Iraq's fledgling air force lacks the firepower it needs to defend the country without U.S. help, and American and Iraqi officials say U.S. fighter wings may have to stay on past the final departure of U.S. combat forces slated for the end of the year.
Meantime, France, a key arms supplier to the former Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein during his 1980-88 war with Iran, has stepped in with an offer to sell Iraq 18 upgraded Dassault Mirage F-1 fighters for $1 billion.
The Thales Group, one of France's leading defense contractors, is poised to place a bid with Baghdad to refurbish and handle security for six of Iraq's 11 air bases, the Intelligence Online newsletter in Paris reports.
"If Thales were to win the contract, the group would be ideally placed to anticipate the needs of the Iraqi air force, which represents the principal business opportunity in Iraq for defense groups," the newsletter observed.
Saddam's air force, in its heyday one of the most powerful in the Middle East, flew French-supplied Mirages during the war with Iran -- 64 EQ5-200 ground-attack jets and 30 F-1EQ fighters.
Most of those that survived that conflict were either destroyed by the U.S.-led allies in the 1990-91 Gulf War or were flown to safety in Iran. Tehran refused to hand the jets back and maintains a squadron of ex-Iraqi Mirage F-1E ground-attack aircraft in its air force.
The French ambassador in Baghdad, Boris Boillon said Thursday that the retrofitted Mirages could be delivered as early as this year and become "immediately operational because many pilots were trained in the past on this type of plane."
The stated delivery date could be crucial. Lockheed says it couldn't delivery any F-16s to Iraq until 2013 and there have been reports that date may be pushed back.
As for Boillon's remarks that there are Iraqi pilots who have flown Mirages, they are middle-aged now and unlikely to be operational with the new Iraqi air force. So it's unlikely this will be a key selling point for the Mirages.
Indeed, most of Iraq's experienced personnel are in their 40s and 50s and will soon be considered too old to fly fighter jets.
However, the ambassador suggested that because of the "modest" price tag for the Mirages, the French offer was unlikely to affect Baghdad's plans to acquire F-16s as the air force's primary combat jet.
As it is, most personnel in the air force that is being built have been trained on U.S. equipment by U.S. forces since the overthrow of Saddam's regime in 2003.
Still, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Baghdad welcomed any offer because the air force will need "tens of fighters to protect Iraq's sovereignty."
On Jan. 10, Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Askari, spokesman for the Iraqi Defense Ministry, said the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki planned to sign an agreement with the United States shortly for F-16 Block 52 jets as well as Abrams M-1A1 main battle tanks and other heavy weapons.
He gave no date for the signing but noted the arms involved were valued at $13 billion.
Baghdad envisions an air force with 20,000 personnel and 350 aircraft, including up to 36 F-16s, by 2020. That will involve spending around $2 billion a year.
Because of the advanced technology involved in U.S.-produced military systems, it will take time to create an operational air force capable of defending Iraq's air space.
The Americans didn't start training Iraqi pilots until September 2007. U.S. officials say it takes 3-5 years to become an experienced pilot and seven years to learn how to maintain aircraft at the highest level.
Subsequently, U.S. efforts to build up the air force have trailed programs to produce a 21st-century army.
Currently the Iraqi air force has some 130 fixed-wing aircraft, including five Lockheed Martin C-130 transports and 15 Raytheon AT-6A Texan II training aircraft, and helicopters. It has no combat aircraft.
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