July 31, 2009:
While U.S. combat troops are scheduled to be out of Iraq by 2011, the Iraqis point out that while they now have an army and navy, they still don't have much of an air force. Currently, the Iraqi Air Force consists of transports, helicopters and prop driven recon aircraft. No jet fighters, which are essential for defending the national air space. No nationwide air defense system (radars and missiles) either. They want to know what can be done in two years.
Well, it's possible to get some second hand F-16s and get some minimally trained pilots for them. It's also possible to buy and install a radar system and some anti-aircraft missile batteries. Iraq would probably have to hire some foreign technicians to help maintain the radars, jets and missile system. These would be replaced by Iraqis in 5-10 years. But it all costs money, and Iraq has no credit, and too many demands on their oil income (which accounts for most of the government budget.)
Earlier this year, the Iraqi Air Force leadership convinced the government to spend $1.5 billion to buy a squadron of 18 new F-16 jet fighters (and train pilots and set up maintenance facilities). The U.S. was inclined to cooperate, and sell Iraq the 96 F-16s Iraqi Air Force wants to eventually purchase over the next decade.
The F-16 is currently the most popular fighter aircraft in service. Last year, Romania bought 48 F-16s for $4.5 billion. Half will be the latest model, the F-16C /50. The others will be used, and reconditioned to F-16C/25 standards. Romania could have waited a few years and bought the new F-35 instead, but that would have cost them more money (nearly $6 billion for just 24). Romania did the math and realized that 48 F-16s would be more than adequate to handle any neighborhood spats. And if Russia became a problem, Romania is now a member of NATO, and capable of calling on some very big allies. Iraq wants the latest model of the F-16, which would be a match for what the Israelis are using. But the real threat to Iraq is Iran, who can be handled with second-hand, early model, F-16s. That would cut Iraq's F-16 bill by over a billion dollars.
The U.S. still has about 1,300 F-16s in service (about half with reserve units). Over 4,200 F-16s were produced, and America has hundreds in storage, available for sale on the used warplane market. The end of the Cold War in 1991 led to a sharp cut in U.S. Air Force fighter squadrons. Moreover, the new F-35 will be replacing all U.S. F-16s in the next decade. So the U.S. has plenty of little-used F-16s sitting around, and many allies in need of low cost jet fighters.
F-16s are still produced for export, and these cost as much as $70 million each (the F-16I for Israel). Some nations, like South Korea, build the F-16 under license. A used F-16C, built in the 1990s, would go for about $10 million on the open market. The 16 ton F-16 has an admirable combat record, and is very popular with pilots. It has been successful at ground support as well. When equipped with 4-6 smart bombs, it is a very effective bomber.
Meanwhile, Iraq is expanding its air force to over 130 aircraft and 6,000 personnel. Within six years, it plans to have over 500 aircraft, most of them non-combat types. Currently the air force has seven squadrons: (1 transport, 2 reconnaissance, 1 helicopter training, 1 helicopter transport, 1 utility/search and rescue, and 1 special operations). By 2015, there will be about 35 squadrons (14 fighter, 5 attack helicopter, 5 armed scout helicopter, 2 transport, 2 reconnaissance, 1 fixed wing training, 1 helicopter training, 3 helicopter transport, 1 utility/search and rescue, and 1 special operations). The Iraqis are eager to buy F-16s partly because neighboring Turkey and Jordan have done well with this model.
Currently, the air force is flying, with nearly a hundred aircraft, over 50 sorties a day, mostly transport and reconnaissance missions. The first combat aircraft will be in action later this year, as Iraq equips its Cessna Caravan 208 aircraft with laser designators and Hellfire missiles. Mi-17 helicopters will be equipped to fire unguided rockets.
The $1.5 billion the air force needs for its first 18 F-16s includes what it will cost to build maintenance and training infrastructure for that type of aircraft. Second hand F-16s can be made available in a few months. But even if the government scrounges up the money, or even if the U.S. donates the aircraft, it will be a hustle (with Iraqi bureaucrats operating with unusual alacrity) to have this squadron on duty by the end of 2011. Then again, the U.S. Air Force will still be operating out of bases in Kuwait and other Gulf states, ready to come to the aid of Iraq if their air space were violated on a large scale. That would require a new security treaty, which could also be worked out in two years. All it takes is will, and some hustle.