By David Mays
Special to American Forces Press Service
Sept. 6, 2007 - Iraq's air force has added unprecedented personnel and aircraft in recent months and undertaken crucial missions, the commander of the Coalition Air Force Transition Team said today in Baghdad. "Six months ago, there was no air force academy for the Iraqi air force, there was no technical training school, there was no basic training school for enlisted people," Air Force Brig Gen. Bob Allardice told online journalists and "bloggers" during a conference call from Iraq. "But in the last six months, we've graduated and commissioned second lieutenants in their air force."
Dozens of basic Iraqi airmen and technical support personnel also graduated ground school during that time frame, the general explained. In the past two months, 138 experienced aviators from Iraq's pre-war air force have returned to serve, as well.
"This is a pretty big step for us," Allardice said.
In 1991, Iraq's air force was the sixth largest in the world, the general explained. But in the course of Operation Desert Storm, during which coalition forces pushed Saddam Hussein's troops out of Kuwait, and Operation Iraqi Freedom, Iraq's air force was obliterated.
"The Saddam era just wiped it out. There were no aircraft," Allardice said "The systems and processes that train and build an air force, which is very complex, were completely wiped out, and the people were scattered."
Rebuilding Iraq's air force began only recently, the general explained, with the first serious efforts undertaken in 2005.
"It wasn't until this year, 2007, where we really ramped up our capability," he said.
In 2006, 16 Iraqi aircraft performed only about 30 "relatively benign" sorties a week, Allardice said.
"The Iraqi air force today has about 1,200 people," he said. "They have about 51 aircraft. They are flying 180 sorties a week, and their missions are very impressive."
For example, last week, pilots aboard an Iraqi air force plane fitted with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance equipment discovered smugglers who had punched holes in oil pipelines. "They identified them, took pictures of them, tracked them, and ... helped the Iraqi national police bring those people to justice," Allardice said.
Pilots flew that same aircraft last week over a massive march in Karbala for a religious commemoration when deadly explosions and gunfire erupted. "They were able to take video pictures of this from the air," Allardice said. "They took the video and provided this to the prime minister so that he would have timely information, so when rumors started to fly, he actually was able to put this in the right perspective."
At the same time, the Iraqi air force launched two of its recently acquired Huey II helicopters to fly over the crowd and assess the developing situation, the general explained.
Also last week, one of Iraq's C-130 transport ships airlifted medical and humanitarian supplies to Sulaymaniyah, in northeastern Iraq, where a cholera outbreak has sickened many residents.
"We did not partake in any of those flights. These were operated by Iraqis by themselves," Allardice said. "When I looked back on the week collectively, I thought it was a pretty neat thing."
Future Iraqi air force training will be ramp up exponentially, the general said. By December 2008, he anticipates Iraqi pilots will fly 800 sorties per week.
Allardice also said he sees the need to develop and train future enlisted Iraqi air force leaders. "Clearly our vision is to build an NCO corps," he said. "It's just not something we can do overnight."
Acquiring expensive aircraft, like fighter jets, that could eventually be used to defend Iraq's airspace will also take considerable time and money, the general explained.
"You know, even in our country, if we acquire an airplane ... I wish it were just as simple as I have a bag of money and I get to buy an airplane," Allardice said. "But I have to follow a fairly lengthy process that can take upwards to 12 to 18 months, and the Iraqis have very similar issues."
Even with the very small Iraqi fleet in service, the general said he is struck by the pride Iraq's air force inspires in its citizens.
"When I'm on a Huey and that Huey flies over people and they see the Iraqi flag, it will send chills down your spine to see how many people get this huge smile on their face and start jumping up and down and waving at the helicopter," Allardice said. "And when I asked one of the Iraqi helicopter pilots, is it important for him to fly, he actually got a tear in his eye when he said ... 'It's so important for our people to see our flag flying around the country.'"
(David Mays works at the Pentagon Channel.)