NEW AL-MUTHANA AIR BASE, Iraq — Iraq expects to have an operational fighter wing squadron in 2015 or 2016, the nation’s top air force commander said Tuesday during a final press conference with outgoing U.S. Air Force leaders at a military base near Baghdad.
Iraqi Staff Lt. Gen. Anwar Hamad Amin said his country’s nascent fighter program represented an important step in the country’s ability to defend itself against external attack, as well as “the sacrifice from both sides, American and Iraqi, to build our Iraqi air force.”
Amin’s comments came as the U.S. Air Force contingent that has been training the Iraqis prepares to leave by the Dec. 31 deadline mandated by the current U.S.-Iraq security agreement.
Iraq finalized a long-awaited deal to purchase 18 F-16 fighter aircraft in September, and the White House announced Monday that it would notify Congress of the proposed sale of 18 more F-16 jets, according to media reports.
The Iraqi air force is still in its infancy, with cargo planes and small aircraft like the Cessna 208B and King Air 350 at its disposal. During the next few years, it will acquire more advanced C-130J cargo planes, as well as training fighter jets and the F-16s.
The aircraft are among the $11 billion worth of weapons and equipment that the Iraqi government has purchased from American defense companies, according to the State Department-run Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq.
A contingent of 157 servicemembers and Defense Department civilians will manage the OSC-I program to deliver the aircraft, while private defense contractors will show the Iraqis how to use them.
“They’re really more like acquisition specialists, as opposed to being in the squadron, doing the training,” Maj. Gen. Russell Handy, the senior U.S. Air Force commander in Iraq, said Tuesday.
Besides acquiring aircraft and equipment, the Iraqis must also address undermanning issues within their service.
Since English is the global language of aviation, pilots and other aviation workers must have a good grasp of it before learning how to use their new equipment.
“That’s one of our biggest challenges now, but we’re working through it,” said Amin’s aide, U.S. Air Force Col. Steve Burgh.
Ten of Iraq’s pilots are in the F-16 fighter pilot training pipeline at bases in the United States. One of the pilots has begun training in the plane itself, U.S. officials said Tuesday.