A few hours ago, at a blogger round table, Brigadier General Stephen Hoog, director of the Air Component Coordination Element, Multi-National Force-Iraq, described what it was like to rebuild the Iraqi Air Force. The word "rebuild" doesn't carry enough freight in this context because, contrary to common belief, all air forces consist primarily of people. The aircraft are tools which can be acquired relatively quickly; but the airmen -- whether pilots, technicians, logisticians -- are the the craftsmen whose production cannot be rushed. In both the sense of equipment and personnel the Iraqi aiforce died as completely with Operation Iraqi Freedom as the Japanese air forces at the end of World War 2.
From the perspective of equipment the Iraqi Air Force went from a combat force deploying some of the most sophisticated airframes in the world, including Mig-25s to one which today operates mostly rotary wing, utility and airlift types. In terms of role it was transformed from a threat to her neighbors to a largely counterinsurgency (COIN) force. For the personnel the changes have been just as momentuous. One pilot went from flying a Mig-25 to an 85-knot utility aircraft. The challenge of accepting a transformation from being a high-status military officer during the Saddam era to retraining at the age of 45 both to learn English and fly in a new environment is one that many pilots, regardless of nationality, will easily empathize with.
In some sense, the effort to rebuild the Iraqi air force is a metaphor for the entire process of rebuilding Iraq as a nation. During the entire round table, BG Hoog stressed how important it was to get the fundamentals correct from the beginning, something so important in air forces that non-pilots may regard it as an obsession. Unless the basic skills are imparted at the outset, bad habits will become institutionalized and the whole organization an accident waiting to happen.
Currently the Iraqi airforce is already supporting limited combat operations by flying personnel and supplies around. But unless the fundamentals are established early, any rapid expansion followed by the stress of heavy combat and joint operations with allies like the US can result in a disaster that will require ripping things back down to the ground rather an a minor correction.
The process of recreating the Iraqi air force illustrates how thoroughly that nation's institutions had been destroyed. One of its mightiest institutions has lost, not only its aircraft fleet but its entire organizational culture: its traditions, badges of status, perquisites, role -- nearly everything. The corollary of such complete destruction is that its reconstruction must be equally complete. When the US toppled Saddam, it not only destroyed a thousand units of hardware and several hundred buildings, it ended a whole way of life; and entire way of being.
Such situations are so rare that one has to think back to the occupation of Japan and Germany to find a modern equivalent. Many of the current problems America faces in Iraq arise from the ironic fact that its triumph over the old Ba'athist regime, rather than being partial, has been so devastatingly complete. The US effort in Iraq has been psychologically haunted by the concept of an "exit strategy", the idea, born of the post Vietnam Era and limited war, that America could depart from foreign involvements the way you could plan a return trip home from an overseas holiday. Perhaps the US needs a better way of thinking about situations where its actions create fundamental changes in not only a national, but a regional situation.