BAGHDAD, Oct. 3 (UPI) -- Iraq is likely to order a second batch of Lockheed Martin F-16 combat jets following last month's contract to buy 18 of the aircraft, Iraqi officials say.
This appears to be a concerted, but belated, drive by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to give the country's emerging postwar air force a credible defensive punch funded by windfall oil revenues and to shore up an important gap in Iraqi defenses as U.S. forces withdraw.
Mudher Khidr Nasir, a member of the Iraqi Parliament's Security and Defense Committee, has told the Iraq Daily Times the 18 F-16 Block 52 aircraft order -- enough for one squadron -- was so small as to be "ridiculous."
Ali Musawi, a close Maliki aide, said the 18 jets were "a first installment and hopefully there will be another 18 to make a total of 36."
He said the first batch of F-16s with "enhance" Iraqi capabilities to protect its airspace, but 18 aircraft will be far too few to effectively cover an area of 169,234 square miles.
Iraq, which has been fought over for millennia, is bordered by Jordan in the west, Syria in the northwest, Turkey in the north, Iran in the east and Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in the south.
"So looking at Iraq's position in the region, having those planes is not much," Musawi observed, "but it is a beginning."
The Block 52s are built at Lockheed Martin's Fort Worth, Texas, assembly plant.
The contract is worth at least $3 billion but will probably swell to $4.2 billion once training programs, spare parts, maintenance and weapons systems are included.
The first of the aircraft Baghdad has ordered aren't expected to be delivered until the fall of 2012 and most likely not until 2013.
Ultimately, Iraqi commanders have said they want 96 F-16s, enough for five squadrons deployed around the country at air bases built by the Americans following the 2003 invasion.
But that's as much as a decade away from fruition as it takes years to build up a fully operational air force, train air and ground crews and install a nationwide radar and air-defense network with guns and missiles.
The development of that system is being discussed between Iraqi and U.S. military officials, says U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, the chief spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq.
It's this lack of Iraqi air-defense infrastructure that was partly behind the current effort to find ways to maintain a sizeable number of U.S. troops in Iraq after the Dec. 31 deadline for completing the U.S. military withdrawal, U.S. officials said.
Buchanan said that amid the U.S. pullout under a December 2008 security agreement between Washington and Baghdad, the acquisition of F-16s was a major step forward for Iraq's military forces.
"The F-16's a good example of them taking a step to reinforce their sovereignty, increase their self-reliance and deal with one of those security gaps that they still have," he said.
Meantime, U.S, forces are handing over a considerable amount of equipment to the Iraqi forces as the withdrawal counts down to the deadline. However, it's not clear whether that includes air-defense systems.
Still, the Iraq Daily Times reported that Iraqi air traffic controllers will take over responsibility for flights below 15,000 feet in the central part of the country, the last part of Iraqi air space still controlled by the Americans.
"Iraq's air-defense radar and long-range radar systems will be fully functional by the middle of next year," the newspaper said, without elaboration.
The Iraqi military, it added, also "now has a modern air-operations center that controls military aircraft throughout the country and is able to sound a warning if the borders are breached."
The F-16s now on order will be the first combat aircraft for the Iraqi air force. The first batch of 10 pilots is already undergoing supersonic training with the U.S. Air Force.
Buchanan insisted the first delivery of F-16s will give the Iraqis "a robust capability … where they currently have none."