Monday, March 12, 2007


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.


Blogger Roman said...

We can only hope that the Iraqi pilots have more in common with their coalition counterparts than with their neighbors. Then, perhaps, the fundamentals will be right, and the outcome will contribute to moving Iraq forward towards democracy instead of religious Balkanization.

3/12/2007 12:57:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Soul-Man Pootie's Russia and the US Immigration System put SOME People through quite a wringer, also:
Phoenix: A Love Story

3/12/2007 02:32:00 PM  
Blogger Alexis said...


Iraq's very existence as a territorial entity is the result of a botched partition of the Ottoman Empire. I think the only way for Iraq to truly have much in common with its coalition counterparts is to regard itself fundamentally as not a nation at all, but a province of a greater political reality. (One accurate yet politically loaded way to express "greater political reality" is the word "empire".)

Most nations in present day (including most former colonies) are the products of Balkanization and Woodrow Wilson's idiotic premise of "self-determination of peoples". I have sometimes wondered if President Wilson's foreign policy were actually intended to lay down the diplomatic framework for international recognition of an independent Confederacy; this would be consistent with both the advancement of the League of Nations and the movie "Birth of a Nation".

In the meantime, I think Iraq ought to reach out to Mauretania, as Mauretania is a new democracy with a grassroots character as a result of a pro-democracy coup d'etat in 2005. Although Mauretania's coup may have happened without the liberation of Iraq, I think this transformation happened because Mauretania is a weathervane for sentiment in the Arab-Islamic world that had an authoritarian government weak enough to be toppled by the winds of liberal democracy.

3/12/2007 02:48:00 PM  
Blogger RWE said...

As daunting as are the challenges presented by organizational reconstitution, the philosophical challenges are much larger. For example, the Soviet aircraft the IAF was equipped with were designed for short service lives, to be shipped back to the factory in the USSR when major maintenance was required. This is no longer a viable option – assuming it ever was – and implies a need for greater technical competence than was true before.

From the operational standpoint, Soviet-trained forces flew under much greater restrictions than did those in the West. There are stories of IAF fighter pilots shooting down their wingman when he flew in range of their already armed and ready to fire missiles – and then colliding with the resultant fireball. The Western norm is for somewhat more discretion and judgement.

Neither Germany nor Japan had problems of this severity – and they both used suicide missions as part of their operations. Adopting a more U.S.-style outlook probably was easy for them compared to Iraq.

Americans seem to have difficulty recognizing such philosophical differences. Our natural egalitarian outlook combined with the impact of PC-thought in our own military make it almost forbidden to admit such issues even exist. And when it applies to a way of thinking about a whole country’s way of thinking that makes it all the more challenging.

3/12/2007 04:17:00 PM  
Blogger Reocon said...

Wretchard wrote:

In terms of role it was transformed from a threat to her neighbors to a largely counterinsurgency (COIN) force.

A threat? Really? What neighbors felt threatened by Iraq's dilapadated air force, some of which had been buried for years in . . . sand! Iran, which received dozens of jet fighters from Iraqi pilots fleeing doom in '91? Kuwait with its significantly upgraded airforce? Saudi Arabia? Syria?

Please. The Iraqi air force has been effectively dead since '91. The only component that was still dangerous were the helicopters used to keep the Shiite Islamist in-line.

3/12/2007 04:35:00 PM  
Blogger dla said...

Seems strange to rebuild Iraq's airforce. It was 1987 when an Iraqi jet nearly sunk the USS Stark. Oh well, time passes and old wounds heal.

3/12/2007 04:43:00 PM  
Blogger wretchard said...


Here's what it was in its days of glory, according to Global Security:

Iraq's more than 500 combat aircraft were formed into two bomber squadrons, eleven fighter-ground attack squadrons, five interceptor squadrons, and one counterinsurgency squadron of 10 to 30 aircraft each. Support aircraft included two transport squadrons. As many as ten helicopter squadrons were also operational, although these formed the Army Air Corps. The Air Defense Command piloted the MiG-25, MiG-21, and various Mirage interceptors and manned Iraq's considerable inventory of surfaceto -air missiles (SAMs).

