagon announced that the first payment had been made concerning the supply of Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters to Iraq, ending a period of delay due to budgetary issues and speculation about whether the contract would proceed.
The contract covers an initial 18 aircraft, although Iraq ultimately wants at least 36, and they are of the Block 50/52 variant. Deliveries would be made in the 2014/15 period and Al Qayarah has been identified as the initial operating location. U.S. fighters will most likely continue to provide air defense from the Al Assad, Balad and Abu Ubaida bases until the Iraqi F-16s became operational.
Serious talk of Iraq becoming an F-16 operator surfaced in 2008, and, in the following year, the air force chief stated his desire to receive up to 96. Several other alternatives, including those for interim aircraft, were raised, ranging from the recovery from France of embargoed Mirage F1s, and MiG-21/23s from Serbia, to acquiring former United Arab Emirates Mirage 2000-9s if the Rafale deal with the UAE was concluded.
However, the purchase of F-16s gained momentum in April 2010 when Iraq officially requested 24 fighters. In August, an agreement for 10 Iraqi pilots to begin preliminary training with the U.S. Air Force was signed. The following month, the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified Congress of a potential sale of 18 “F-16IQ” aircraft to Iraq.
The potential deal included conformal fuel tanks, APG-68(V)9 radars and a range of weapons including laser-guided bombs, AIM-9L/M Sidewinder and AIM-7 Sparrow missiles. The air-to-air weapons were notable for being a generation behind the standard AIM-9X/AIM-120 pairing used by most F-16 operators. The request also covered advanced targeting and reconnaissance pods.
In January this year, the Iraqi government announced authorization to proceed with the purchase, but the following month said that the initial payment would be redirected to food aid support. After some months of delay, the F-16 buy was reinstated.
Rebirth of the Iraqi Air Force
Acquiring a multi-role fighter that is able to defend Iraq’s airspace is the final and most important stepping-stone in the rebirth of the Iraqi air force that, under Saddam Hussein’s regime, was once one of the largest in the region. In the aftermath of the 2003 Operation Iraqi Freedom the re-establishment of the Iraqi air force was seen as an important element in the drive to put the nation back on its feet.
Much of the “old” Iraqi air force’s equipment was swept aside, and operations got under way with a pair of Jordanian-built SB7L-360 Seeker aircraft, followed by Bell 206 helicopters donated by the UAE, along with CompAir 7SL lightplanes. Ex-U.S. Air Force C-130s and upgraded UH-1Hs from Jordan restored some airlift capability.
In recognition of the internal situation, and the desire of the U.S. to place security back into the hands of the Iraqis, the ensuing round of acquisitions attended primarily to providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets for anti-terrorism duties. SAMA CH-2000 lightplanes, built by Jordan Aerospace Industries and equipped with sensor turrets, have been used for reconnaissance. A larger ISR platform arrived in the shape of 10 Hawker Beechcraft 350s (plus two transport versions), fitted out in a similar fashion to the MC-12W Project Liberty aircraft used by the U.S. Air Force. Cessna Caravans began arriving in April 2007, in transport, ISR and AC-208 armed versions, three of the latter being able to fire Hellfire missiles.
For support of ground forces Iraq’s army aviation has standardized on the Mil Mi-17/171 assault helicopter, large numbers of which have been acquired from new production to bolster the survivors from the Saddam era, which have been overhauled.
Among the new “Hips” is a batch of Mi-17V-5 aircraft for No. 15 Squadron, which is dedicated to special operations and counterterrorism. Trials have been undertaken of Mi-17CTs armed with DAGR laser-guided rockets. Eurocopter EC635T2+ helicopters are on order (24, plus 26 on option) for the battlefield utility role, the first of which was delivered in June. In the interim, Iraq began operating ex-French army SA 342M Gazelles last year. Both types can be weaponized, options including gun pods and the South African Denel Ingwe missile.
For attack duties, the Bell 407 Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter (IA-407) has been chosen, with 24 on order and 26 on option. They will incorporate many elements of the now-cancelled U.S. Army ARH-70 Arapaho aircraft. Three T-407 “vanilla” civilian Model 407s have also been acquired for training, entering service last year in advance of the armed helicopter deliveries. The first of the armed Bell 407s was scheduled for delivery this December, but that has now been put back to the spring.
With plans for expansion, it was necessary to put in place a robust training organization. Basic training is now undertaken on the Cessna 172, and advanced training on the Hawker Beechcraft T-6, the first of which arrived in December 2009. Iraq also ordered 20 Utva Lasta-95 basic/light weapons trainers from Serbia in December 2007, plus 15 on option. The first three were delivered in August 2010 and began operations alongside Cessna 172 and Caravans. Advanced jet trainers are on the Iraqi shopping list, with the BAE Systems Hawk, KAI T-50 and Aermacchi M-346 possible candidates, although the sale of 24 Aero L-159s to Iraq for light combat and advanced training is more likely. Rotary-wing training is currently undertaken on Bell 206s, including some on loan from the U.S. Army National Guard.
Further acquisitions for the IqAF include six C-130J-30 Hercules to revamp the airlift fleet, along with six Antonov An-32Bs (plus four on option) as part of a larger arms package from Ukraine. Delivery of the first three An-32s has been held up due to contractual disputes.