Leadership: The Iraqi F-16 Fail

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February 19, 2021: In January 2021 the Iraqi Air Force was ordered to get as many of their 34 F-16IQ fighters into the air as possible for a fly by during the parade celebrating the hundred-year anniversary of the Iraqi military. The air force managed to get 23 F-16IQs into the air for the event. Questions were asked about why so few were available and the answers revealed extensive corruption in the air force that kept most of the F-16s grounded for lack of maintenance or pilots qualified to fly them. Further investigation found that millions of dollars provided for maintenance of the F-16s had been stolen and air force officials were blaming the F-16 for being too complex and expensive to operate. That was not the case, but the rampant corruption in the military had returned to 2014 levels. That corruption had enabled a smaller force of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) gunmen to overrun a third of Iraq while Iraqi troops fled, usually because their officers had done the same and those that tried to fight found that many of their weapons were missing or inoperable because of poor maintenance. This included newly purchased American M-1 tanks being abandoned by their crews and captured intact by ISIL. Some military aircraft were also captured and the videos documenting the collapse of the Iraqi military left an impression that fueled a short-lived anti-corruption movement.

Crippling corruption was always a feature of the Iraqi military, something the government did not want to dwell on during the centennial celebration. Denying there was a problem was part of the problem. During 2020 the corruption crippled the F-16 fleet in two ways. First, spare parts for the F-16s were either not available, either because the money was stolen or the parts themselves ended up on the black market rather than in F-16s that needed them. Any high-perforce jet fighter is constantly wearing out components, especially if equipped with fire control systems that enable the fighters to use smart bombs and missiles. Iraqi insisted on those capabilities, knowing full well they would be expensive to install and maintain. The initial justification for the F-16s was the need for interceptors to protect Iraq from air attack. After 2014 priorities changed to ground attack. For a few years those new F-16IQ capabilities systems were maintained and pilots were able to fly often enough to become competent in using them. But once the ISIL threat was gone, the corruption took over and feasted on the money still being allocated for keeping the F-16s combat ready. The corruption even extended to pilot training, with officers reporting that F-16 pilots were flying sufficient hours to maintain their skills. That was untrue because the fuel and spare parts required to keep F-16s flying was stolen. At the time of the centennial fly by only seven of the F-16s were combat ready and not all the 23 pilots operating the fly by aircraft had much recent flying time. Ten of the F-16s could not fly because they were lacking essential components to take off, either because they were awaiting replacement parts or had those parts removed to make another F-16 (with fewer overall problems) flyable. The air force did not have enough qualified F-16 pilots because the pilot complaints that they were not allowed to fly were true and not “unfounded rumors”. All this was revealed when the government ordered an investigation to answer the media reports of corruption and how it had crippled the F-16 fleet. Many other military aircraft were in similar condition.

Before the 2014 ISIL invasion 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 first 18 F-16IQs were ordered in late 2011. Iraq originally proposed this deal in 2009 but nothing happened because government officials who approved the purchase later discovered that the cash for the down payment would prevent needed food purchases. If the food did not get paid for it would not arrive and there could be riots. 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.

Despite the chaotic Iraqi procurement process, 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 American 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 controllers were being trained as well and some were already on the job in 2014.

The need for combat capable F-16IQs changed in mid-2014 when ISIL took Mosul and much of western and northwestern Iraq. Now the F-16IQ had a much higher priority, but as a ground attack aircraft. In 2014 Iraq was slowly building a new air force. In mid-2014 the Iraqi Air Force had some 14,000 personnel and 200 aircraft, about half of them helicopters. 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. By 2020 there would be about 35 squadrons, including 14 jet fighter and ten armed helicopter squadrons. The Iraqis were 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 lasted as long as the ISIL threat did. Since 2014 two of the 36 Iraqi F-16s have been lost to accidents and after 2017 there was less demand for the F-16s against an obviously defeated and retreating ISIL. By early 2020 the Iraqi F-16s were removed from the American-led air power coalition because so few of the Iraqi F-16s were available for missions. Coalition aircraft are still carrying out air strikes against ISIL forces. Many of these airstrikes are at the request of Iraqi security forces. The last time Iraqi F-16s carried out airstrikes was two sorties in September 2020. The Iraqi air force also has 24 T-50 and 12 L-159A armed trainers plus 21 Su-25 ground attack aircraft and Chinese UAVs armed with laser-guided missiles for providing airstrikes in support of Iraqi forces. While the F-16s are more expensive to operate than the armed trainers and Su-25, the air force still received enough money to keep the F-16s in service. Iraqi air force officers saw this as an opportunity to enrich themselves because Iraqi security forces didn’t care who supplied air support as long as it was still available. Were it not for the media exposure the centennial fly by received, the scam would still be going in.

This was a sorry development because for several years the Iraqi F-16s were constantly in the air supporting Iraqi ground forces. This was a big deal for Iraqis. In September 2015 Iraqi F-16IQ fighter-bombers carried out their first combat missions, using smart bombs against several ISIL targets. This came 16 months after the F-16IQ made its first flight. Four F-16IQs arrived in Iraq in July 2015 so that Iraqi pilots and maintainers could undertake final training in preparation for the first combat missions which were common by the end of 2015 and throughout 2016 Iraqi F-16IQs got a lot of favorable coverage in Iraqi media because of frequent and very visible use against ISIL.

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 F-16 is currently the most popular fighter aircraft in service and the best-selling post-1991 fighter. During the Cold War (1947-91) Russia built over 10,000 MiG-21s and the U.S over 5,000 F-4s. Since 1991 warplane manufacturing has plummeted about 90 percent. However, the F-16 has been popular enough to keep the production lines going strong into the 2020s. The U.S. still has about 1,100 F-16s in service (about half with reserve units). F-16s built so far went to 27 countries. America has hundreds in storage, available for sale on the used warplane market. The end of the Cold War 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 by the late 2020s. The U.S. has plenty of little-used F-16s sitting around, and many allies in need of low-cost jet fighters. Many current F-16 users planned to replace the F-16 with the F-35 but that aircraft costs more than twice as much as a new F-16V so air forces are seeking to operate a mixed force of F-35s and late model F-16s.

Since the 1990s most F-16s produced were for export and these, like the Israeli F-16I cost as much as $70 million each. Some nations, like South Korea, built over a hundred F-16s under license. 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. Since first entering service some 4,600 F-16s have flown over 12 million hours. Despite fears that a single-engine fighter would be less safe, F-16s have, in the 21st century suffered a remarkably low accident rate (loss or major damage) of 2.4 per 100,000 flight hours.

The most successful F-16 user is Israel which set a number of combat records with its F-16s. Israel plans to keep some of its late-model F-16s flying for over a decade more as it retires the oldest ones. At the end of 2016, Israel retired the last of its 125 F-16A fighters. The first of these were acquired in 1980. One of these early Israeli F-16As achieved a record by being the F-16 with the most air-to-air kills (6.5), all achieved in 1982 using three different pilots. These F-16As were the first of the nearly 400 F-16s Israel obtained from the United States. Israeli F-16s have shot down 47 aircraft, which is 70 percent of the 67 kills for all F-16s built.

 


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