By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 11, 2007 - Building an Iraqi air force will take years, but the service already is contributing to the counterinsurgency effort in the country, the chief of the Coalition Air Force Transition Team said today. The Iraqi air force has made tremendous strides since January, Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert R. Allardice told defense experts today via a conference call from Baghdad.
The Iraqi air force now has around 1,200 personnel and about 50 aircraft. The force is involved with intelligence and surveillance missions today, but "they will be shooting rockets next year," Allardice said.
The general leads a coalition group of 325 people helping the Iraqi air force rebuild itself. In the late 1980s, Iraq had the sixth-largest air force in the world, with more than 1,000 planes, he said. Operation Desert Storm and a decade of sanctions obliterated that force. In 2003, no Iraqi aircraft flew against the coalition, and the training infrastructure had been dismantled. "Air force personnel scattered to the wind," he said.
The Iraqi government needs the air force to fight the insurgency. The Iraqi army has taken precedence in the rebuilding effort, but in the last 10 months, the air force has taken off. "In January 2007, the Iraqi air force flew about 30 sorties a week," Allardice said. These sorties were largely surveillance and reconnaissance missions, with an occasional cargo flight thrown in.
"This last week the Iraqi air force flew 231 sorties," the general said. "Over the last four weeks, the air force flew an average of 180 sorties per week."
Iraqi airmen fly a mix of helicopter and fixed-wing missions. "They have a small but growing impact," Allardice said.
The general said he sees the number of Iraqi airmen quadrupling in the next year and the number of aircraft more than doubling by October 2008.
Ultimately, the Iraqi air force will have between 6,000 and 12,000 servicemembers, depending on the number of planes it has.
The Iraqis received three C-130E aircraft from the United States and have asked for three more. They also fly single-engine CH-2000 aircraft. The eight aircraft they have are used for infrastructure patrols. The crews, for example, spotted a smuggler tapping into an oil pipeline and radioed the Iraqi police officers, who arrested the smugglers.
The force has three Cessna Caravan bush airplanes that have a day-night surveillance capability. The aircraft also have a live downlink capability.
In addition, the air force flies 16 recently refurbished Huey-2 helicopters from the United States and will receive another 20 aircraft soon. The force also has 14 Mi-17 Russian-built choppers and will add another 14 next year.
"The purpose right now is to build an air force that has the capabilities for the counterinsurgency mission," Allardice said.
Coalition air forces will handle the air defense mission for Iraq for the time being. "When people think of an air force, they think of jets blowing through the air," he said. "That's not for today; that's for the out-years."
The Iraqi air force is having an effect just by its presence. Allardice said that when he flies over Baghdad in a coalition helicopter, people look up and look away. But when he flies in an Iraqi helicopter, all of which have the Iraqi flag painted on the bottom, "it's amazing to watch the Iraqis look up, see the Iraqi flag and start waving and jumping up and down."
Building an air force is a long-term project. The Iraqis opened their first flight-training school earlier this month. Four lieutenants are enrolled today, but the general said the school will turn out 130 pilots a year.
Pilots from the former regime's air force also are stepping forward now. In May, the Iraqi air force had 138 pilots in total. Since then, more than 150 pilots stepped forward to serve. Allardice said the improved security situation in the country is the reason the pilots are volunteering now.
The coalition team also is working to train senior Iraqi air force leaders. "It takes 30 years to grow a general officer in the U.S. Air Force," he said. Iraq doesn't have the luxury of time. The coalition team is working with Iraqi leaders to see what competencies are needed to command and control the force. Senior coalition officers are advising Iraqi airmen on all aspects of command, he said.
The Iraqi air force is doing "rudimentary work with (Iraqi) ground forces." While the helicopters are armed, they do not provide close-air support. The choppers do provide medical evacuation capability and are superb for reconnaissance work. "What we are doing is working with them to move troops to the battlespace and then provide operational overwatch for the (Iraqi) troops," Allardice said.
The Iraqi air force use bases near Kirkuk and Basra, at Baghdad International Airport, and in Taji. A squadron of helicopters flew from Taji to Basra last month and operated with ground forces there.
"Every day, as they become more successful, they take on more of the mission," Allardice said. "It still will take years to establish the service, but I think we can move faster than I first thought. They will be shooting rockets within six months. I would be shocked if they aren't."