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Iraqi air force cadets learning to fly

CONTINGENCY OPERATING STATION SPEICHER, Iraq — On a sweltering summer day here recently, 49 young Iraqi cadets sprinted off a C-130 cargo plane to start a three-year journey that Iraqi officials hope will be an important step toward military self-sufficiency.

The men were the first students at Iraq’s new Air Force College, a collection of drab, boxlike buildings that match the seemingly endless desert that surrounds Speicher. Eventually, the cadets are expected to help Iraq do what it is years away from: defend its own air space.

“Any country without an Air Force cannot defend their country ... especially in our region,” said Gen. Ali Hasan, the commander of the college. “Now, we cannot protect our airspace.”

As U.S. forces have concentrated on building up Iraq’s Army and Federal Police, the Air Force has been largely left behind.

After the invasion, Iraq was left with virtually no military aircraft, and the U.S. military had to start from scratch in rebuilding the Air Force. Now, with less than 15 months until all U.S. troops are supposed to leave Iraq, the first crop of prospective Iraqi pilot instructors is still training with their American counterparts, months away from being able to teach on their own.

Lt. Col. Jeff “Jelly” Myer, who is flying with the Iraqi instructors-to-be in single propeller T-6 training planes, said building up the Air Force will take time.

“We’re starting over again, and you can’t just jump into a fighter,” he said.

The Iraqi Air Force is about five years into a 10- to 15-year project to get Air Force fully functional, including training mechanics, ground crews and air traffic controllers, said Brig. Gen. Scott Hanson, who is in charge of the U.S. mission to train the Iraqi Air Force.

By the end of next year the Iraqis will have the ability to spot an airborne threat and track it, but not shoot it down, Hanson said.

A group of 10 Iraqi pilots applied for visas to the United States in August to attend an introductory course for prospective F-16 pilots. The earliest the pilots would be ready to fly solo would be 2013, Hanson said. That’s the same year Iraq hopes to receive 18 F-16s that they are negotiating to buy from the United States.

“The technological nature of aviation doesn’t lend itself to quick learning,” Hanson said. “And the complexity of employing air power, not only with other aircraft, but with ground forces, also requires a sophisticated level of training.”

Being in the neighborhood it is, with much more powerful air forces next door, Iraq is likely to be tested often. Just last spring, the U.S. Air Force shot down an Iranian drone that got as far as Balad Air Base, a major U.S. military hub about 20 miles from the Iranian border.

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