Iraq's air force taking to the skies again

Times Staff Writer

When Abu Mohammed walks down the flight line at a base outside this northern Iraqi city, there's a swagger in his stride. Engineers too young to remember Iraq's storied dogfights against Iran rush up to shake his hand.

For years, the pilot lived in hiding as a taxi driver. It feels good to take the controls of a plane again, he says. But the single-engine, turboprop aircraft in which he putters around in the sky are nothing like the fighter jets he commanded during the 1980s war with Iran.

Squeezing himself into the cockpit, he wrinkles his nose and sighs: "It's like going from a race car to a bicycle."

Grounded in 2003 when the U.S.-led invasion began, Iraq's once powerful air force is taking to the skies again. Iraqi planes and helicopters conduct aerial surveillance, ferry troops and supplies, and recently completed their first medical evacuation.

But the country is years away from having enough aircraft, personnel and infrastructure to take control of its airspace from U.S.-led forces, American and Iraqi officers say. Until it does, U.S. help will be needed to secure Iraq.

The once-powerful air force was routed in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Despite fighting an eight-year war against Iran, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein sent more than 100 jets to his neighbor for safekeeping. The planes were never returned.

Iraqi pilots rarely took to the skies in the decade-plus era during which the U.S. and Britain imposed a no-fly zone over northern and southern Iraq to protect persecuted Shiite Muslims and ethnic Kurds. Many aircraft fell into disrepair because United Nations sanctions made it difficult to obtain spare parts.

Finally, when the American-led invasion began in March 2003, Hussein ordered remaining military jets buried in the sand. Air force personnel dispersed when the U.S. authorities in Iraq disbanded the Iraqi military, and the buried jets were never recovered.

With Iraq confronting a persistent insurgency, one has only to step into an American command post to see how critical air power has become to the country. U.S. transport helicopters and planes ferry troops, supplies and casualties across the country's broad open spaces, thus avoiding bomb-riddled roads. Unmanned American drones track insurgent movements. And attack aircraft are used to wipe out militant mortar teams or drop a bomb on an explosives-rigged house without risking the lives of soldiers on the ground.

Because of the technology involved, giving Iraq similar capabilities will be expensive -- "very expensive," said U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Brooks Bash, who is responsible for advising the new force.

It will also take time. Although a soldier can be trained in four or five months, it takes three to five years to become an experienced pilot, and seven years to learn to maintain aircraft at the highest level. Air force personnel also need to be proficient in English, which is used by air traffic controllers around the world.

At just over 1,600 personnel and 70 aircraft, the current force is a ghost of its former self. Air force chief Lt. Gen. Kamal Barzanji said he used to be responsible for twice as many troops and aircraft when he was a base commander under Hussein.

U.S. and Iraqi officers have devised a plan to build a self-sufficient air force with 350 aircraft and 20,000 personnel by 2020, but doing so will require the Iraqi government to spend about $2 billion a year.

"They are spending about a quarter of that right now," Bash said.

Flush with oil, Iraq does not lack the funds to purchase aircraft, or build hangars and ramps to accommodate them. But the government's priority has been to get boots on the ground to fight insurgents.

American efforts to rebuild the Iraqi air force, the oldest in the Middle East, have also lagged behind those to boost the army and police forces. The U.S. did not begin training Iraqi pilots until last September, but is now ramping up instruction. U.S. trainers expect to double the number of air force personnel by year's end and double it again in 2009.

The U.S. donated about half the planes and helicopters currently in use; the rest were purchased by Iraq or were gifts from its neighbors. The fleet includes C-130 transport planes, UH-1 Huey and Mi-17 helicopters, and light planes fitted with cameras and radars to conduct reconnaissance.

None of these aircraft are armed. The neat row of two-seater planes used to train pilots at Kirkuk looks as though it belongs at a suburban flying club, rather than at a military base.

U.S. commanders were afraid the militia-infiltrated military might use attack aircraft against Iraqis when the country plunged into civil warfare in 2006.

With sectarian bloodshed abating, some Iraqi reconnaissance planes will be fitted with Hellfire missiles by early next year. Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has also promised to purchase at least 50 attack helicopters. But his air force commanders complain that the government is moving too slowly. They want fighter jets.

Iraqi officials have expressed interest in buying 36 F-16s, Pentagon officials said. In late August, Iraqi officials asked the Pentagon for information about the fighter jets, and the request is being reviewed by the Pentagon and State Department, said Lt. Col. Patrick Ryder, an Air Force spokesman.

Ryder said U.S. officials want to ensure that Iraqi military planning is "integrated," and U.S. advisors have said that fighter jets aren't necessary to battle domestic militants. But the Iraqi officers have not forgotten the war against Iran. They argue that their country needs a force strong enough to deter an attack by its neighbors.

"Our country is a rich country," Barzanji said. "Everybody who is rich has to have good security."

Fighter jets are the most expensive planes to buy, the most complicated to maintain and the most difficult to fly. Bash suggested that Iraq would be better off purchasing an intermediate type of plane that can perform acrobatics, to help prepare a new generation of pilots. Most of Iraq's experienced personnel are in their 40s and 50s and will soon be too old to fly fighter jets.

Achieving air sovereignty will take more than planes and pilots. Iraq must be able to monitor and control how its airspace is used, functions currently performed by the U.S. military. This will require installing radars and surface-to-air defense systems, building control towers and training air traffic controllers.

"We've got a plan that does that over the next 12 years, but once again, they've got to invest in that plan," Bash said.

Iraq will also need to improve its communications systems. Air force officers currently rely on a total of nine radios and about 150 cellphones, Bash said.

A screen at the trailer that serves as the Iraqi air operations command in Baghdad used to allow officers to track their aircraft on a map. But the Defense Ministry did not renew the contract for the software in time, and the service was temporarily disconnected.

For all its limitations, the Iraqi air force is out almost every day conducting missions. After five years of living with U.S. jets and helicopters roaring overhead, Iraqis wave excitedly when they spot an aircraft with their national flag painted on its side.

Abu Mohammed, looking sharp in a U.S. flight suit and aviator shades, said he has learned to use a new generation of technology since joining the reconnaissance squadron stationed in Kirkuk.

He earned his wings during the 1980s war with Iran, a conflict that also destroyed his career. When his brother, who was also in Hussein's military, was captured by Iran, Abu Mohammed received an offer to visit him in jail -- provided he defected. When Iraqi authorities found out about the offer, they threw Abu Mohammed in jail.

He was released five years later and fled to the largely autonomous Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq, then protected by one of the U.S.- and British-enforced no-fly zones. He does not know his brother's fate.

When the U.S. military began recruiting for a new air force, Abu Mohammed was among the first to sign up. Many other experienced pilots and technicians hesitated. Iraqi pilots are hunted down by Sunni Arab militants for cooperating with the U.S. and by Shiite militants for having participated in the war against Shiite Iran.

Abu Mohammed hides his profession from all but his closest relatives and asked to be identified by a traditional nickname.

With security improving, the force is attracting younger recruits. They include men like 27-year-old Ali, an engineering graduate training to become a pilot at Kirkuk. He asked to be identified by one name.

"Our country is bleeding," Ali said. "Even if there are many, many bad guys, there are many of us who want to rebuild this country, and we will never let it go again."

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

Times staff writer Julian E. Barnes in Washington contributed to this report.

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