April 6, 2009: The Iraqi Air Force has convinced the government to spend $1.5 billion to buy a squadron of 18 F-16 jet fighters. The U.S. is inclined to cooperate, and sell Iraq the 96 F-16s Iraqi Air Force wants to eventually purchase over the next decade.
The F-16 is currently the most popular fighter aircraft in service. Last year, Romania bought 48 F-16s for $4.5 billion. Half will be the latest model, the F-16C /50. The others will be used, and reconditioned to F-16C/25 standards. Romania could have waited a few years and bought the new F-35 instead, but that would have cost them more money (nearly $6 billion for just 24). Romania did the math and realized that 48 F-16s would be more than adequate to handle any neighborhood spats. And if Russia became a problem, Romania is now a member of NATO, and capable of calling on some very big allies.
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.
F-16s are still produced for export, and these cost as much as $70 million each (the F-16I for Israel). Some nations, like South Korea, build the F-16 under license. A used F-16C, built in the 1990s, would go for about $10 million on the open market. The 16 ton F-16 has an admirable combat record, and is very popular with pilots. It has been successful at ground support as well. When equipped with 4-6 smart bombs, it is a very effective bomber.
Meanwhile, Iraq is expanding its air force to over 130 aircraft and 6,000 personnel. Within six years, it plans to have over 500 aircraft, most of them non-combat types. Currently the air force has seven squadrons: (1 transport, 2 reconnaissance, 1 helicopter training, 1 helicopter transport, 1 utility/search and rescue, and 1 special operations). By 2015, there will be 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 Iraqis are eager to buy F-16s partly because neighboring Turkey and Jordan have done well with this model.
Currently, the air force is flying, with nearly a hundred aircraft, over 50 sorties a day, mostly transport and reconnaissance missions. The first combat aircraft will be in action later this year, as Iraq equips its Cessna Caravan 208 aircraft with laser designators and Hellfire missiles. Mi-17 helicopters will be equipped to fire unguided rockets.
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.