Support: The Iraqi Curse Returns

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September 10, 2019: In Iraq corruption in the military appears to be making a comeback. Compelling evidence was recently revealed by American auditors who reported only two of the dozen American made ScanEagle UAVs was operational in 2019 as were only two of the ten Chinese CH-4 UAVs. The Americans are able to monitor that corruption because the U.S. has spent over $16 billion since 2014 aiding Iraq in defeating ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). As a condition of that aid, the Americans can audit the Iraqi use of that money, including U.S. military equipment provided to Iraqi security forces. From late 2014 until 2017 corruption in the Iraqi security forces was uncharacteristically low. The main reason for this was the fact that corruption in the Iraqi security forces was the main reason for the poor performance of Iraqi soldiers and police as ISIL quickly took control of about 40 percent of Iraq, including the second-largest city Mosul, in mid-2014. By the end of 2017 Mosul had been recaptured and ISIL no longer controlled any Iraqi territory, although smaller groups of them were, and still are, active.

The liberation of Mosul in early 2017 was considered a major victory by Iraqis and all the ground fighting had been done by Iraqi forces, including Kurds, who had the best troops. American and NATO air support was important but some of the most the valuable air support inside the city was provided by Chinese CH-4 UAVs Iraq had purchased. This is a Predator clone, complete with Chinese laser-guided missiles similar to the American Hellfire. Iraq ordered its first CH-4s in 2014 and had at least a dozen of them for the battle to drive Mosul. This campaign took over a year and the CH-4s spent most of its time carrying out surveillance missions over Mosul and surrounding areas. But by the time Mosul was liberated the CH-4s had carried out over 300 airstrikes in the city, in direct support of the Iraqi troops who were dealing with the stubborn ISIL defense of downtown Mosul. Even before Iraq obtained CH-4s they began receiving American ScanEagle UAVs, which are unarmed and used for surveillance. In this role, they have proved very popular and the Iraqis kept them flying through 2017. But starting in 2018 the ScanEagles and CH-4s were seen in the air less often. Iraqi troops complained to their U.S. advisors that there was less aerial surveillance of the Syrian border and other places the remaining ISIL fighters were hiding out. American auditors found the reason was that maintenance contracts for the ScanEagles were not being renewed and the Iraqis were simply not making an effort to keep the ScanEagles and CH-4s operational, despite the fact that these two aircraft were still needed to monitor the Syrian border and parts of northern and western Iraq. Some Iraqis blame Iran for this because the Iranians are paranoid about anyone keeping an eye on the pro-Iran PMF militias still active in Iraq. Whatever the case, money was still being appropriated for the support of the ScanEagles and CH-4s but was no longer having the desired effect. The money was apparently stolen and it was nonsense like that that handed ISIL easy victories in 2014. The CH-4 appears to be nearly as reliable as similar American UAVs and other CH-4 users in the Middle East are not having problems with keeping their CH-4s flying. The two dozen foreign users of the ScanEagle and the American military (the main user) have no problem keeping the ScanEagle flying.

So popular is ScanEagle that, despite its simple design, demand for them remains strong. During the first half of 2019, the American manufacturer of ScanEagle received orders for over 120 MQ-27 ScanEagle 2s. About half of these are going to foreign users, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Canada, Poland, Oman and Vietnam. Some of these nations are already ScanEagle users and wanted more of them. In general, American and foreign users of ScanEagle are satisfied with this UAV, which has been in service for nearly fifteen years. ScanEagle has been so popular in the Middle East that Iran boasted of building a ScanEagle clone.

Also announced in 2019 was the new ScanEagle 3, which is a slightly larger (but 65 percent heavier at 36.3 kg/80 pounds) version aimed at commercial users. ScanEagle 3 includes elements of the RQ-21A Blackjack which was introduced in 2014 as a new, larger (61 kg) UAV based on the ScanEagle that many thought would replace ScanEagle. That did not happen but Blackjack ended up complementing ScanEagle because military demand for the smaller and cheaper ScanEagle 2 continued.

In addition to the American military, ScanEagle has been exported to a growing number of foreign nations for use by the security forces. Over two thousand have been produced so far for commercial and military users. ScanEagle is usually sold as a $4 million system (four UAVs plus controller electronics and takeoff/recovery equipment). Only one person is required to prep, launch and operates a ScanEagle. Powered by a gasoline engine, ScanEagle is one of the most reliable UAVs available. The first versions were smaller and designed for commercial trawlers to search for schools of fish on the high seas.

The ScanEagle entered service in 2005 and weighs 22 kg (48 pounds). It has a 3.2 meter (ten foot) wingspan and uses day and night video cameras. It uses a catapult for launch and can be landed via a wing hook that catches a rope hanging from a 16 meter (fifty foot) pole. There is also a smaller CLRE (Compact Launch and Recovery System) for ship use. On land, ScanEagle can also land on any flat, solid surface. In 2014 an upgrade, ScanEagle 2, was introduced and it included a number of mechanical and electronic upgrades that could also be applied to the original ScanEagle if the customer thought it worthwhile.

The ScanEagle 2 can stay in the air for up to 24 hours per flight and fly as high as five kilometers (16,000 feet). Scan Eagles cruising speed is 110 kilometers an hour and it can operate at least a hundred kilometers from the ground controller. ScanEagle carries an optical system that is stabilized to keep the cameras focused on an object while the UAV moves. ScanEagle has been flying for nearly two decades and has been in military service most of that time. Users find it easy to operate, very reliable and excellent at providing long-duration surveillance over land and coastal areas.

The RQ-21A is basically a larger ScanEagle, weighs 61 kg (135 pound), has a 4.9 meter (16 foot) wingspan and can fly as high as 5,900 meters (19,500 feet) at a cruise speed of 100 kilometers an hour. RQ-21A can stay in the air up to 16 hours and can carry a payload of 18 kg (39 pounds). It uses the same takeoff and landing equipment as the Scan Eagle. RQ-21A also uses many of the ScanEagle sensors, in addition to new ones that were too heavy for ScanEagle, like a high definition (synthetic aperture) radar. The additional weight of the RQ-21 makes it more stable in bad weather or windy conditions and can operate up to 100 kilometers from the operator.

The U.S. Marine Corps and Navy began receiving RQ-21A Blackjack UAVs in early 2014. The marines had to work out some kinks in using theirs and only declared the RQ-21A ready for regular (battlefield) service in January 2016. This came after a lot of field testing and tweaking. Some RQ-21A systems were sent to Afghanistan in mid-2014 for field tests and were soon operating in combat. So far over 600 Blackjacks have been built and export orders are going to nations already using ScanEagle but wanting something larger and similar. These users tend to keep buying and operating ScanEagles because ScanEagle is one of those systems that is too useful (reliable, affordable and capable) to completely replace.

The Iraqi troops who operated the ScanEagle were enthusiastic about this UAV, but those troops have little power to ensure that the money their Defense Ministry gets for ScanEagle maintenance is used as it is supposed to. What is happening to ScanEagle and the CH-4s is all too common in Iraq, which has long had the reputation of being the most corrupt nation in the region, and the most ineffective military mainly because of that.

 


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