Iraq desperate for F-16s, but has no-one to fly them
DANA PRIEST AND AARON GREGG
Despite complaints by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that the United States has been slow in its delivery of F-16 fighter jets, no Iraqi pilot team has qualified to fly the aircraft in combat and none will be ready before mid-August, according to an official at the US-based program where the pilots are being trained.
That problem is one of many the Obama administration is confronting as it tries to speed more equipment to the Iraqi air force to help it defeat the Islamic insurgency engulfing the country. There are also challenges in providing or quickly deploying laser-guided Hellfire missiles and Apache combat helicopters, and concerns that the weaponry going to Iraq could be used against political targets.
As the crisis worsens, the Pentagon and Congress are scrambling to send hundreds of Hellfires to Iraq, but only two planes in the Iraqi air force are capable of firing them, both turboprop Cessnas. The US military is rushing to figure how to retrofit other rudimentary aircraft that the Iraqis can fly.
For the moment, the United States has been left with accelerating the shipment of 1132 Hellfires that Congress has approved for sale to Iraq. A Pentagon spokesman said that more than 400 have been delivered this year and that Congress is interested in sending hundreds more beyond the current order.
Lukman Faily, Iraq's ambassador to the United States, said in Washington this week that Baghdad had asked the administration "again and again" for air support such as Apache helicopters and without it, Iraq has been forced to turn to Russia for fighter jets. "We don't have choices," said Faily. "The situation on the ground is pushing us to choose whoever will support us." Russia sent several disassembled Su-25 fighter jets to Iraq this week, and Iran has also supplied Su-25s.
The United States has also approved the sale to Iraq of Apache helicopters, which are capable of carrying Hellfires. But as of January 27, when the State Department officially notified Congress of the deal, Iraq had not signed the sales contract, said a State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to speak publicly.
Iraq's ageing attack helicopters are armed only with .50-calibre guns and 2.75-inch rockets that can only reach targets when the aircraft fly low, making them more vulnerable.
The United States has given Iraq more than US$1 billion (NZ$1.14bn) in equipment over the past decade to create an air force.
A delivery date for the F-16s is uncertain, in part because Balad Air Base, which would have housed the jets, is no longer secure. On June 12, militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis), now known as Islamic State, neared the base 64km north of Baghdad and forced US contractors working on security there to leave the area.
"It's just too soon for us to say when we'll be able to deliver them," a Pentagon spokeswoman said of the F-16s.
But at the Pentagon last week, spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby told reporters: "We're still committed to the sale and the process continues to churn, even given the unrest in Iraq."
There are some concerns within the US government that the Iraqi air force will use the Hellfire missiles not only to kill terrorist leaders but also to intensify a sectarian campaign against Sunni political foes, according to senior US military officials and experts.
A spokesman said the Pentagon has not seen any abuses of Hellfires by the Iraqis.
"We've seen no evidence of the allegations that [Iraq's security forces] have used Hellfire missiles against inappropriate targets," said Commodore Bill Speaks. "Prior to the past two weeks, in particular, the ISF were very sparing of their usage of a limited supply of Hellfires, and it would not have made sense to misuse them against 'soft' targets."
Years before US forces left Iraq in 2011, the US military developed a plan to train the new air force to carry out targeted killings against suspected terrorist leaders by employing US-made aircraft, smart bombs and targeting techniques, according to senior US Air Force officials involved in the effort.
The CIA, the National Security Agency and the secretive Joint Special Operations Command offered help in developing target packages that pilots could use to hit "high-value individuals" and mid-level commanders, the officials said.
The US participants tried to control which targets were struck. The hope was that the controversial tactic of targeting individuals, developed by the CIA and US military during the long wars against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and elsewhere, would increase Iraq's ability to kill terrorist and insurgent leaders without direct US involvement while limiting civilian deaths.
But even before the US military left the country, the Iraqi government purged many of its best intelligence officers and assets because they were either Sunnis or Kurds, vastly degrading its ability to locate important terrorist targets, according to a senior intelligence official who spoke anonymously so that he could speak freely. Killing terrorists was no longer the Shiite-dominated government's top priority, the officials said.
