By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Jan. 24, 2008 - "Tremendous" growth in the Iraqi air force last year in terms of capability as well as capacity is expected to continue in 2008 as Iraq builds its air force from the ground up, a senior U.S. officer assisting that effort reported today. During 2007, the Iraqis stood up four air force training schools and graduated their first military pilots' class since 2003, Air Force Col. Lyman "Lewie" Edwards, who also serves as chief of staff and deputy commander for the Coalition Air Force Transition Team, told retired military analysts via teleconference from Baghdad.
Last year saw other signs of growth, as well. In December, the Iraqis unveiled their new air operations center near Baghdad for command and control functions. The Iraqi air force doubled its fleet to 56 aircraft.
The Iraqi air force has a mix of rotary and fixed-wing aircraft, including UH-1 Huey helicopters, Cessna 172 Skyhawk and 208 Caravan aircraft, CH-2000 military tactical surveillance aircraft, and three C-130 Hercules cargo aircraft. A Dec. 28 ceremony in Baghdad marked the delivery of the newest addition to the fleet, the Beechcraft KingAir 350.
The Iraqis plan to buy more aircraft, including three additional C-130s. They also hope to add fighter jets to the fleet, although Edwards said the framework for supporting those aircraft -- from training to maintenance -- has to be worked out first.
With more members and aircraft, the Iraqi air force was able to carry out more missions during 2007.
"As the capacity of the air force grew, the capability also grew," Edwards said.
The Iraqi air force was flying about 30 sorties a week in January 2007, but increased that number to more than 300 per week by December.
These sorties were both training and operational missions, or a combination of the two, Edwards said. Iraq's air force moved about 13,000 passengers and 400 tons of cargo while conducting about 1,500 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance flights.
The ISR missions focused heavily on critical infrastructure, with Iraqi aircraft patrolling oil pipelines, electrical power lines and other potential targets to identify enemy activity. "This way, we get a combination of training while doing actual missions," Edwards said.
All signs point to continued growth and a bigger role in the counterinsurgency fight, Edwards said.
"The plan is to continue in 2008, moving closer to fully equipping the Iraqi air force to fight and win (against) the counterinsurgency threat while training more airmen to accomplish that mission," he said.
In addition to sending former Iraqi pilots through refresher training, the Iraqi air force is actively recruiting new members. Earlier this month, 116 new officers completed basic training at the training facility in Taji. The graduation marked the first time Iraqi air force officers taught the two-month course that provides basic military training and education to new recruits.
Two months into his one-year deployment in Iraq, Edwards said, he's found the work under way "exciting and rewarding."
"It's great work. I've been awestruck at the ... amount of stuff that's been accomplished here," he said. "It's amazing to be over here to see what we are doing, to be able to assist ... Iraq, working side by side with the air force and the defense ministry leadership to build an air force from the ground up, literally.
"It's just something that few people have experienced in the past and, hopefully, few people will experience in the future," he said. "It's truly something I will be able to tell my grandchildren about someday."