Frustrated by the slow process of acquiring American air power hardware, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has turned elsewhere. He told the BBC’s Arabic Service that Iraq has “bought second-hand fighters from Russia and Belarus that will arrive in a few days’ time.” Al-Maliki’s government is trying to counter a rapid advance by The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (Isis), whose fighters have overrun most of five Iraqi provinces.
The first of 36 Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 52 fighters that Iraq is buying through the FMS process flew at Fort Worth on May 7. The order was placed in September 2011. Iraq is also buying 30 Boeing AH-64D/E Apache attack helicopters. In January, the U.S. agreed to expedite delivery of the first six this summer. Iraq has also bought 24 Bell 407 armed reconnaissance helicopters.
Al-Maliki criticized the “long-winded” process of buying the F-16s. “I’ll be frank and say that we were deluded when we signed the contract,” he told the BBC. “If we had had air cover, we could have prevented what has happened in this country. We should have sought to buy other jet fighters like British, French and Russian,” he added.
The only armed fixed-wing aircraft in the Iraqi air force are thought to be a few Cessna AC-208 Caravans. In December, the U.S. delivered additional Hellfire air-to-surface missiles that these aircraft can carry. However, Iraq does have a large fleet of Mil Mi-8/17 assault helicopters, including new-production machines. Some of these may have been captured by Isis during its advance, which met little resistance from Iraqi forces in the north and west of the country.
It is not clear whether the U.S. has prevented deliveries for fear of a complete collapse of the regime in Baghdad. However, the U.S. sent 300 specialist troops to Iraq this week to provide military advice and intelligence support. The group includes joint tactical aircraft controllers (JTACs), who could direct strikes by U.S. warplanes if Washington should decide to intervene in that way.
Iraq concluded a $4.3 billion arms package with Russia in 2012. The exact composition of the hardware to be supplied has never been revealed. At the time, MiG-29s were rumored to be part of the package. However, the only confirmed deliveries to date have been four Mil Mi-35M helicopters that arrived last November. Mi-28NE attack helicopters are also in the package.