In terms of numbers of combat aircraft, the Iraqi Air Force was the largest in the Middle East in August 1990. The quality of the aircraft and aircrew, however, was very uneven. Its effectiveness was constrained by the conservative doctrine and aircraft systems limitations. While Iraqi pilots performed some impressive, relatively complex strikes with the F-1, air-to-air engagements were unimpressive. Lock on by Iranian fighters generally would cause Iraqi pilots conducting offensive counter air missions to abort their missions. Survival dominated their tactics, even when the odds were overwhelmingly in their favor. Aerial engagements were characterized by high-speed, maximum-range missile launches, and a lack of aggressive maneuvering. Saddam had proven reluctant to commit the air force to combat, preferring to keep it in reserve for a final defense of Baghdad and the regime. The Iraqi Air Force had been used most effectively in the war with Iran against economic targets such as oil facilities and tankers. During the war, tactics evolved from high-altitude level bombing to low-level attacks with precision guided munitions (PGMs). Iraq not only imported cluster bombs and fuel-air explosives, but also had acquired the technology to produce these weapons. Pilots had become adept at delivering both conventional and chemical-filled munitions during the final 1988 offensives.

The early use of chemical weapons by the Iraqi Air Force proved ineffective due to poor employment techniques and unfavorable weather. Iraq initially employed the same tactics as with the delivery of conventional weapons and did not factor in terrain and meteorological factors, including wind speed and direction, humidity, and temperature. Also, pilots delivered chemical ordnance at altitudes too high to be effective, or too low for bomb fuzes to function properly, preventing bombs from detonating. The Iraqis later corrected these problems by improving delivery techniques and by using impact fuses.

Iraqi aircraft were deployed at more than 24 primary and 30 dispersal airfields throughout the country. The main operating bases were well constructed, built to withstand conventional attack. The Iraqis could shelter almost all their aircraft in hardened shelters, some built by Yugoslav contractors to standards believed to be able to withstand the effects

During the first Gulf War it was reported that British Tornados, whose runway destroying tactics were developed against relatively small European airbases were boggled by the sheer size of Saddam's airfields.

3/12/2007 05:04:00 PM  
Blogger wretchard said...

Here's a news story which fleshes out the substance of the round table discussion.

U.S. and Iraqi officials are working to build an Iraqi air force capable of conducting operations across the entire spectrum of the counterinsurgency fight, a senior U.S. military officer said today.

The ultimate goal is to create an Iraqi air force “that’s sustainable, and with a force structure that (Iraqis) can maintain,” U.S. Air Force Brig Gen. Stephen Hoog, the air component coordination element director for Multinational Force Iraq, told a group of Internet journalists and bloggers during a telephone conference call from Baghdad.

Eighteen years ago, the now-defunct Iraqi air force had 900 modern airplanes, Hoog said. “It’s not that they don’t know how to run an air force; it’s that they don’t know how to do an air force in this environment. And we’re trying to introduce some Western influence,” he said.

3/12/2007 05:16:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

RWE: But there ARE those Damned Accidents!

3/13/2007 12:24:00 AM  
Blogger Doug said...

(it's a Hornet, of course, and it looks like the rack came off)

3/13/2007 12:29:00 AM  
Blogger David M said...

Trackbacked by The Thunder Run - Web Reconnaissance for 03/13/2007
A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention.

3/13/2007 08:10:00 AM  
Blogger unaha-closp said...

U.S. and Iraqi officials are working to build an Iraqi air force capable of conducting operations across the entire spectrum of the counterinsurgency fight, a senior U.S. military officer said today.

Which is really bad news if the Iraqis ever want to defend themselves against external threats. Thank goodness they live in such a peaceful part of the world.

3/13/2007 04:07:00 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Powered by Blogger