Air Force Maj. Gen. Russell Handy

Air Force Maj. Gen. Russell Handy (Courtesy U.S. Air Force)

NAPLES, Italy — The U.S. general in charge of training Iraq’s fledgling air force said Monday that there are no plans to have American aircraft protect the country’s airspace when U.S. forces depart next month.

The Iraqi air force is in the process of acquiring 18 F-16 fighter jets from the U.S., but the jets and pilots won’t be ready for at least two years, according to Maj. Gen. Russell J. Handy, commander of the 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force-Iraq, and director of the Air Component Coordination Element-Iraq.

That means Iraq’s 5,000 airmen, its collection of Cessna 208B airplanes — the same ones used by FedEx — a handful of cargo planes and its largely unarmed helicopter fleet will be on their own in a rough neighborhood.

“The short answer is there will be a gap, and it will be up to the Iraqis on how they deal with that gap,” Handy said.

Ten Iraqi pilots are currently in the States being trained on the F-16, he said.

Handy downplayed the lack of Iraqi jets to keep borders secure, insisting that there are other ways Iraq can protect its sovereignty through diplomatic or economic means.

At this point, the U.S. won’t be lending a hand should things get bad, he said.

“I know of no discussions or arrangements about U.S. help,” Handy said. “We have no authorities or arrangements to defend the (Iraqi) skies.”

The country’s civilian aviation authority has control over 100 percent of Iraqi airspace and is monitoring aircraft, Handy said.

Baghdad has also purchased two long-range radar systems that it’s learning how to use, he said.

“Sovereignty is not just fighter aircraft intercepting interlopers,” Handy said.

The Iraqi air force was decimated over the past 20 years, so the force is largely being built from the ground up, he said.

One hundred to 200 U.S. troops will likely remain in Iraq, working with the State Department’s Office of Security Cooperation and overseeing things like military sales.

But the actual training as it now occurs won’t be done by U.S. military, he said, and would be the task of contractors should the Iraqi government choose that route.

Handy also noted that the U.S. Air Force will be providing airborne security until the last U.S. military personnel roll out of Iraq next month.

Asked when he thought the Iraqi air force would be able to protect its airspace, Handy said it was “fraught with peril” to speculate on such things.

“So I’ll pass,” he said.

Twitter: @Stripes_GeoffZ

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