To Equip Its New Armed Forces, Iraq Shopped Around
Russian tanks, Czech planes and Chinese drones
Iraq in the last decade has made major progress re-equipping its armed forces. It’s done so by carefully selecting arms from different sources, shrewdly factoring in cost and political considerations.
The end result is a military with a surprising variety of weaponry.
Under Saddam Hussein – when the Iraqi army reached a peak strength of 1.5 million troops – Iraq’s primary arms-suppliers were the Soviet Union and France. Since Saddam’s overthrow in 2003, that’s changed.
In more recent years Iraq primarily has purchased its heavy weaponry from the United States and Russia.
As the U.S. occupation came to an end in the final years of the Obama administration, it seemed the new Iraqi military would primarily purchase the same kind of weapon systems the American military had used to invade the country. M-1 main battle tanks, Humvees, AH-64 helicopters and F-16 fighters.
“The Iraqis are using the U.S. military as the model for their new armed forces, and are buying as much U.S. gear as they can,” Strategy Page noted in December 2008. “Iraqi troops know what they are getting, because they see this stuff being used every day.”
Iraq did purchase 140 M-1s prior to 2011. And today the M-1 is the most sophisticated MBT in Iraqi service. The United States also supplied Iraq with thousands of Humvees, a few hundred mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles — also known as MRAPs — and more than a hundred artillery pieces.
Baghdad also spent $2 billion acquiring 36 F-16s, which it began taking delivery of in mid-2015 during the war against Islamic State.
But Iraq doesn’t just buy American. Rather than acquiring the iconic AH-64 gunship, Iraq instead purchased a fleet of Russian-made Mi-28s and Mi-35s.
That made a lot of sense from Baghdad’s perspective. The Russian helicopters are cheaper and easier for the Iraqis to maintain than the American rotorcraft is. Also, there is less of a risk that Moscow might withhold spare parts or technical assistance if Iraq, say, killed a lot of civilians or deployed them against the Kurds — something Baghdad can’t count on Washington to do.
When the United States supplied Iraq with its M-1 fleet, it conditioned technical support and the supply of spare parts on the MBTs remaining firmly under Iraqi army control. In 2017 evidence emerged that Iraqi paramilitaries were operating at least nine Iraqi army M-1s.
The Iraqi Kurds even destroyed one M-1 that paramilitaries used against them on their border on Oct. 20, 2017. Consequently, General Dynamics, the manufacturer of the M-1, withheld maintenance support until Iraq could verify it had retrieved all these tanks.
In the meantime, Iraq has been reducing its dependency on the M-1s through a $1-billion purchase of 73 Russian T-90S tanks.
At top — an Iraqi T-90. Above — an Iraqi Mi-28. Iraqi air force photo
Iraqi T-90S tanks equipped units that previously operated M1s, most notably the 35th Brigade of the 9th Armored Division. The 34th Brigade received those former 35th Brigade M-1s, which now likely operate alongside Iraq’s older T-72s.
While T-90s aren’t necessarily better than M-1s, they perhaps are better suited to Iraq’s needs than the M-1s are.
“The 48-ton T-90s are simply not in the same class as the 70-ton Abrams,” War Zone reporter Joseph Trevithick wrote. “As such, the decision to refit the 35th Brigade with T-90s raises questions about whether Iraq sees the larger, more advanced M-1s as being more expensive and complex to operate both practically and politically.”
Iraq bought 24 South Korean T-50 training jets as part of a $2-billion deal, plus a small fleet of L-159 subsonic light-attack aircraft from the Czech Republic. Both aircraft carry many of the same bombs and missiles that the F-16s do.
While certainly not high-performance jets of the same caliber as the F-16s, Iraq’s T-50s and L-159s are affordable and effective attack aircraft.
Non-American arms have played a significant role in Iraq’s war on ISIS. Iraq’s Mi-28s and Mi-35s made their combat debut in that war, particularly in Iraqi offensives to reclaim the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah. In one case, an Iraqi Mi-35 provided close air support to Iraqi federal police battling the militants.
The Iraqi air force released an infographic that broke down the number of strikes carried out by its aircraft. The infographic records air strikes from June 10, 2014 — the same day ISIS infamously took Mosul — until Dec. 31, 2017.
It reported that Iraqi Su-25 Frogfoots, supplied by Russia and Iran in 2014, carried out the majority of Iraq’s air strikes against ISIS, tallying an impressive 3,500 strikes. Iraq’s modest fleet of six Russian-made An-32 twin-engine turboprop military transports, which Baghdad equipped as bombers, carried out slightly fewer than 1,000 strikes.
Iraq’s F-16s meanwhile conducted a comparatively modest 514 strikes.
CH-4B drones, which Iraq ordered from China in 2014, also played a significant role in Baghdad’s air campaign against ISIS. Closely resembling the iconic American Predator, the Chinese drone flew 260 air strikes.
All of this indicates that Baghdad’s decision to shop around for its military’s needs has made its armed forces significantly more durable and formidable.