Iraq Can Barely Fly Its Brand New F-16s
Baghdad has every incentive to keep these jets out of the fight
After more than five years of waiting, Iraq’s F-16 fighter jets are finally in the country. But with limited resources and other hazards, Baghdad has every incentive to keep them out of the grueling fight with Islamic State.
On July 13, four Lockheed F-16IQ Vipers touched down at Balad Air Base, situated less than 50 miles north of Baghdad. For the preceding six months, Iraqi flyers had been training to fly the new planes in Tuscon, Arizona.
“The F-16 jets provides a much-needed boost to our air power capabilities,” Lukman Faily, Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, said in a statement. “That will allow us to target Daesh bomb-making factories and terrorist training camps.”
Faily isn’t wrong. The Lockheed-made jets are definitely the Iraq’s most advanced warplanes. But having the jets on the ground doesn’t mean they’ll be effective over Iraq’s current battlefields.
For the past year, Baghdad had relied on a mere three Cessna Caravans armed with Hellfire missiles for striking targets on the ground. Although packing laser-guided weapons and powerful cameras, these single-propeller planes were at best a poor man’s fighter.
In 2014, Iraq’s air arm bought five Su-25 Frogfoot ground attack aircraft from Russia or Belarus. Iranian pilots also arrived over Iraqi skies inside more of the heavily armed and armored jets.
To be sure, the new F-16IQs are far more capable, and have advanced radars and can carry laser-guided missiles and bombs. Iraq’s air force has a total of 30 single-seat F-16s on order, along with another half dozen twin-seat trainers.
But Iraq might not have enough weapons for its new fighters. The Pentagon only planned to provide 100 AGM-65 Maverick missiles and 600 Paveway bombs in total, according to press releases from the Defense Security Cooperation Agency.
We don’t know if the Iraqi air force actually has any of the munitions on hand. And even if the weapons are waiting at Balad, they wouldn’t necessarily last very long.
Between October 2014 and January 2015, the U.S. Air Force dropped more than 500 GPS-guided bombs on Iraq and Syria. Despite having only three planes to launch them, Baghdad itself burned through hundreds of Hellfire missiles in the past 12 months.
Most likely, Iraq would need more than 700 Mavericks and Paveways to keep up the pressure on Islamic State in any meaningful way. Of course, the Pentagon has done its best to rush vital arms to its beleaguered allies.
But bombing targets in Iraq first requires Baghdad having the tools, skills and experience to reliably keep its newer and more complex F-16s flyable. In a land of sand, dust, heat and other environmental hazards, the small Iraqi air force will face serious challenges.
“The Iraqis have nothing [at Balad] to sustain the F-16 mission,” Steven Max, a contractor with the U.S. Air Force’s 72nd Logistics Readiness Squadron, told the flying branch’s reporters in January 2014.
“They have a flight line and a couple of buildings,” Staff Sgt. Jessica Hobkirk-Burrow, also from the 72nd, added. “We’re supplying everything else that they need.”
Six months later, Islamic State insurgents chased American contractors away from their work at Balad. This delayed the F-16 pilot training program and forced Iraqi flyers to practice in Arizona.
Despite recent Iraqi victories, the base remains close to the front lines. In June 2015, suicide bombers killed 38 policemen in Samarra—about 30 miles away from Balad. If Islamic State could attack the F-16s on the ground, it’d be a disaster.
On top of that, militants have shot down a number of Iraqi helicopters with shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. Islamic State could try and knock out the jets when they’re taking off or landing. That’s when the planes are moving slow and low to the ground — and at their most vulnerable.
Then there’s logistics and maintenance issues. A week before the new F-16s showed up, an Iraqi air force Su-25 inadvertently dropped a bomb on a Baghdad neighborhood, causing a dozen casualties. Iraqi authorities blamed the accident on a mechanical failure.
These problems could arise even without Islamic State attacking the base or hampering the supply chain.. Under the best conditions, flying fighter jets takes a lot of skill. It’s a truism, but it’s worth emphasizing.
Unfamiliar terrain, disorientation, confusion. In any one of these factors can cause trouble for even the most experienced pilots.
On Jun. 24, Brig. Gen. Rasid Mohammed Sadiq Hasan, an Iraqi student pilot, died when his F-16IQ crashed in the mountainous terrain east of Douglas Municipal Airport in Tuscon.
More than six months before Hasan’s death, U.S. Capt. William DuBois, Jr. took off from an air base in Jordan in his F-16C on a mission to strike targets in Iraq.
Once airborne, his landing gear malfunctioned, so he aborted the mission and turned back to land. Flying at night and without radar on the ground to give him extra information, he misjudged how close the plane was to the runway, according to an official accident report.
In spite of an attempt to pull up at the last moment, the jet slammed into the ground. DuBois died in the crash.
Iraqi officials no doubt worry about pilots being killed in crashes. But what might be worse is surviving a crash in Islamic State territory. Earlier in 2015, the terror group shocked the world when it burned Jordanian flyer Moaz Al Kasasbeh alive after his F-16 went down in Syria.
With all of these issues, the Iraqi air force might think twice before risking their pilots — and brand new jets — on combat missions. American and other foreign forces are flying most of the air strikes against Islamic State.
In the week leading up to the arrival of the F-16s, coalition warplanes hit the militants more than 100 times. The American-led force blew up vehicles, buildings, fighting positions and various other targets, according to the Pentagon.
But until the Iraqi air force gets the weapons and other resources to make good use of its F-16s, Baghdad’s incentives are to keep the jets out of harm’s way. For now, the long awaited arrival of the new planes is more of a propaganda victory than anything else.