The Iraqi Air Force’s F-16 Fleet Is On The Brink Of Collapse Despite Showy Flybys
A high-profile 23 F-16 flyover may only have served to paper over the cracks in what is an increasingly precarious Iraqi Viper fleet.
A total of 23 Iraqi Air Force Lockheed Martin F-16IQ Viper fighter jets took part in an impressive flyby to mark the centenary of the country’s army yesterday. This is despite recent reports that Baghdad’s fleet of F-16s, the pride of the country’s air force and arguably its most capable combat assets, is suffering from serious readiness problems.
The flyby was part of a major military parade to commemorate 100 years of the Iraqi Army that was staged in Baghdad in the presence of the commander-in-chief of the Iraqi Armed Forces, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kazemi. As well as fighters and helicopters, troops, and various military vehicles were presented to the country’s officials and the general public. A full video of the event is posted later in this article.
The Iraqi Air Force originally acquired 36 F-16C/D Block 52s, also known by the designation F-16IQ, under a 2011 Foreign Military Sales deal, but two of the jets were lost in separate accidents during their initial period of training in the United States. The remaining 34 Vipers are assigned to the 9th Fighter Squadron at Balad Air Base and have previously flown combat operations against ISIS as part of the Operation Inherent Resolve coalition, striking targets both in Iraq and in Syria.
“The Iraqi Air Force F-16 pilots demonstrated their readiness in the Defeat Daesh mission,” said U.S. Army Colonel Wayne Marotto, the official military spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), said in a statement, using a colloquial name for ISIS. CJTF-OIR is the formal name for the U.S.-led coalition to fighting that terrorist group in Iraq and Syria.
That vote of confidence from CJTF-OIR is noteworthy since it was reported only last month that the Iraqi F-16 fleet was no longer flying missions as part of the international coalition. That story was published online by the Iraq Oil Report, which specializes in news from and about Iraq.
Video of the January 6, 2021 parade:
The number of jets involved in the January 6 celebrations is also significant in light of previous accounts that suggested that less than 20 percent of Iraq’s F-16s were fully airworthy. The report, based on an investigation into the status of Balad Air Base, home of the Iraqi Air Force Viper fleet, contended that during one effort to get 19 jets into the air in the course of a single day last year, four of them “almost crashed,” apparently as the result of near-collisions.
“The pilots were crying for help,” one unnamed former Iraqi Army official told Iraq Oil Report. “It was a huge risk.”
The same story quotes active and retired members of the Iraqi military who describe “poor jet maintenance and mismanagement” leading to the F-16s regularly failing to meet required maintenance standards.
Officials confirmed to the Iraq Oil Report last December that only seven jets from the F-16 fleet were able to fly “without serious risk of crashing,” while the operational jets were being kept airworthy using spare parts cannibalized from the other aircraft. This is clearly a short-term solution that will eventually lead to all aircraft becoming non-airworthy in the long-term.
There was, however, some indirect pushback from CJTF-OIR in the wake of the article, with the following tweet — including an image of an Iraqi F-16 undergoing maintenance — posted around a week after the report was published:
The poor state of the jets may well have been the reason — or at least a contributing factor — behind the decision to remove the F-16s from air tasking orders. This move, which occurred around April 2020, was confirmed to the Iraq Oil Report later in the year by one current and one former Iraqi Army officer and two coalition spokespersons from the U.S. military, including the coalition’s chief spokesperson, U.S. Army Colonel Wayne Marotto.
Despite removal from the CJTF-OIR order of battle, the Iraqi Air Force did apparently fly two further sorties as part of the campaign, on September 1, 2020. However, it seems these were fairly tokenistic. One former Iraqi Army official told the Iraq Oil Report that the flights were “bullshit.”
Further details on the status of the Iraqi Vipers have been published by the Scramble aviation website, which has reported that, of the 34 F-16s based at Balad, at least 10 “are not able to fly at all.” Of the 23 jets that took part in the flyby, Scramble says that more than half “are only able to fly but lack working radars and avionics to operate with weapons and show other shortcomings.” The website adds that within other Western air forces, jets in a similar status would simply be grounded.
The problems faced by the Iraqis in keeping the F-16 fleet combat-ready are manyfold. Above all, logistical issues have affected aircraft availability, a knock-on effect of budget shortages due to the falling price of oil, together with the ongoing security situation in the country, which has led to a reduction in the Lockheed Martin-provided contractor support needed to properly maintain the jets.
The lack of money to support the F-16s has led to Baghdad taking out a $2.7-billion loan from the United States to cover ammunition and maintenance for the jets, as well as to sustain its costly M1A1 Abrams. The Iraqi military has had increasing trouble operating and maintaining those main battle tanks, which it also acquired from the United States, as you can read about more here.
