It’s Hellfire missiles — not F-16s — that Iraq is ready to use now


An Iraqi air force AC-208 Cessna Caravan aircrew launches a Hellfire missile Nov. 8, 2010, at a target on the Aziziyah Training Range, south of Baghdad. The Pentagon is rushing hundreds of Hellfire missiles to Iraq this year as it deals with an increasing threat from Islamist militants. ( (U.S. Army photo/Sgt. Brandon Bolick)

For weeks, the Iraqi government and the U.S. media have pressed the Pentagon on why it will not deliver the first F-16 fighters promised to Baghdad until later this year. Militants with the Islamic State, an Al Qaeda offshoot, have taken control of broad swathes of Iraq over the last two months, and Iraq’s military has done little to stop them. Surely, the thinking goes, some well armed American-built fighter jets would help.

The Pentagon has pushed back, saying the plan all along has been for the first two Iraqi F-16s to arrive no earlier than this fall. To argue that the schedule has slipped or is late “is just false,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said last week.

Dana Priest and Aaron Gregg reported for The Washington Post on July 3 that there are a variety of complications at play politically and practically before Iraq can use its first F-16 fighters. Among them, no Iraqi pilot team has qualified yet to fly the aircraft in combat and the military installation eyed to house them, Balad Air Base, is no longer considered secure because of the insurgency.

But it’s even more complicated than that, a former defense official with broad knowledge of Iraq’s F-16 program told Checkpoint. First, the Iraqi F-16s cannot be outfitted with the full range of missiles and bombs that Baghdad plans to install on them until they arrive in the country, and even then, it could take months to incorporate them, the source said.

As the blog Jalopnik noted last month, the United States has approved the sale of Sidewinder missiles and other weapons to Baghdad — but it’s unlikely they will be used until additional engineering occurs. Until then, the jets will rely primarily on guns. And that’s if they fly at all this year — the deliveries previously planned for September are now on hold, Air Force Times reported last week.


Iraq is expected to get their first F-16s from the United States in late 2014, but it is not clear if that schedule will be met. (Lockheed Martin photo by Liz Kaszynski)

There also is the question of whether the runway at Balad is ready for the F-16s. The jet is highly sensitive when landing or taking off from decrepit runways, and Balad’s airfield has not gotten much attention since the United States pulled the remainder of its combat troops from the country in 2011. And since many contractors performing work at Balad to get it ready for the F-16s have departed due to the safety threat, the timetable for its use is unclear.

It’s actually the Pentagon’s plan to rush hundreds more Hellfire missiles to Iraq this year that bears closer watching, the former defense official with knowledge of the program told Checkpoint. Iraq’s air force has launched them for years from the AC-208 Cessna Caravan and similar models. That plane wouldn’t stand much of a chance in a dogfight with modern fighter jets, but it has found success in a counterinsurgency fight where it must strike ground targets.

Here’s video of an AC-208 launching a missile previously:

The Iraqi military burned through its arsenal of hundreds of Hellfire missiles, and ran out late in June. The United States sent hundreds more, and is planning to sell up to 4,000 to Baghdad, Bloomberg News reported last week. They’re proven, effective against insurgents operating on foot and off unarmored vehicles, and apparently are available.

In total, that plan represents the most likely course of action at this point for bolstering Iraq’s stressed air force.

UPDATE: July 10, 11:15 a.m.: This post has been updated to note a media report suggesting the F-16 deliveries to Iraq this fall are on hold.

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.
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Dan Lamothe · July 9