Coalition air traffic controllers help Iraqis assume airspace responsibility
January 16, 2009
BAGHDAD — Coalition forces will retain control of most of the Iraqi airspace in use by the U.S. military despite the new security agreement’s push to transfer governing responsibilities to the Iraqis.
The security agreement gave Iraq sovereignty of its airspace starting Jan. 1. But the Iraqi government has determined that it is not fully capable of controlling everything at the moment, and has asked coalition forces to oversee everything below 24,000 feet sea level, Multi-National Force —Iraq officials wrote in response to Stars and Stripes’ questions.
The altitude limit should not affect U.S. Army helicopters because the aircraft do not fly that high. A Chinook can reach 20,000 feet and an Apache can reach 21,000 feet, according to manufacturer Boeing. Variants of the Black Hawk can reach 15,180 feet, according to Sikorsky Aircraft Corp.
"Most of the controllers remain U.S. military controllers for now," said Col. Erik Peterson, commander of 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, which is assigned to Multi-National Division-North.
Less than half of Air Force flights have been affected by the agreement so far. In the first 12 days of January, an average of 101 coalition forces flights went above 24,000 feet each day, Maj. Timothy Johnson, spokesman for U.S. Air Forces Central, wrote in an e-mail. That’s 42 percent of the 243 coalition flights that occur on average each day. The flights above 24,000 feet could have been military aircraft passing through Iraq, tactical sorties in support of Iraqi security forces or logistics flights.
"There has been no significant impact to coalition use of airspace or air operations since implementation of the Security Agreement," the MNF-I statement concluded.
Peterson echoed those sentiments. While his brigade has seen a reduction in attack missions, that’s due to decreasing violence, not changes in the security agreement. The brigade is also providing more support to Iraqi operations because of the increased responsibility Iraqi ground forces have for providing security.
"Regardless, we remain vigilant and ready, with well trained teams across MND-N, prepared to deliver lethal, precision fires in support of Coalition Forces and our ISF (Iraqi security forces) partners on the ground," he wrote in an e-mail.
Aircraft flying above 24,000 feet will now talk to Iraqi air traffic controllers. The Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority has assumed responsibility for the airspace under Iraqi control.
Iraqi controllers have also assumed responsibility for daytime operations at both Basra and Baghdad international airports. Demand for coalition air traffic controllers at these airports has been nearly halved.
"This is a significant increase in responsibility for Iraqi air traffic controllers," the statement said. "U.S. and coalition forces have seen a corresponding decrease in air traffic control activity. … As the Iraqi radar controllers assume more airspace there will be a reduction in workload and need for [coalition forces] controllers."
Military leaders will coordinate with the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority to ensure that civilian aircraft and aircraft from other militaries are routed around airspace being used for U.S. military purposes. They will continue using the same procedures as before.
U.S. forces, in coordination with the Iraqi government, have developed new rules of engagement to go along with the security agreement, but MNF-I would not release details about the new rules because of security reasons. Peterson downplayed any changes.
"There haven’t been any substantive changes," he said. "The foundation principle of the right to legitimate self defense remains unchanged."
The Iraqi government has also asked for coalition help in developing the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority. Coalition forces will continue partnering with the Iraqi government so that it can control all of its airspace.
"At the end of this partnership the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority and the Iraqi Air Force will have a well-run, integrated and reliable civil and military air traffic management system that complies with International Civil Aviation Organization standards and practices," the statement said. "This will make air travel, for business and tourism, easier and safer for those traveling within Iraq as well as increasing the opportunities for international travel."
Unmanned aerial vehicles will not be affected by the agreement. U.S. forces will continue using coordination procedures established prior to the security agreement.
The agreement will also not change the way coalition units clear airspace when they want to fire artillery, rockets and other indirect fire weapons. A U.S. Air Force liaison remains with Iraqi air controllers to ensure the skies are clear before ground units start their fire missions.
"Both nations will still have the ability to employ these capabilities within Iraq’s airspace with joint coordination," the statement said.
What does the security agreement say?
2. With full respect for relevant rules of safety in aviation and air navigation, United States Government aircraft and civil aircraft that are at the time operating exclusively under a contract with the United States Department of Defense are authorized to over-fly, conduct airborne refueling exclusively for the purposes of implementing this Agreement over, and land and take off within, the territory of Iraq for the purposes of implementing this Agreement. The Iraqi authorities shall grant the aforementioned aircraft permission every year to land in and take off from Iraqi territory exclusively for the purposes of implementing this Agreement. United States Government aircraft and civil aircraft that are at the time operating exclusively under a contract with the United States Department of Defense, vessels, and vehicles shall not have any party boarding them without the consent of the authorities of the United States Forces. The Joint Sub-Committee concerned with this matter shall take appropriate action to facilitate the regulation of such traffic.
3. Surveillance and control over Iraqi airspace shall transfer to Iraqi authority immediately upon entry into force of this Agreement.
4. Iraq may request from the United States Forces temporary support for the Iraqi authorities in the mission of surveillance and control of Iraqi air space.