Contractors Could Help Americans Bug Out of Iraq
U.S. State Department likely has dozens of choppers in country
The Pentagon is sending some 160 personnel to help protect American diplomats in Iraq from advancing extremists. But the Department of State has its own assets—which likely includes dozens of helicopters—if an evacuation becomes necessary.
Understandably, officials at State could not comment on the contractor-flown aircraft or any possible evacuation plans. However, publicly available information suggests that the diplomatic air corps is well equipped.
The Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs’ Office of Aviation—a.k.a. the INL Air Wing—had almost 30 helicopters in Iraq around this time last year, according to contract documentation.
The INL Air Wing generally spends its time fighting illegal drugs and narco-terrorism around the world. However, the contingent in Iraq—also referred to as Embassy Air Iraq, or EAI—has a broader mission.
EAI works directly for the American embassy in Baghdad and is staffed entirely by private contractors. The UH-1N and S-61 helicopters are used as transports, to spot ambushes for convoys, and rush injured or wounded individuals to a hospital as needed.
The INL aircraft in Iraq—some of which are seen in the image above—operate regularly from four locations. EAI’s main base is at Baghdad International Airport and the embassy has its own heliport, called Landing Zone Embassy.
EAI also works out of smaller facilities in Erbil to the north and Basra in the south. On June 15, State announced that it was relocating some staff to the consulates in those cities.
Washington is right to position these personnel closer to the waiting aircraft. INL helos and planes would surely help Americans get out of the country if the crisis in Iraq continues to escalate.
A functional escape plan could also limit embarrassing visuals. The famous image of people scrambling to board a helicopter leaving Saigon in 1975 is powerful—and a symbol of America’s failure.
In any event, INL is well suited to provide emergency support in Iraq. As of last summer, EAI’s helicopters and planes accounted for a quarter of State’s entire fleet, according to an official briefing.
We might be seeing a lot more of these aircraft in the near future if Islamic State of Iraq and Syria fighters keep up their deadly advance.