By David Mays
Special to American Forces Press Service
Sept. 18, 2007 - Rebuilding Iraq's decimated air force is critical to securing the country's future, a U.S. military commander said yesterday in Kirkuk, Iraq. "No state or government is truly sovereign unless it can control and defend its own airspace," Air Force Lt. Col. Greg Zehner said during a conference call with online journalists and "bloggers."
As a senior advisor on the Coalition Air Force Transition Team, Zehner has trained Iraqi air force recruits at Kirkuk Regional Air Base in northern Iraq and helped craft a five-year plan for future expansion of the force.
"If you want to have an Iraq that is at peace with its neighbors, secure within its borders and a partner in the war on terror, you have to have an air force that's credible enough," Zehner said. "It's a pretty tall order, ... and it takes time."
Because of his thousands of hours as an aviator and his military education at the Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., Zehner was seen as the perfect candidate to play a key role in the rebuilding of the Iraqi air force.
"Nobody knew what the Iraqi air force was," Zehner said. "And it's probably not much different now."
Zehner described the initial steps of resurrecting what was the world's sixth-largest air force when he took over a well-intentioned but "hodgepodge" mission at Kirkuk.
"I brought six other people with me," Zehner said, "and started the long crawl upwards."
In summer 2006, Zehner and his team traveled to Hurlburt Field in Florida, where Air Force special operations commandos condensed a rigorous nine-month training curriculum into a five-week crash course. He took lessons learned from that experience back to Iraq, where he was tasked with building a brand-new air force, initially using a single turboprop aircraft.
"You won't have a credible security force until that Iraqi air force is up and running," he said.
About 1,200 Iraqis currently serve in the country's air force, out of 2,900 authorized slots. The goal for 2008 is 6,000 Iraqi airmen, Zehner said.
"We will have to stand up some squadrons," he said. "But that's the Iraqis standing up squadrons and us working to help them on that way."
Iraqi pilots have conducted many crucial missions using their prop plane equipped with infrared video and other surveillance devices, the colonel said. They have tracked and helped capture suspected oil smugglers and they documented deadly violence during a recent demonstration.
"Their training missions are actual operational missions," Zehner said. "What better way to train somebody?"
But just as importantly, the colonel said, Iraqi airmen set an important example by not taking part in sectarian squabbles.
"They are very much pro-Iraq, not pro-Shiia or pro-Sunni," Zehner said. "I think that's in them already, and we just have to help develop that and mature it."
Purchasing expensive fighter jets and training Iraqi pilots to fly them may seem far in the future, but Zehner said the time to prepare for that air force infrastructure is now.
"We're going to have to start making decisions soon here," he said. "We're trying to cut through a lot of red tape."
(David Mays works in New Media at American Forces Information Service.)