Iraq’s Post-Hussein Air Force Finds Its Wings Clipped
Iraqi pilots bitterly recall one of the commands that came down from Saddam Hussein as the dictator prepared for the U.S.-led invasion three years ago: Bury fighter jets in the sand.
Today, the men who flew those jets are in effect still grounded, even though they make up the bulk of the new Iraqi air force.
The U.S. military has hurriedly tried to turn over square mile after square mile of territory to Iraqi soldiers and police officers, but it has yet to yield control of a single cubic inch of the country’s skies.
Despite U.S. pledges to help, the fledgling Iraqi air force remains tiny and ineffective -- consisting of three Vietnam-era cargo planes, a few secondhand helicopters, some small, problem-ridden aircraft and just 14 pilots, decades older than their American counterparts and under threat from Sunni Muslim insurgents and Shiite militias alike.
U.S. military officials say that addressing the question of when they will allow the Iraqi air force to acquire combat capabilities is years away. The U.S. Air Force, they say, will retain control of Iraqi airspace for the foreseeable future, regardless of any drawdown of ground troops.
In a country rife with sectarian tension, where militias appear to have infiltrated every layer of the government’s security forces, a strong air force that could conduct bombing missions is a troubling prospect for the United States. Both Washington and its allies in the region are wary of putting such formidable powers in Iraqi hands, observers and Iraqi officials say.
“I think they’re afraid of terrorists taking over the air force and attacking American bases,” said an Iraqi airman who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Washington is also concerned about the loyalties of Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government in the light of regional dynamics, notably with regard to neighboring Iran, also led by Shiites.
If the Iraqi air force develops combat capabilities, questions will arise about how to ensure that the firepower is not misused, said Robert Pape, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and a former teacher of air power strategy for the U.S. Air Force’s School of Advanced Airpower Studies. “They might do more harm than good,” he said.
Although U.S. officials describe a harmonious collaboration between the Iraqi airmen and their American advisors, Iraqi officials portray it as fraught with suspicion.
One Iraqi air force official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Iraqis were routinely kept in the dark about missions, and sometimes found their requests for flight missions inexplicably denied.
“The initiative to do anything is in their hands,” he said of the U.S. officials.
He wondered whether Americans feared “the relationship between the Shiites in Iran and Iraq,” but added, “That’s not fair, because Iran has not even given us a bag of flour.”
Despite hand-over ceremonies and talk of “reducing the footprint” of American ground forces, the U.S. military still controls key bases equipped to support aircraft in Iraq.
“We’re looking at reducing the number of bases,” Gen. T. Michael “Buzz” Moseley, the U.S. Air Force chief of staff, told reporters in a recent briefing. The Americans fly out of 18 bases, he said. “I see that number coming down. But I don’t see the air and space component leaving soon.”
The U.S. has stepped up its use of airpower in Iraq during this last year, increasing the number of bombings and other aerial missions. In Baghdad, troops now rarely leave their bases without air support, even for routine patrols.
However, the Iraq air force is not involved in combat, at least for now. Pilots monitor key infrastructure -- such as oil pipelines -- and fly reconnaissance missions, especially along the border with Iran. The larger cargo planes are used for medical missions and to shuttle government officials between meetings, among other things.
This spring, at a ceremony to celebrate the new Iraqi air base next to Baghdad’s airport, U.S. Brig. Gen. David W. Eidsaune told the audience, “We will work together to restore Iraq’s air force to what it once was.”
During an interview, however, Eidsaune, the senior air liaison for U.S.-led forces, said that “as much as [the Iraqis] would like to get back to it, they can’t afford it right now.” Though the government has begun to realize that the air force is a good “enabler,” he said, it still faces challenges in terms of funding, recruitment and equipment.
