In early September Iraqi F-16IQ fighter-bombers carried out their first combat missions, using smart bombs against several ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) targets. This comes 16 months after the F-16IQ made its first flight. Four F-16IQs arrived in Iraq in July so that Iraqi pilots and maintainers could undertake final training in preparation for the first combat missions.
The F-16IQ is a custom version of the single seat Block 52 F-16C and the two-seater F-16D. In mid-2014 Iraq ordered another 18 F-16IQs and six will be the D version. The F-16IQ is similar to American Block 52 F-16s except they are not equipped to handle AMRAAM (radar guided air-to-air missiles) or JDAM (GPS guided bombs). The F-16IQ can handle laser guided bombs and older radar guided missiles like the AIM-7.
The first 18 F-16IQs were ordered in late 2011. Iraq originally proposed this deal in 2009 but nothing happened because at the last minute government officials were informed 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 and it was feared that all Iraqi F-16IQs probably would not be ready for service until the end of the decade. All that changed in mid-2014 when ISIL took Mosul and much of western and northwestern Iraq. Now the F-16IQ had a much higher priority.
Meanwhile, Iraq is slowly building a new air force. At the time ISIL took Mosul the Iraqi Air Force had some 200 aircraft, about half of them helicopters. There were 14,000 personnel in the air force, but Iraq planned to double the size of the air force by the end of the decade and equip it with over 500 aircraft, most of them non-combat types. At that point there would 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. Since mid-2014 the plans for the Iraqi Air Force have been accelerated and that sense of urgency will last as long as the ISIL threat.
In mid-2014 the Iraqi air force was flying mostly transport and reconnaissance missions. Iraq got its first combat aircraft in 2009, when three Cessna Caravan 208 aircraft with laser designators and Hellfire missiles arrived. Mi-17 helicopters were equipped to fire unguided rockets. Most helicopters have a door gunner armed with a machine-gun. After June 2014 the Iraqis began using a lot more Hellfire missiles and the U.S. made several emergency air freight deliveries of Hellfires to Iraq.
The F-16 is currently the most popular fighter aircraft in service. The U.S. still has about 1,200 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 (like 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 also 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 an effective bomber.
In 2010 the U.S. agreed to begin training Iraqi F-16 pilots. The first ten Iraqis began their training later that year. This training covered basic and advanced flight training. After that was completed the new pilots were ready to learn how to operate F-16s.
Starting in 2009 Iraqi ground troops began training with F-16s providing support for Iraqi troops. American F-16s and ground controllers were used, giving Iraqi commanders experience in working with this kind of capability. Iraq ground controller are being trained as well and some are already on the job.