06/23/2014 07:12 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Iraq's Air Force

In all the pontificating on what now should be done (and what should have been done previously) in Iraq, one subject oddly never seems to be on the table. I find this a bit strange, because it really should be a subject worthy of debate -- if only to add to the finger-pointing about what could have been done to avoid the current situation. From hawks to isolationists, though, nobody seems to ever bring up the possibility of Iraqis performing their own airstrikes. To put this another way: Where is the Iraqi Air Force?

What really made this strange, while listening to all the different points of view bandied about on the weekend political chatfests, is that there were even new Iraqi propaganda videos to provoke the debate, and yet in all the commentary they were barely even mentioned. The choices discussed were mostly: American boots on the ground (or not), and American airstrikes (piloted or by drone). Other subjects discussed were: Iran's military help inside Iraq, the capabilities of ISIL, what the Sunni and Shi'ite militias were doing, and what America should also do (or not do) in Syria. Not discussed were the Iraqi propaganda videos, and what they might mean or not mean.

Iraq released two or three of these videos over the weekend, which all purport to show the same thing: a target being hit (and obliterated) by a precision munition dropped or fired from the air. These videos have been a common sight in warfare ever since the first Bush's war in Iraq, but as I mentioned they are impossible to now verify. Were those targets really what the Iraqis said they were? Did they really target ISIL fighters who were killed? Were these videos really shot by the Iraqis, or were they old footage from either training exercises or just recycled from some past conflict? Were the videos even shot in Iraq? There are plenty of questions which remain unanswered about the veracity of the videos, in other words. That's fine -- it means that whatever conclusions can be drawn should be couched in "if the videos are true" language. But it doesn't mean we should just ignore or brush off what the videos might mean. Because they raise an important question.

Where is the Iraqi Air Force? What does the Iraqi Air Force consist of? How many attack helicopters and attack fighters does it have in flyable condition? Most importantly, how many trained pilots does it have who can fly combat missions?

So far, the answer seems to be that the Iraqi Air Force is mostly theoretical. They have placed orders for dozens of planes and helicopters, but probably only have a few they can now use. ABC reported recently that they had just run out of Hellfire missiles, and that they only had two modified planes that could deploy them. But the much more important question is how many capable pilots they have -- because airplanes and helicopters may be quickly delivered, but pilots need to be trained.

This is where a round of finger-pointing might need to take place. If there are only a handful of Iraqi pilots who have been adequately trained, the next question becomes why there are so few, after so long? Iraq was always going to need at least a defensive air force. That's pretty obvious. The plan to get American troops out of Iraq has always been to "get them to stand up, so we can stand down." That meant training not only footsoldiers, but also whatever naval and air forces the country also needed to defend itself and the integrity of its borders.

How long does it take to train an air traffic controller? How long does it take to teach someone to fly? How long does it take to turn an ordinary pilot into a jet fighter pilot or an attack helicopter pilot? How long does this all take, even with necessary remedial training in other basic subjects? How long did America train Iraqis to take their country back?

America spent, by most estimates, between $1 and $2 trillion in Iraq. That's "one million million dollars." Why was none of this earmarked (as in other foreign policy deals) to be turned right around and spent on American planes and helicopters from military contractors? Why don't the Iraqis have a fleet of at least a couple dozen older fighters and bombers by now?

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not making the argument here that everything would be hunky-dory in Iraq right now if they did have a more advanced air force. Syria has air power, which has given it a definite edge in its fight with its own rebels -- but not a decisive edge (the rebels still exist; indeed, this is where all the ISIL fighters now in Iraq just came from). Air power doesn't always win the war, in other words. But it might come in handy when attempting to counter a blitzkrieg advance by the opposition.

It should at least be a topic for conversation, as we all try to figure out what the best course of action in Iraq now is. If Iraq has dozens of qualified pilots and is just waiting for aircraft to be delivered, that is a solvable problem. Crank the factories up, borrow a few odd planes from here and there that can be hastily repainted and quickly delivered, and the problem is solved for the short-term. Likewise for missiles and guided bombs.

If Iraq doesn't have dozens of pilots, well, that's a serious problem of shortsightedness. Why doesn't it? It's been three or four years since America started disengaging militarily in Iraq, and three or four years seems adequate to train just about anyone to be a fighter pilot. Was this shortsightedness on the part of the Iraqis? On the part of the Pentagon? On the part of President Obama, or President Bush? Or Maliki, for that matter? There might be plenty of finger-pointing to go around, as with just about everything about Iraq.

As to the videos released this weekend, they are propaganda and thus are intended to send a particular message. The videos sent the most obvious message to Iraqi citizens: "Iraq's military is strong, and we can perform airstrikes." But might they not be sending a similar message to the outside world? The message to America might be: "The Iraqi Air Force could make a difference, if you'd quickly send us some missiles and all those planes and choppers we ordered." This message might be disbelieved or debunked (or perhaps strongly advocated, by others), but so far it has largely just been ignored.

This seems a bit strange -- the absolute silence on this issue from just about everyone concerned. When it comes to ground forces, we debate the viability (and desirability) of the Iraqi army, the Sunni militias, the homegrown Shi'ite militias, and the Iranians on the ground. But when it comes to air power, the only choices even discussed are American airstrikes versus nothing. The finer points of American air power are discussed -- drones versus piloted aircraft, having special forces and intelligence on the ground for targeting -- but never once does anyone bring up the concept of "why aren't the Iraqis doing their own airstrikes?" Or even "hey, did you see those videos -- what do you think about them?"

It seems like at least a partial answer to future military strategy for Iraq would be to sell them planes, sell them fighters, and train them to fly. We can bicker over why that hasn't adequately happened yet, but we should at the very least be trying to factor it in to future equations. So far, though, from the politicians to the media, I haven't heard anyone even bring it up yet. Where are the voices crying for the Iraqi Air Force to "stand up" in the midst of all the hand-wringing over the possibility of American airstrikes?


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