- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Iraq’s besieged military was supposed to be flying front-line American F-16 fighters by now, joining other Arab forces in a daily air war against the Islamic State terrorist army controlling western and northern Iraq.

Instead, prospective Iraqi pilots are anchored in the United States, still undergoing training. The Iraqi air force, such as it is, is confined to dated Russian attack jets — compliments of Iran — helicopters and missile-firing AC-208 Cessnas.

While the war rages, there is no firm F-16 arrival date.

“It is not possible to provide a definite timeline for transport of the F-16s at this time, but we continue to assess the environment and work with the government of Iraq on details of the F-16 program, including basing, funding and transport,” said Navy Cmdr. Elissa Smith, a Pentagon spokeswoman. “Iraqi F-16s are still being produced in Fort Worth, and Iraqi pilots continue to train in the United States.”

There are now 36 Iraqis in the pilot pipeline. The first two will complete training shortly. Others are awaiting initial training. A half-dozen are learning English at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, before they can begin.

Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government purchased 36 “Fighting Falcons” with the idea of taking delivery in Iraq to train pilots there. But the Islamic State invasion made such logistics impossible, so the setting was shifted to Arizona’s Air National Guard in Tucson. The first two Iraqi F-16s arrived in December. Six more are being shipped this year.

An optimistic schedule is that a few jets could land in Iraq by midsummer. But Iraq still must build the support system of radars, command and control and maintenance before any sorties could be launched.

The 162nd Wing specializes in training foreign pilots, the Air Force says, noting it has honed fliers from the Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, Japan and now Iraq.

The Air Force designed the F-16 as a relatively low-cost, single-engine war plane that can conduct air-to-air dogfights as well as deliver ordnance against a variety of ground targets.

When Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi was in Washington earlier this month for talks with President Obama, he said he arrived with no specific wish list for more weapons.

But the F-16 was on his mind.

“We want to make sure the delivery is on time, and we’ve been assured that delivery will be on time, and there is no problem in delivering these,” Mr. Abadi told a gathering at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

He also said he wants to cut the time between selecting — and hitting — an Islamic State target.

Mt. Abadi’s second concern, after the F-16, he said, is, “how we accelerate and make the air campaign more — it is accurate at the moment — but more precise and more effective. And there is a lot of talk about this, and I’m glad I’ve heard very favorable responses from the administration and from the Pentagon. In actual fact, the atmosphere was very, very cooperative. And, in my opinion, we are on the same line on this.”

He said he is counting on U.S. “heavy weapons” in the pipeline to bolster two army divisions being trained by the U.S. to fight in western Anbar province and the upcoming major battle for control of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.

During Mr. Abadi’s visit, the White House put out a “fact sheet” listing its material support for Iraq.

Since the fall of 2014, when the U.S. launched its air war, it has sent more than 100 million rounds of ammunition, 62,000 small arms such as rifles and pistols, 1,700 Hellfire missiles and six M1A1 main battle tanks. Also shipped were 250 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles to counter the Islamic State’s massive use of buried explosives.


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