Lockheed Martin has been awarded a US$835 million contract covering 18 F-16s for the Iraqi Air Force.
The contract, announced on Monday by the US Department of Defence, 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.
Amir said he hoped a deal would be signed next year on the second batch of 36 F-16 warplanes Iraq plans to acquire.
“Eighteen planes have been bought, the contract has been signed, and the other 18 planes hopefully next year,” he said.
Amin said the Iraqi air force already runs an advanced fleet of reconnaissance planes that very few countries in the region have.
“These are planes that we are proud of using over the past few years to detect terrorist activities,” he 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.