Iraq is close to sealing a deal with the U.S. over an initial procurement of 18 F-16 fighter jets, the first batch of as many as 96 new combat aircraft.
(Image Copyright J & M Brandstatter, JB Photography)
The announcement was made last week by US Air Force Major General Russel Handy, Commander, 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force-Iraq, and Director, Air Component Coordination Element-Iraq.
The Iraqi coalition government under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki froze a planned deal over 18 F-16 C/D Block 52 worth US$ 2.4 billion last February. In Juli Maliki then announced the planned purchase of 36 F-16, doubling the original number of planes. “We have to provide Iraq with airplanes to safeguard its sovereignty,” he declared.
After months of indecision the number is now back to 18 but Maj.Gen. Handy says, the Iraqis still want 36, enough to form two squadron of their new air force. “This first letter of offer and acceptance is for 18 of them, so we hope to hear from them very soon but there’s no final word on that yet,” says Handy.
The move might also be prompted by the desire to keep at least some U.S. troops in Iraq beyond the 31 Dec deadline for their retreat, as the sale of the combat planes would include training of pilots and maintenance crews. The F-16 manufacturer Lockheed Martin expects the deal to be finalized early next year.
The Iraqi government is eager to have an air force again, because so far it could do nothing against uninvited visitors like the Turkish air force, that crossed the border, bombed hundreds of targets in northern Iraq and disappeared back into Turkish air space several times last August.
The sale of equipment to a country with a Shiite-majority government already raised some concerns in Washington. It is in the U.S. government’s best interest however, to fill the power vacuum left after the sixth-largest air force in the world fell to pieces during the first Gulf War. Back then Saddam Hussein’s air force counted about 900 planes and 40,000 personnel.
Money seems not to be an issue any longer since Iraq earned US$ 7.31 billion from oil sales in July alone.
Other major arms procurement projects include new artillery systems and mortars for the army, recent additions to the inventory are M-198 howitzers and 120mm mortars of U.S-origin. Training with these systems was only finished last May and the weapons were used for the first time in the life-fire excercise ‘Iron Lion’ on Division-level.