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Rebuilding Iraqi air force will take time

CAMP TAJI, Iraq — During Operation Desert Storm, F-15 pilot Capt. Tony Rock’s job was to destroy the Iraqi Air Force.

He and his fellow airmen swiftly succeeded.

Twenty years and two wars later, it is Rock’s job — as brigadier general — to rebuild Iraq’s air force and army aviation service.

Swift success is not a possibility.

Iraq’s collection of Cessna 208B airplanes — the same ones used by FedEx — its six cargo planes and its mostly yet-to-be weaponized helicopters aren’t ready to support the fight at home, let alone defend Iraq against invasion.

As the security agreement mandating the Dec. 31 withdrawal of U.S. forces in Iraq draws closer to ending without an extension, Rock and the Iraqi Training and Advisory Mission-Air face the possibility that there won’t be a military-run team to replace them as Iraq fills its undermanned aviation services.

Although the State Department’s Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq and the hundreds of contractors it will bring with it in 2012 could make a “credible contribution” to training the force, its manpower will not equal the presence of a full staff of military trainers, Rock told Stars and Stripes in a recent interview.

“We have a very good feel for what their capabilities are, and we know where they need our help,” Rock said.

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Creating an Air Force from scratch isn’t just about training aerial dogfighters for duels with foreign enemies.

On Aug. 16, U.S. Forces-Iraq spokesman Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan called Iranian-backed militias a greater threat to Iraq’s stability than the al-Qaida-linked groups that have caused some of the worst violence of the eight-year war.

If Iraq is to prevent those militias from smuggling weapons or anything else through its porous eastern border, it must further develop its aerial intelligence and reconnaissance, as well as a firm support relationship with ground security forces, military officials say.

Some Iraqi planes “have a limited amount of full-motion video with a real-time downlink to ground forces, so they’re really making good progress in that regard,” said Maj. Gen. Russ Handy, the senior U.S. Air Force representative in Iraq. “One area where I think we still have more work to do is air-ground integration.”

One obstacle to getting air and ground forces working closer together is a history of commanders being kept separate, even socially, by a deeply paranoid Saddam Hussein, who wanted to minimize the possibility of a coup.

Trainers say that they have spent time getting various branches of the military to see the virtue of cooperating with each other.

“We take it for granted that helicopters are there to support ground troops,” said Chief Warrant Officer Dan Hill, a pilot instructor. “That’s a little hard for them.”

Another Saddam-era holdover is a legacy of centralized decision-making.

For example, a U.S. request to hold a simple graduation ceremony for Iraqi pilots required authorization from Ministry of Defense headquarters.

If cooperation and coordination improve, the aviation services will add considerably more firepower to Iraq’s security apparatus in the next few years. Iraq is in the process of buying billions of dollars’ worth of weapons systems, including 36 F-16 fighter jets.

Next year, Iraq will receive armaments for its Army Aviation Command, which is separate from the air force.

Their helicopter squadrons currently include Hueys, the Russian-developed Mi-117, Bell 407s and an armored version of the Slovakian Eurocopter.

They expect to have 100 to 150 helicopters by the end of 2012, said Col. Mark Weiss, director of the U.S. training mission for Army aviation. Iraq had 800 helicopters before the war.

Iraqi pilots acknowledge that their numbers aren’t enough to secure all of Iraq. They are confident they can train the next generation of Iraqi pilots to fly without U.S. help, but need instruction on the new weapons systems coming next year.

“In my opinion, we would at least want one more year of training,” said helicopter pilot 1st Lt. Hussein Hashem, 24.

It will take longer to train Iraq’s fighter pilots, U.S. officials acknowledged.

“If I wanted to field a squadron in 2015, then 2011 and 2012 is when I want to start producing my pilots,” Rock said.

Iraq is already behind schedule. It first planned to buy its F-16s in January, but instead focused its money on basic services following fears of an Arab Spring-style popular revolt. Although Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced on July 30 Iraq’s intentions to buy the planes, it hasn’t happened.

At the moment, only 10 Iraqi fighter pilots are training in Iraq and the United States. It takes about two years of schooling to train a U.S. fighter pilot as a basic wingman, Rock said.

Rock declined to disclose an exact number of U.S. military trainers they believe are needed for the Iraqi air mission, if U.S. troops remain past this year.

Other senior officials were also hesitant to do so because they prefer to let the Iraqis name that number, to avoid appearances of dictating terms to the Iraqi government.

U.S. trainers are generally optimistic about the pilots themselves, especially the young lieutenants who were just teenagers when Saddam Hussein was toppled. They fly well and have a good command of English, which is a requirement to read training manuals and land at foreign airports.

But whether training those young pilots will one day lead to Iraqi aviation forces strong enough to control their airspace, or partner with U.S. forces during a crisis, remains subject to the nation’s continuing political and security uncertainties.

“We won’t know really know that answer until much later,” Hill said.

slavine@pstripes.osd.mil

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