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Iraq seeks U.S. air traffic control system as air force grows

Feb. 11, 2014 at 12:49 PM   |   Comments

BAGHDAD, Feb. 11 (UPI) -- The U.S. Defense Department is seeking congressional approval to sell the nascent Iraqi air force air traffic control and landing systems for four bases, emphasizing Baghdad's drive to establish a fully operational air force within the next few years.

Iraq's air force, the most powerful in the Arab world during Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, is being rebuilt from the ground up and is based on a planned force of up to 96 Lockheed Martin F-16IQ Block 52 fighters.

The first two planes of an initial order of 18 – 12 F-16C and six F-16D aircraft -- are scheduled to arrive at Balad air base north of Baghdad in September, with at least two more arriving every month thereafter.

Full delivery of a second batch of 18 Fighting Falcons is expected to be wrapped up by the end of 2015.

The two contracts are valued at nearly $7 billion.

The Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency said Feb. 4 it had notified Congress of the possible sale of the air base equipment worth an estimated $700 million.

The Arab media recently quoted Iraq's Parliamentary Commission of Security and Defense as saying Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been pressing the United States for "accelerated F-16 delivery" since 2013.

The commission says Baghdad wants at least six fighter squadrons operational over the next few years. These will presumably all be equipped with F-16s.

Iraqi officials said the F-16s will be deployed at four regional bases, Tikrit north of Baghdad, Basra and al-Kut in the south, and Taji in the east. Balad, a giant air base built by the Americans after 2003, will also be a major air force center.

Iraqi air force pilots began their F-16 training at Tuscon in early 2012 with the 162nd Fighter Wing, an Air National Guard unit that specializes in training foreign pilots on the Fighting Falcon.

Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, Chief of the Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq, observed recently: "Iraq would like all the F-16s today. They understand we're accelerating as fast as we can."

"We were in the process of building the air base infrastructure at al-Assad and then they switched to Balad," he told Defense News. "That slowed things down.

"The F-16 cases, from a production standpoint, are on track. Pilot training's on track. We had some hiccups on pilot training -- a couple of guys washed out -- but we're on track now."

Maliki has looked beyond the United States to build his air force.

He signed a $4.3 billion deal with Russia in October 2012 during a ground-breaking visit to Moscow, which had been Saddam's leading arms supplier.

That deal included 30 Mil Mi-28NE all-weather attack helicopters and 42 Pantsyr S1 anti-aircraft artillery and missile systems.

There have been repeated reports the deal was cancelled by Baghdad over alleged corruption, but there's been no official announcement by Iraq or Russia to that effect.

There were reports at the time that Maliki had also discussed the purchase of an undisclosed number of MiG29M1/M2 jet fighters, but that does not seem to have gone anywhere.

In December 2013, Maliki announced Baghdad had signed a $1.1 billion deal with Korea Aerospace Industries of South Korea for 24 multirole FA-50 light fighters for 2015-16 delivery -- Seoul's biggest ever arms export deal.

Training Iraqi pilots and logistics support for the FA-50s over the next two decades pushed the value of the deal to $2 billion.

Iraq says these planes, designated T-50IQ in Iraqi service, will can carry precision-guided weapons and missiles for ground-attack, counter-insurgency missions. Deliveries are scheduled to start in April 2016.

Military analyst Garth Jennings said these aircraft "will free up the F-16s to focus on the air defense mission, while the light fighter capability will also enable it to serve as a force-multiplier in the air-to-air role."

The FA-50 deal "seemingly scuppers earlier plans to procure the Czech-built Aero Vodochody L-159 buy," he reported in IHS-Jane's Defense Weekly Dec. 11.

He shed some light on how Maliki's regime is using oil to fund defense contracts.

"Talks to purchase 28 L-159s ... had been ongoing since a preliminary deal in October 2012," he observed.

"However in May 2013 it was revealed that the talks had stalled following a counter-bid by KAI for its FA-50 which was being offered by South Korea through the counter-trade of crude oil."

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