Iraq has requested another 18 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets from the United States as the country tries to improve its aerial capabilities as US forces withdraw.
“Today the administration notified Congress of its intent to sell Iraq a second tranche of 18 F-16s,” US National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said on Monday.
“This sale is another indication of the continuing US-Iraqi security relationship and cooperation,” Vietor said after President Barack Obama met Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki at the White House.
“It also illustrates the progress Iraq has made in providing for its own security, and its determination to protect its sovereignty and independence.”
“We will be working to set up effective military-to-military ties that are no different from the ties that we have with countries throughout the region and around the world,” said Obama. “We’ve got to train their pilots and make sure that they’re up and running and that we have (an) effective Iraqi air force.”
The US Defence Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) on Monday notified Congress of the possible Foreign Military Sale of 18 F-16IQ aircraft and associated equipment, parts, weapons, training and logistical support for an estimated cost of US$2.3 billion.
The deal would include spare engines, 100 AIM-9L/M Sidewinder, 150 AIM-7M/H Sparrow and 50 AGM-65D/G/H/K Maverick missiles, 300 Paveway laser guided bombs, electronic countermeasures, surveillance and reconnaissance pods and over 1 000 unguided bombs.
“The proposed sale will allow the Iraqi Air Force to modernize its air force by acquiring western interoperable fighter aircraft, thereby enabling Iraq to support both its own air defence needs and coalition operations. The country will have no difficulty absorbing these aircraft into its armed forces,” the DSCA said.
On December 5 the US Department of Defence announced that it had awarded Lockheed Martin a US$835 million contract covering 18 F-16s for the Iraqi Air Force. The contract is for 12 F-16C and six F-16D Block 50/52 aircraft, as well as support equipment and logistics. Work is expected to be completed by May 30, 2018.
On September 26 the Iraqi government announced it had signed the 18 aircraft contract. Iraqi and US military officials have said strengthening the air force is one of Baghdad’s top priorities as US troops prepare to leave by December 31, more than eight years after the invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.
Iraq has long sought a combat jet for its rebuilt air force. The government delayed a planned purchase of F-16s in February to divert a US$900 million down payment to its national food ration programme to help quell street protests.
But Maliki said on July 30 that Iraq would buy 36 F-16s, double the number it had originally planned, to shore up its weak air defences. The OPEC producer has found itself flush with cash this year, reaping windfall profits as the world oil price has remained above budget projections.
Iraq relies on the U.S. military for air support as it rebuilds its forces and battles a stubborn Islamist insurgency. Iraq’s two airborne defence units, the Air Force and the Army Aviation Command have only 158 aircraft, including 89 helicopters and 69 airplanes, and about 7 500 personnel, according to U.S. figures.
It has three Cessna Caravan propeller planes equipped with Hellfire missiles but no combat jets, a U.S. military official said.
“Building an air force is a very complicated process that depends on several factors, including securing financial cover and human capabilities as well as time,” said Lieutenant General Anwer Amin last month.
Military experts say that Iraq’s lack of a strong fleet of combat planes means that it will rely on the US air force to shoulder this responsibility for some years.
“Certainly the United States air force will be there for the Iraqi air force if that that’s what the two governments agree to,” General Norton Schwartz, commander of the US Air Force, said.
On October 1 the United States transferred management of the Baghdad and Joint Base Balad Airspace sector to the Iraq Civil Aviation Authority (ICAA), giving Iraq control of its own airspace for the first time since 2003.
Iraq taking responsibility for its own airspace is a big step for the country, but Iraq’s defence chief has said his military will not be fully ready to defend Iraq from external threats until 2020 to 2024, according to a US inspector’s report released on October 30.
Lieutenant General Babakir Zebari has repeatedly warned that Iraq’s security forces, rebuilt after the 2003 invasion that ousted strongman Saddam Hussein, would not be ready for years.
“General Zebari suggested that the MOD (Ministry of Defense) will be unable to execute the full spectrum of external-defense missions until sometime between 2020 and 2024, citing … funding shortfalls as the main reason for the delay,” said the report from the U.S. Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR).
As it tries to reintegrate itself into the region after years as a pariah, Iraq is warily eyeing neighbours such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Syria.
Iraqi leaders have accused neighbours of meddling, and US military officials say Iran arms Shi’ite militias in Iraq.
“While we have no enemies, we also have no real friends,” the SIGIR report quoted Zebari as saying of the Iraqi government’s relations with its neighbours.