Even as ground insurgency grows, Baghdad aims to buy 36 of the aircraft
Despite a lack of imminent threats from the air, Iraq has announced plans to go ahead with plans to purchase dozens of modern F-16 fighter jets from the United States and has even doubled the multi-billion dollar order.
Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki said the procurement contract, suspended in February, is being dusted off again and this time the order is for 36 of the Lockheed-Martin jets instead of 18 as originally planned.
"The new contract will be larger than what we agreed earlier, to provide security for Iraq," Maliki told reporters over the weekend. “We should provide Iraq with airplanes to guard its sovereignty.”
It is not clear just how much the potential deal is worth. The initial contract for 18 F-16 Block 52 interceptors was said to be about $4.3 billion, with delivery expected to begin in 2013. But in February, Iraq called off the deal amid the turmoil of the Arab Spring in order to allocate hundreds of millions of dollars toward national food programs in a bid to ease public pressure and protests.
Now, with Arab Spring protests no longer an imminent threat in Iraq and discussions underway to keep an American presence on the ground beyond a December 31 deadline for complete withdrawal of U.S. forces, the revived aircraft deal is a political sweetener for Washington.
“At a time when they are weighing having the U.S. forces stay longer, they ought to really spend that money somewhere else, especially in counter-insurgency. Having decided not to do so, can they actually justify it from a financial point of view to their people? I don’t know how they can,” Sami Al-Faraj, the president of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies, told The Media Line.
Meanwhile, Iraq’s economy is expected to grow by 12.5% this year, driven by high energy prices, which Iraq’s Oil Ministry said brought in $7.17 billion in June alone. With the government’s coffers swelling, senior Iraqi ministers have said they are seeking to boost investment by 50% to as much as much as 60 trillion Iraqi dinars ($51 billion).
The U.S. has been working feverishly to bring the Iraqi Air Force up to a level capable of patrolling its own airspace and standing on its own. Since 2009, U.S. training programs have doubled the number of qualified Iraqi airmen and helped field more than 130 fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft for the Iraqi air force. These were mostly helicopters, transport planes and some T-6 Texans.
Iraqi airspace has reportedly been penetrated repeatedly in recent years. Turkish aircraft have crossed into Iraqi airspace to strike at Kurdish forces in the north. Israel has used Iraqi skies to practice attacking Iran, Defense News reported. And in March 2009, U.S. forces shot down an Iranian drone flying over Iraqi territory.
Danny Shalom, an aviation expert and author of numerous books Middle East air forces, said Iraq had once one of the most capable air forces in the region under Saddam Hussein, with advanced Soviet and French aircraft that had garnered vast combat experience in the 1980s war against Iran. Most of the Iraqi Air Force was sent to Iran for protection during the First Gulf War. The remaining jets were buried in the sand during the second Gulf War. Iran never gave them back and incorporated those aircraft into its own air force.
But he said today, Iraq is mainly interested in protecting its own air space and not necessarily in wielding an offensive capability.
“The aircraft can be armed like all F-16s and it is mainly for defense. I don’t presume the Americans will give it too sophisticated weaponry. They’ll likely get equipped with the Sidewinder and perhaps the AMRAAM (air-to-air missiles). The goal is for them to defend the skies of Iraq,” Shalom told The Media Line.
Iraq is planning to have at least four air bases in the north, the south, near Baghdad and in the western sector. But the U.S. does not have to wait until the Iraqi Air Force is built and equipped completely. They could lease Iraq F-16s for a transitional period until they gradually are able to manage their own airspace.
Al-Faraj of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies also said the armament of the jets had to be monitored to ensure the Iraqis don’t develop their fighter jet fleets into a robust offensive arm that could threaten neighboring countries.
“From out perspective it’s a bold move, but I myself don’t think this is going to threaten us. We aren’t concerned,” Al-Faraj said. “Still, it depends on the armament. These aircraft are pieces of metal until you equip them. If you look at the main munitions that the regional air forces are receiving from the United States you will see that they have in mind Iran. I don’t know what the Iraqis have in mind. They declare that this is to defend Iraq against al aggressors, but how it deals with or sees Iran in the future remains to be seen.”
Meanwhile, Jordan has taken final delivery of its F-16 jets when four of the fighters were flown in from Belgium last week. The total batch of 9 F-16s were purchased from the Belgian Air Force bring the number of Jordanian F-16s to 64. Transfer of the aircraft was swift because Jordanian pilots and round-crew were already trained and up to par.
“The Iraqis aren’t new pilots and they’ll likely be able to train in Jordan too, I believe,” Shalom said.