Instead, the goal became one of undermining Sunni influence and power.
To accomplish this, Maliki created a special military liaison office, the Office of the Commander in Chief (OCINC), as a work-around to the normal chain of command, the officials said. It was also meant to bypass prying American eyes.
Michael Pregent, a former Army intelligence officer working on contract as an embedded adviser to the Iraqi security forces in 2008, obtained evidence that showed how politicised the Iraqi targeting process had become.
Pregent was secretly passed a list of 3000 targets that OCINC was giving to its ground commanders conducting raids, he said in a recent interview. A confidential analysis of the list by Americans in a targeting cell at the Baghdad Operations Center found that 95 per cent of the targets were either Sunni men of military age, tribal leaders or other Sunnis listed simply as "the friend of a terrorist, father of a terrorist, grandfather of a terrorist", Pregent said. No direct evidence of terrorist involvement was provided, he said.
Officials at the Iraqi Embassy did not respond to requests for comment on the list.
Now, the United States is faced with another dilemma: either push for a new coalition government for Iraq and endure a chaotic transition, or continue to arm and strengthen the Maliki government, with the possibility that it will use its weapons to further divide the country.
Some argue that stemming the crisis takes precedence.
The United States should rush more planes, smart bombs and other help there immediately, James Jeffrey, US ambassador to Iraq until June 2012, said in an interview. "It would be absurd under any circumstances, let alone the existential one the Iraqis are in now, to think they will only use [Hellfire missiles] on high-value targets as we would use them. They will hit anything that moves that they halfway think is the Isis or Sunni insurgents."
Maliki reiterated this week that his priority is to defeat the insurgency and then deal with Iraq's internal political situation. "I don't believe there is anything more important than mobilising people to support the security situation," he said in a speech broadcast on state television. "Other things are important, but this is the priority."
For the United States, the larger concern is not simply to safeguard the F-16s and their classified technology, but also to prevent their misuse. Using the bombs to kill Sunni political foes will lead "back to the same cycle", said the senior intelligence official. "The more people you kill, the more terrorists you produce."
"Everything they are doing is running contrary to what we want them to do, because all they are doing is creating more fear and distrust," said Richard Brennan, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation who studies Iraq's air force. "There are a lot of indiscriminate attacks."
Human Rights Watch says Iraqi forces have also repeatedly struck Fallujah General Hospital this year, injuring doctors and staff. Iraq also reportedly dropped "barrel bombs" filled with scrap metal and explosives on Fallujah, a Sunni-dominated city, and the surrounding areas during a two-week period in May. Maliki's office denies both charges.
Proponents of training foreign air forces in targeted killings say the tactics will decrease the number of civilians killed. But even supporters recognise the risks inherent in arming unstable allies with such lethal technology.
"None of this is perfect," said retired General Norton Schwartz, who was Air Force chief of staff from 2008 to 2012 when the Iraqi programme began. "You have to be very judicious to act in a lethal way against potential targets. . . . I don't have any problem acting against combatants as long as there is probable cause. It's a balancing act. I watch people struggle with it."
Iraq is buying 36 F-16s, which will give it a greatly enhanced ability to kill people from a distance. In 2011, Iraq delayed a pending US$1 billion contract for the first 18 of the planes, saying it could not afford them because it needed the money for food aid to the poor. The contract was restarted in late 2012.
Twelve of the 18 Iraqi pilots undergoing F-16 training are at an Air Force facility in Tucson. Two have advanced to the final stage and should be certified to fly as lead pilots in mid-August, according to Tom Fox, a civilian government employee who manages the F-16 training programme.
Six others have qualified as wingmen who would accompany the lead pilot in separate planes, and four are in basic training, Fox said. The plan is to train a total of 54 pilots. Fox said Iraq was having trouble paying the agreed-upon price for the training, so the Air Force created a payment plan to make it more affordable and keep it on track.