February 28, 2011: Iraq has delayed delivery of 18 F-16 Block 52 ("Viper") fighters for at least a year. The money is more desperately needed to buy food and deal with growing popular anger at government corruption and mismanagement. A year ago, Iraqi placed the order, but is now unable to come up with the cash. That's partly because food prices are rising, Iraqi agriculture has not recovered as quickly as the rest of the economy, and over half a billion dollars for the fighters is being diverted to food purchases. Some six million Iraqis depend on the government for nearly all their food, and many more get supplemental food help. Air defense is important, but large crowds of hungry protestors are imminent. While humiliating, Iraq can depend on the Americans to keep Iranian warplanes away in the meantime.
But the F-16s are delayed, not cancelled. Much other F-16 related activities continue. Starting last year, Iraqi ground troops began training with American F-16s providing support. American F-16s and ground controllers were used, giving Iraqi commanders experience in working with this kind of capability. Iraqi ground controllers are being trained, and in a few years, Iraq will have their own F-16s, performing air defense and ground support missions.
Meanwhile, the training of Iraqi F-16 pilots will go forward. The first ten Iraqis began their training late last year. This will cover basic and advanced flight training. Upon completion of this, the new pilots will be ready to learn how to operate F-16s.
Currently, the Iraqi Air Force consists of transports, helicopters and prop driven recon aircraft. No jet fighters, which are essential for defending the national air space. No nationwide air defense system (radars and missiles) either. The Iraqis are seeking to buy and install a radar system and some anti-aircraft missile batteries.
Two years ago, the Iraqi Air Force leadership convinced the government to spend $3 billion to buy a squadron of 18 new F-16 jet fighters (and train pilots and set up maintenance facilities). The U.S. was inclined to cooperate, and sell Iraq the 96 F-16s the Iraqi Air Force wants to eventually purchase over the next decade.
The F-16 is currently the most popular fighter aircraft in service. Iraq is seeking to buy a mix of new and refurbished aircraft. The Iraqis are encouraged by how neighboring Turkey and Jordan have done well with F-16s. The main threat to Iraq is Iran, which can be handled with second-hand, early model, F-16s. That would cut Iraq's F-16 bill by over a billion dollars.
The U.S. still has about 1,300 F-16s in service (about half with reserve units). Over 4,200 F-16s were produced, and America has hundreds in storage, available for sale on the used warplane market. The end of the Cold War in 1991 led to a sharp cut in U.S. Air Force fighter squadrons. Moreover, the new F-35 will be replacing all U.S. F-16s in the next decade. So the U.S. has plenty of little-used F-16s sitting around, and many allies in need of low cost jet fighters.
Meanwhile, Iraq is expanding its air force to over 140 aircraft and 6,000 personnel. Within five years, it plans to have over 500 aircraft, most of them non-combat types. By 2015, Iraq wants to have about 35 squadrons (14 fighter, 5 attack helicopter, 5 armed scout helicopter, 2 transport, 2 reconnaissance, 1 fixed wing training, 1 helicopter training, 3 helicopter transport, 1 utility/search and rescue, and 1 special operations). The $1.5 billion the air force needs for its first 18 F-16s includes what it will cost to build maintenance and training infrastructure for that type of aircraft.