So far, the fleet -- described by one Iraqi pilot as “not secondhand but tenth-hand” -- includes three C-130 cargo planes, bought through the U.S. Foreign Military Sales program; a few Soviet-era transport helicopters; and three small planes. Some aircraft were donated by Jordan, others purchased under the Coalition Provisional Authority immediately after the U.S.-led invasion, with little paperwork left to account for it, Eidsaune said.
All told, the fleet has about 30 aircraft, most of them based in Baghdad, north of the capital in Taji or in the southern city of Basra. The U.S. hopes to add 12 small planes to the reconnaissance fleet and 16 refurbished Huey helicopters to its transport squadrons.
But that’s a long way from the heyday of the 1970s and ‘80s, when Iraqis commanded thousands of aircraft, including hundreds of jet fighters such as Soviet-made MIGs and French Mirages.
The 1991 Persian Gulf War dealt a death blow to the Iraqi air force. The U.S. destroyed many aircraft, sanctions hindered upkeep on the rest and no-fly zones grounded the country’s pilots for 13 years. When U.S. troops advanced through the country in 2003, they destroyed any planes that hadn’t been buried or flown to safety in Iran.
Today, the air force is manned by the same people who flew those MIGs -- men who remember missions over Iran and even Israel during the 1960s and ‘70s. With an average age of 48, their retirement is not far off. When they leave, the air force will vanish unless recruitment begins in earnest. The U.S. military and the Iraqi security ministries have yet to process applicants whose names were submitted months ago, said an American advisor who declined to be identified.
Rebel threats also pose a challenge. The personnel routinely receive threats from insurgents, and a few pilots have already left, wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars in training.
One Iraqi pilot, a captain whose father and two brothers also served in the air force, reluctantly left his job this year after receiving an envelope containing his death certificate.
He accused members of the Iranian-linked Badr Brigade militia of kidnapping and killing several former pilots, most of whom were Sunni, in retaliation for bombing missions over Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. None of the slain pilots were members of the post-Hussein air force. (Under the former dictator, the air force also participated in the brutal crackdown on Kurdish villages after the 1991 war.)
The pilot, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he still feared for his family’s safety, said he was hopeful when he first signed up for the new air force.
Along with several other pilots, he was sent on monthlong training trips to Jordan and the U.S. in 2004 and 2005. But the program was soon riddled with problems. Pilots went unpaid for months; helicopters and some of the smaller airplanes were grounded because technical problems made them too dangerous to fly. Eventually, however, it was the threats against his family that made him give up his wings, one of the toughest decisions he ever made, he said.
“I love aircraft more than my life,” he said. “If you open my heart, you’ll see a lot of aircraft there.”
Today, the air force numbers just 600 personnel -- the vast majority of them support staff -- though 1,000 are expected to be added in the next 12 months.
The 14 pilots train in what Eidsaune described as the “least permissible environment in the world.”
For the C-130 pilots based at Al Muthanna air base in Baghdad, for example, that means corkscrew landings and takeoffs to avoid rebel fire.
In addition, uneasy relations with neighboring countries can complicate matters as Iraqi pilots face more stringent bureaucracy and security checks. On a recent humanitarian mission to Turkey, lack of appropriate paperwork prevented an Iraqi-flown C-130 from entering Turkish airspace.
“This is unique -- trying to build an air force in the middle of a war,” Eidsaune said.
Retired Gen. Charles Horner, who commanded all U.S. Air Force squadrons in the Middle East during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, said it was important for Iraq to eventually gain control of its airspace, if only for sovereignty purposes, particularly since Iran, which has been developing its missile capabilities, someday could pose a threat.
Iraqi commanders are hoping that Americans will do in the sky what they have done on the ground: Give Iraqis control of their own territory.
“We thank them,” said Maj. Gen. Kamal A. Barzanjy, commander of the Iraqi air force, referring to the Americans. But, he said, the Iraqi air force needs more support, “more help from our friends to grow, to give them a chance to leave.”
Roug reported from Baghdad and Spiegel from Washington. Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Baghdad contributed to this report.