TIKRIT, Iraq, April 1 (UPI) -- Iraq's fledgling postwar air force made a leap toward taking to the skies a few days ago when the first Iraqi instructor to graduate from a U.S. training program went aloft with his first student pilot in a Beechcraft T-6A Texan trainer.
The immediate aim of Lt. Col. Hussein Hamid, commander of 203 Squadron of the Iraqi air force, is to train 30 T-6 instructor pilots, who will take over the training program from U.S. Air Force personnel.
Hamid, who graduated as a pilot in Saddam Hussein's air force in 1986, was retrained as an instructor by the U.S. Air Force's 52nd Expeditionary Flying Training Squadron at the Iraqi Air Force Academy, Tikrit Air Base, north of Baghdad, which opened in March 2010.
"The Iraqi air force and the T-6A program are well on their way to leading the country in the fulfilling role of developing Iraqi pilots and maintenance technicians," said U.S. Air Force Maj. John Creighton, deputy director of the U.S. Iraq Training and Advisory mission after a review of the Texan program by U.S. and Iraqi officers.
Hamid's train-the-trainer program will come into its own when U.S. forces complete a withdrawal scheduled to end in December.
There are currently 18 Iraqi student pilots enrolled for flight training at Tikrit. They fly 15 single-engine turboprop T-6A basic trainers delivered by Hawker Beechcraft of Wichita, Kan., in 2010 under contracts with a combined value of $210 million for aircraft, ground-based training systems, spare parts and two years of contractor logistics support.
Eventually the Iraqi Air Force Academy will accommodate 1,500 students.
The Iraqi air force hasn't received fixed-wing combat aircraft, although it had sought an initial order for 18 Lockheed Martin F-16s. The pilots for those will require advance training on supersonic jets, so acquiring an operational combat capability is likely several years away.
In the meantime, the Iraqi air force would like to buy 36 AT-6B light attack aircraft and would become the first customer for this aircraft if a contract is concluded.
These could be used for counterinsurgency operations that heavier and faster jets aren't suited for.
In the context of Iraq's ongoing security problems with al-Qaida and other insurgent/terrorist groups, the light attack aircraft would probably be more effective.
Rebuilding Iraq's air force, which under the late Saddam Hussein was the sixth largest in the world with Soviet and French aircraft, will take many years. It was decimated in the 1990-91Gulf War and what units that survived were destroyed in the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.
The Americans decided in 2004 to rebuild Iraq's armed forces and in September 2006, operational control of the nascent air force was handed over to the Iraqis.
Since then it has grown from no aircraft to having the T-6A Texans, five Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules transports and a number of surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft and helicopters.
But it lacks firepower it needs to defend the country without U.S. help -- and that may be the case for some time to come.
Iraq's neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iran, are in no hurry to see its Saddam-era military might restored.
Saddam invaded Iran in September 1980, triggered a ruinous eight-year war, then conquered Kuwait in August 1990, touching off a war with a U.S.-led coalition that restored Kuwait's sovereignty in February 1991.
Iraq was reported to have been lining up a $13 billion deal with the Pentagon for the 18 F-16s in January. But in February, Baghdad delayed the acquisition, saying it was diverting the planned $900 million initial payment to Lockheed Martin to provide food for the nation's poor.
That move came amid a surge of political upheaval across the Arab world over food and electricity shortages and other economic hardships, coupled with demands for greater political freedom by the authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and elsewhere.
Baghdad's apparent effort to head off political unrest on its own doorstep seemed plausible enough.
But the F-16 postponement also followed a reported offer by France to sell Iraq 18 upgraded Dassault Aviation Mirage F-1 fighters for a bargain-basement $1 billion.
It may be some time before Hamid's students see the inside of a supersonic fighter's cockpit.