By Donna Miles
WASHINGTON, Sep. 6, 2006 – As the Iraqi army gains in numbers and capability, so too does the country's air force, which aims to grow to 2,500 airmen by the year's end, the commander of the Coalition Air Force Transition Team said. Air Force Brig. Gen. Stephen L. Hoog cited impressive improvement over the past six months, noting that the Iraqi air force continues to grow and improve its ability support the counterinsurgency mission.
The Iraqi air force's counterinsurgency mission consists primarily of aerial observation and surveillance and air transportation. Officials believe it is critical for Iraq's long-term ability to police its international borders, protect its oil pipeline network and rapidly deploy its developing army. "They're making progress with leaps and bounds," Hoog said during a roundtable with Pentagon reporters Sept. 1.
"The bottom line is, we are making progress every day in helping the Iraqis enter the COIN (counterinsurgency) fight now and lay the proper foundation for the Iraqi air force for the next five to 10 years," he said. Iraq's C-130 Hercules program is the country's most advanced program. Its three C-130s have moved 6,000 Iraqi and coalition troops and more than 460 tons of cargo since March, he said.
During the same timeframe, Iraq's Seeker SB7L-360 light surveillance aircraft and CH-2000 military tactical surveillance aircraft have flown more than 200 intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance missions.
U.S. advisors with the Coalition Air Force Transition Team are assigned to Iraqi air force units to steer this effort forward, Hoog said. With members spread over sites around Iraq, this team serves as the coalition's liaison with and advisors to the Iraqi air force.
"We are working together as one team," Iraqi Maj. Gen. Jamal Barzanjy, the Iraqi air force's chief of staff, said earlier this year. "Of course we still need support from our allies, but we are going." One big step forward is the relocation of the Iraqi air force headquarters to the same installation as the Iraqi army headquarters. This move will improve joint operations and coordination, Hoog said.
More growth is on the way, with the first of 16 UH-1H Iroquois aircraft to join the Iraqi air force fleet by January. The UH-1s are being upgraded in the United States to the more powerful "Huey II" configuration and "will provide a much-needed medium lift capability, as well as a CASEVAC (casualty evacuation) capability as well," Hoog said.
Ten Mi-17 Hip helicopters also are slated to join the fleet, and Iraqi pilots are continuing their training. Another upcoming initiative is the introduction this spring of "pipeline training," to focus on skills ranging from basic piloting to air traffic control and aircraft maintenance. "They are building on the great training foundation already laid by the CMAT (Coalition Military Assistance Team) in their operations throughout Iraq," Hoog said.
"This rebuilding effort will continue to increase at an accelerated pace as the Iraqi air force seeks to grow to almost 2,500 people by the end of '07," he said. Barzanjy expressed optimism over progress made but acknowledged the work still ahead. "We are starting over," he said in Baghdad earlier this year. "America has given us a lot of help, and we have already accomplished many things, but we need to keep growing."