Iraq seeks to speed up F-16 deliveries

July 16, 2012 at 2:27 PM
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BAGHDAD, July 16 (UPI) -- Iraq wants the Pentagon to speed up delivery of the 36 F-16IQ jet fighters it ordered from Lockheed Martin as it seeks to fast track the development of its armed forces following the U.S. military withdrawal in December.

Buoyed by high oil prices, the Baghdad government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is pushing through other defense deals, largely with U.S. companies, to equip his U.S.-trained armed forces.

Air defense remains a key weakness for the Iraqis and Maliki's Shiite-dominated government wants to plug the gap as soon as possible. This has alarmed Maliki's political rivals, particularly the minority Kurds.

They're part of his governing coalition but are increasingly at odds with Maliki over what's widely perceived as his drive to establish a dictatorship.

The Kurds, who have battled for independence for decades and now have a semiautonomous enclave in northern Iraq, are at increasing odds with Baghdad over oil exploration and revenue-sharing.

Their growing alliance with neighboring Turkey, on top of their ambitions for independence has alarmed Maliki.

The F-16 contracts with Lockheed Martin, each for 18 aircraft, has deeply concerned the Kurds, a key U.S. ally in overthrowing Saddam Hussein in 2003. Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, citing Maliki's dictatorial tendencies, has voiced stiff opposition to the deals.

The Kurds, and Iraq's Sunni minority, heavily outnumbered by the majority Shiites, have been just as dismayed at Baghdad's other defense acquisitions, particularly an array of deadly missiles and other sophisticated systems for the F-16s.

The Americans are wary about providing Maliki with advanced systems, particularly for the Pratt and Whitney-powered Block 52s, in part because of concerns about who the Iraqi leader might use them against.

But Baghdad is steadily acquiring missiles, radars and other systems from the United States, much to the relief of U.S. defense manufacturers who are increasingly dependent on foreign sales as U.S. defense spending is due to be cut by some $450 billion over the coming years.

All told, Baghdad is expected to spend more than $10 billion over the next few years on building up its air force and other branches of its armed forces.

The contractors include the Pratt and Whitney of East Hartford, Conn.; Boeing Corp. of Seattle; Northrop-Grumman Electro-Optical Systems of Garland, Texas, and its Electronic Systems division of Baltimore; General Electric Aircraft Engines of Cincinnati; BAE Advanced Systems of Greenlawn, N.Y.; and Raytheon Co. of Lexington, Md., and Goleta, Texas.

In July, Goodrich Surveillance and Reconnaissance Systems of Westford, Mass., secured a $71.5 million contract for four DB-110 reconnaissance pod systems. This derivative of the U-2 spy plane's SYERS cameras can be operated autonomously on the F-16s, with delivery and installation completed by September 2018.

In March, Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems of Linthicum Heights, Md., received an $87.8 million order through the Pentagon's Foreign Military Sales program for 43 AN/APG-68v9 radar systems, most of which will go to Iraq. These are the most modern radar systems available for the F-16 variants the Iraqi air force will get.

Baghdad is also acquiring 100 supersonic AIM-9L/M Sidewinder heat-seeking air-to-air missiles and 150 medium-range AIM 7M/H Sparrow radar-homing missiles. Both are manufactured by Raytheon.

The AIM-9L/M-8/9 that Washington is prepared to sell Baghdad is a generation behind the AIM-9X in service with the U.S. Air Force.

Pratt and Whitney says the initial buy will be the company's F100-PW-229 Engine Enhancement Package -- the world's only 6,000-cycle engine.

Baghdad ordered 18 F-16IQs -- enough for one operational squadron -- with training and weapons last September for $4.2 billion following months of delays. A second 18-plane batch was requested in December. That's worth around $2.3 billion -- first-time sales are always more expensive than subsequent buys.

However, the U.S. Defense Industry Daily says the F-16s Iraq will get are below the standard of F-16s delivered to U.S. allies in the Mideast and Asia.

Iraq's first F-16 squadron -- it eventually wants six, equipped with up to 96 F-16s – is expected to become operational until around 2014-15. The first batch of Iraqi pilots is training in Tucson with the 162nd Fighter Wing, an Air National Guard unit that specializes in training foreign pilots.

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