About Hindered By Delays And Corruption, The Iraqi Air Force Is Flying Again, But Barely
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Hindered By Delays And Corruption, The Iraqi Air Force Is Flying Again, But Barely info
February 5, 2007
By James Glanz
TAJI MILITARY BASE, Iraq — The five droopy blades of a new Russian-made helicopter painted with the Iraqi flag began spinning and the aircraft hovered off the ground, purring like an oversize Cadillac.
“Sir, you have the controls,” an American in the co-pilot’s seat said late last month.
“I have the controls,” replied the Iraqi pilot.
The helicopter lifted, banked hard to the right over a junkyard, a palm grove and a series of warehouses, then soared toward the greenish waters of the Tigris River at the perimeter of this base.
It would be an unremarkable sequence in almost any country, but here it is significant: it means that the Iraqi Air Force is flying again.
Like everything involving the rebuilding of Iraq’s security forces, the return of the air force is fraught with ambiguity. In fact, there may be no better illustration of what is right, wrong and intensely frustrating about the Iraqi armed forces than the four new Russian helicopters, called MI-17s, that for the moment are restricted to flying over the Taji Military Base on training missions.
The Iraqi government originally ordered a fleet of Russian helicopters from a Polish contractor as part of $400 million in arms deals in 2004 and 2005 that turned out to be corrupt. Lt. Gen. Nasier Abadi, the deputy commander of the Iraqi Joint Forces, said in an interview that many of the helicopters in that deal were more than a quarter-century old and could never have been flown.
“It’s the worst deal,” General Abadi said. “They were beyond their lifetimes.”
That deal, a serious embarrassment for both the United States and Iraq, has received wide publicity. But in an undisclosed development, General Abadi said, Iraq has renegotiated an arrangement that will now bring 28 new MI-17s to the air force. The four new helicopters at Taji, about 15 miles north of Baghdad, are part of that arrangement, he said.
The reason their use has been restricted is that the Iraqi military has so far been unable to purchase certain crucial onboard systems that the helicopters need to fly combat missions.
The Iraqi government’s failure to fully outfit the helicopters is a source of huge frustration to the American officers who are working with the Iraqis. “It’s painful,” said Col. Dan Groeschen of the United States Air Force, the deputy commander of the Coalition Air Force Transition Team. “Iraqis are itching to get going, to fly on a mission.”
The Iraqi Air Force once boasted more than 500 combat aircraft. Now it has around 20 helicopters and planes and has barely figured in discussions on rebuilding the Iraqi security forces.
There are no fighter planes in the current fleet and none are expected in the next few years at least, indicating that the United States will be responsible for air defenses here for some time to come.
“In that part of the world, what you call a territory without a couple hundred fighter planes is a protectorate,” said John Pike, the director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense information organization in Alexandria, Va., which has studied the history of the Iraqi Air Force.
As with so much else in Iraq, the United States underestimated the difficulty of rebuilding the country’s air force, predicting that Iraqi helicopters would be flying by the summer of 2004.
No such thing happened, and Colonel Groeschen said the early effort was further slowed by a training crash in which four Americans and an Iraqi were killed. But the enterprise gradually made progress, and now 915 Iraqi Air Force personnel are tending, repairing and flying aircraft at American-run bases in Baghdad, Taji, Kirkuk and Basra.
Most of the aircraft are small reconnaissance planes and training helicopters with varying degrees of usefulness, although a set of multipurpose Huey helicopters is expected to arrive soon, after having been refurbished in the United States. For now, the pride of the fleet is a trio of 40-year-old C-130 cargo planes donated by the United States and flying out of the Baghdad airport.
Helping push the Iraqi effort along, Colonel Groeschen said, are 125 United States Air Force personnel on his transition team, a number that is expected to increase. Originally, most of the team lived and worked with the Iraqis as part of an ambitious countrywide program to embed American military personnel with Iraqis 24 hours a day as advisers and trainers.
But Colonel Groeschen said he was forced to put most of his team back in American quarters because the Iraqis refused to guard their camps carefully at night, failed to provide enough fuel for electrical generators and did not seem to be bothered by highly unsanitary conditions.
“I have a responsibility to take care of these guys, too,” Colonel Groeschen said of his transition team. If the Iraqi side of the effort falls short, though, it will not be for lack of confidence on the part of its pilots. General S., a 52-year-old combat veteran who flew the MI-17 around Taji, and who asked that his name not be used for security reasons, said Iraqi pilots “are ready for any mission” and were already prepared to go beyond the training flights.
General S. compared himself to a fish that cannot live without water. “I cannot live without flying,” he said.
A tour of the air base and compounds at Taji shows some of the progress that the program has made as well as the deep challenges it faces.
Near a hangar in one part of the base, a group of American and Iraqi mechanics clustered around a small American-made helicopter, a Jet Ranger with a damaged rear rotor. The American officers there said the Iraqi mechanics, like the pilots, had good technical skills but suffered from an inability to make decisions on their own, a legacy of the centralized, command-and-control style of the old Iraqi military.
That is why when it comes to the pilots, Colonel Groeschen said, the mission is not teaching them how to fly but “teaching them how to think.” The United States plans to start a pilot school in the fall to end its reliance on officers who are products of the old military tradition, he said.
With so much history to overcome and so much uncertainty about the future, a simple flight on the MI-17, even just a training run, palpably eases the tension all around. After all, said Major Paul, an American who asked that only his first name be used, they are all pilots.
“The only thing that we look at and they look at is the ability to fly,” Major Paul said. “There is that mutual respect, and it’s independent of age or background or anything like that.”
He stood back and let General S., wearing a green flight suit and a black aviator’s scarf, do his preflight inspection of the big helicopter, checking for cracks in the rotor blades, damage to the fuel tanks, problems with the tires. And then they took off, passing the controls back and forth as they practiced landings and takeoffs.
“Very nice,” Major Paul said after General S. set the helicopter down squarely in the center of a landing strip. “We’ll see if I can do that.”