US strives to resurrect Iraq’s broken air force

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Standing up a rebuilt Iraqi air force with the capability to fight insurgents and support ground forces in action has emerged as a new focus for US Air Force planners, says a US operational commander. “Within the last couple of months, my command has got much more involved in standing up the Iraqi air force,” says Brig Gen Allen Peck, commander of coalition air operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Iraqi air force’s once-formidable regional air power has been crumbled by two Gulf wars, with its fighter inventory in particular having been decimated. Many fighters were destroyed on the ground or in the air by coalition forces, while more advanced types, such as its MiG-29s, were flown to Iran to seek shelter. Tehran is unlikely to respond to a request for their return.

Iraq now operates three Lockheed Martin C-130 transports donated from surplus US stocks, plus small numbers of Aerocomp Comp Air 7SLs, Sama CH2000s, Seabird SB7L-360 Seekers, Bell UH-1 Hueys and 206 JetRangers, says Peck. This inventory allows the air force to perform basic airlift missions and transport VIPs, as well as provide a limited surveillance role.

Iraqi ground forces rely on coalition aircraft to provide close air support and air attack missions.

Planning staff at South Carolina-based Central Air Forces Command are now assessing what the Iraqi air force needs to develop a more robust – yet still limited – portfolio of counter-insurgency, airlift and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. A light attack aircraft such as the Raytheon T-6A/B Texan II has been discussed as an option, says Peck.

STEPHEN TRIMBLE/LONDON