There is also the factor of a limited number of fully trained crews to both fly and service the jets. In terms of pilots, a shortage of available jets on the flight line means fewer training sorties can be generated, with aircrew losing their qualifications for specific tasks, including undertaking combat missions, or night flying.
An example of the lack of oversight in maintenance was one incident last August in which a ground crew reduced from the standard four to just one person failed to properly secure an F-16 that was parked after a flight. It then rolled away and hit a maintenance vehicle, causing serious damage to the jet’s nose.
The Iraq Oil Report also cited mismanagement and alleged corruption as factors behind the Iraqi F-16 fleet’s problems. That corruption was addressed in a previous article published by the same source, last August, pointing to “criminal schemes and failures of oversight” at Balad, including the example of commanders allegedly fabricating logbooks to exaggerate the number of training flights taking place. The surplus fuel left over was then apparently sold off illicitly. Since then, and despite an Iraqi Ministry of Defense investigation, the situation has reportedly only deteriorated.
Meanwhile, the safety of U.S. contractors in Iraq has become an increasing concern in the last 12 months. ISIS has stepped up its activities in northern Iraq, including targeting individuals associated with oil fields and other energy infrastructure, as well as security forces.
The assassination of General Qasem Soleimani, then-commander of Iran's Quds Force, in a U.S. drone strike outside Baghdad International Airport in January 2020 also led to a dramatic increase in threat levels in Iraq. Days after the drone strike, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) launched numerous ballistic missiles at the U.S. operated portions of air bases at Al Asad and Erbil, injuring 110 American service members.
Moreover, the relationship between Iraq and the United States — and the U.S.-led coalition — has worsened since last year’s Baghdad Airport drone strike, which also claimed the life of Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, the then-deputy commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella organization overseeing semi-official militias mobilized to fight ISIS, which includes multiple Iranian-backed groups.
With all this in mind, it seems that Lockheed Martin contractors were forced to leave Iraq in January 2020, although it’s unclear whether they left entirely, or left a reduced presence in the country. Reportedly, at least some Lockheed Martin maintenance contractors began returning to Balad Air Base in the summer “to complete the terms of their logistics support contract.”
At that point, however, the U.S. government threatened to close its Embassy in Baghdad if Iraq didn’t take action to prevent attacks against it. This again put into question the status of U.S. contractors in the country.
“If Lockheed does follow the U.S. government’s lead to the exits, it would likely ensure the F-16 fleet is unable to rejoin the U.S.-led coalition anytime soon,” the Iraq Oil Report observed.
“We continue to work closely with our security teams and government partners to monitor the situation,” a Lockheed Martin statement to Iraq Oil Report contended. “The safety and well-being of our employees is our top priority.”
It seems that, despite the ability to put up 23 jets as a show of strength, the long-term fate of the Iraqi F-16 fleet hangs in the balance. Efforts to fly 19 or 23 jets in a single day may look impressive but are no guarantee of combat-readiness.
There’s also the lingering question of whether Iraq even really needs aircraft in the class of the F-16. The Iraqi Air Force also operates cheaper Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) T-50 Golden Eagle advanced trainer/light combat aircraft that arguably provide much of the capability required to combat an enemy like ISIS. Also suitable for this type of counterinsurgency campaign are the air force’s subsonic Su-25 Frogfoot or Czech-made L-159 attack jets, which it has many years of experience operating, as well as turboprop-powered AC-208 Armed Caravans that can deliver AGM-114 Hellfire missiles.
Furthermore, the Mi-24 Hind and Mi-28 Havoc attack helicopters flown by the Iraqi Army, both of which are seen in the video below, are similarly equipped for this kind of mission and have seen extensive combat against ISIS.
Even the Iraqi Air Force’s An-32 Cline transports, which have been adapted to operate as bombers, have at times seen more combat use than the F-16s, an anomaly that you can read about in detail here. Suffice to say, between June 2014, and December 2017, the An-32 cargo planes flew 990 strike missions, almost twice that of the Iraqi F-16 fleet’s 514 sorties.
It is worth noting too that the Iraqi F-16 acquisition was controversial from the beginning, and export approval was only granted after the jets were suitable downgraded compared to other export variants, including removal of AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missile capability, these weapons being substituted by less-capable AIM-7 Sparrows. Over and above this, an aircraft as sophisticated as the F-16 requires constant support from the original equipment manufacturer — in this case, Lockheed Martin — making the type arguably too sophisticated for the newly re-established Iraqi Air Force.
Ultimately, unless the problems presented by economic constraints and the wider security situation, let alone alleged mismanagement and corruption, can be addressed, it may simply be a matter of time before the whole of the Iraqi Viper fleet is finally grounded for good.
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