Sunday, October 4, 2009

Iraq Needs a Real Air Force


The U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement says American combat units will depart Iraq by December 2011. At that point, Iraq's armed forces must provide for defense against internal and external threats. While Iraqi forces have improved remarkably, progress has not been even across all services. This imbalance is particularly acute in the case of the Iraqi Air Force.

It's clear that Iraqi air defense forces will not be ready to handle the mission by 2011. Currently, the Iraqi Air Force is a creature of turbo-prop planes and helicopters. A squadron of high performance aircraft flown by Iraqi crack pilots is an expensive goal that might sortie over Baghdad by 2016 at best, though the Iraqi Ministry of Defense quietly estimates that 2018, or 2020, is more probable.

Waging a complex counterinsurgency war is Iraq's first priority, so it's understandable that the country has made the decision to proceed slowly with the creation and funding of front-line air defense forces. But integrating sophisticated technology and skilled personnel into air force and air defense formations requires a long lead time. Thus the Iraqi government must make several immediate decisions regarding air space defense.

Improved ground-based air defense systems are an interim solution and can be deployed quickly. Missile batteries are cheaper than jets, and cost is a critical factor. The most attractive choice is the U.S. Patriot system, with Patriot PAC-2 and PAC-3 missiles. The Patriot PAC-2 can intercept hostile aircraft. The PAC-3 defends against the ballistic missiles Iran's mullahs possess. An Iraq with antimissile capability will help thwart that rogue's nuclear threat.

A Patriot battery can track and engage multiple targets. Ten batteries—costing around $2 billion—would provide a robust contribution to meet interim Iraqi air-defense needs.

Patriot systems could be leased, perhaps with instructor crews, until a purchase is possible. During the lease period, Iraqi crews could train on the job. And a Patriot investment ultimately reduces the number of fighter aircraft Iraq needs.

Still, to field an integrated defense, Iraq needs fighters. Trained pilots can intercept and confirm an intruder's identity. This helps avoid mistaking an accidental intrusion for an attack. There is also the psychological dimension: Jets are icons of modern national power. Saddam had Soviet MiGs—free Iraq deserves better.

We know the Iraqi government likes the F-16. If Iraq wants to make 2016 a goal for deploying an effective fighter squadron, it should immediately acquire half a dozen early model F-16s. This mini-squadron cannot control Iraq's skies, but it makes an important statement about the nation's intent to provide a full-spectrum defense. However, until the Iraqi squadrons are ready, they will need U.S. air units to help protect Iraqi air space. And the Status of Forces Agreement may require a sensible adjustment.

Without the Patriot system, Iraq would need a minimum of 72 interceptors to cover its four air defense sectors. These squadrons would cost $6 billion to $8 billion and take a decade to deploy. An integrated defense creates a sum larger than its parts. Deploying the Patriot batteries means Iraq will ultimately require fewer aircraft. With U.S. backup, the Patriots and F-16s will hold the line until Baghdad can finance "full-up" squadrons.

Iraqi and American civilian leaders must address these needs realistically and honestly. Iraqis need American support, and Americans—and the entire Middle East—need a successful Iraq. Iraq faces a tough transition period. At times, defeatists will no doubt claim that the sky is falling. Free Iraq's sky won't fall, but it must be sensibly defended.

Mr. Al-Nidawi is an Iraqi commentator and political analyst. He blogs at Mr. Bay served with the U.S. Army in Iraq in 2004. His latest book is "A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: 4th Edition" (Paladin Press, 2008).


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