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Russia Delivers An Iraqi Air Force
by James Dunnigan
July 17, 2014

Iraqi politicians are complaining that they don’t have an air force and it’s not their fault. If only they had bought some jets from someone besides the American they would have gotten them faster. So a deal was quickly put together recently for some second-hand Russian warplanes and on June 28th five Su-25 ground attack (similar to the A-10) arrived. These aircraft came with Russian pilots and maintainers. The Iraqis said they were using Iraqis for this. But while Iraq had 66 Su-25s when Saddam was in power, only Sunnis flew and maintained those aircraft and those Su-25s last flew in the early 1990s when they were used to put down rebellious Shia. No Shia government today is going to let elderly Sunni pilots and maintainers anywhere near the newly acquired Su-25s.

Also conveniently forgotten is the fact that the delays in expanding the Iraqi Air Force were mostly on the Iraqi side. The first 18 F-16IQs (the version optimized for Iraqi use) were ordered in late 2011 and the first of these will soon arrive in Iraq. That was because this time Iraq actually signed the contract. Iraq originally proposed this deal in 2009 but nothing happened because at the last minute Iraqi government officials were informed by subordinates that putting money down for the warplanes would interrupt needed food purchases. If the food did not get paid for it would not arrive and there could be riots. So the F-16 purchase was delayed. That means that all 36 Iraqi F-16IQs probably won’t be ready for service until the end of the decade. The $3 billion the air force needs for its first 18 F-16s includes what it will cost to build maintenance and training infrastructure (for pilots and maintainers) for that type of aircraft. Iraq dragged its feet in arranging for all this support stuff, which has long been an Iraqi weak point (even when Saddam was in charge and long before that as well). Then there’s the personnel problems. Nearly all the experienced aviation people in Iraq (pilots, maintenance, operations) are Sunnis and the Shia majority does not (often for good reason) trust the Sunnis.

For decades the Sunni dominated military was always more interested in looking out for themselves (and the Sunni minority) than for Iraq as a whole (which is 80 percent Shia and Kurd). That meant all those Saddam era aviation personnel could not be trusted by the new Shia dominated government. Thus new pilots and other technicians had to be recruited and trained. The Iraqis were warned that this would take time and would not be easy, especially with a booming Iraqi economy and Arab oil states always looking for Arab speaking technical people (especially pilots and maintainers).

The Iraqi politicians ignored the warnings and would rather not dwell on all that. However, this shortage of tech type people is also a problem even if the Iraqis could buy (as they say they are doing) used warplanes from Russia and Belarus. What they are not mentioning is that these deals will be expensive because they are buying the services of Russian pilots and aircraft maintainers as well the aircraft. Another problem is the lack of Iraqi ground controllers for actually calling in air strikes. The U.S. helped train these before American troops withdrew but there may have been high casualties in the meantime. Moreover, few of the Russian pilots speak Arabic so both pilots and Arab ground controllers will have to converse in limited English. That may prove interesting to watch (from a safe distance).

Meanwhile Iraq does have an air force and has had this new force for nearly a decade. It is composed largely of transports, helicopters and single or twin engine trainers and recon aircraft. Some of these are used to launch Hellfire missiles. Iraqi just ordered another 1,400 Hellfires and wants them quickly. These cannot be used on the Su-25 (although Russia may send some engineers who could fix that quickly) but are very popular on the older, slower aircraft Iraqi has been using for years.

 


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