Iraqi Air Force Spreads its Wings

By Melissa Koskovich

An Iraqi airman (right) and U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Dominic Pecoraro, both loadmasters, watch carefully for enemy weapons fire from the ground below their C-130E Hercules cargo aircraft. If necessary, they can fire flares away from the aircraft to distract various weapons. This is one of three cargo aircraft given to the Iraqi air force by the United States. Pecoraro is from the 517th Airlift Squadron, Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, and a native of Limington, Maine.

Photo by Lance Cheung / DoD Photo

BAGHDAD, Iraq – A fully certified aircrew takes flight, and a single air base opens its gates. These feats represent giant steps toward independence and national security to Iraqi airmen training side by side here with U.S. Air Force members.

Since November, the U.S. Air Force has taken on the mission of standing up the Iraqi air force, enabling Iraqis to gradually take over operations and help secure their nation’s future. "In only a few months they have made significant progress," U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. David W. Eidsaune, Air Component Coordination Element director, said. "We’re working closely with them on a plan for their future. We agree on where they’re going and how to get there."

Iraqi airmen agree that progress has been made, but know there’s still a long road to travel. "We are starting over," Iraqi Air Force Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Kamal Barzanjy said. "America has given us a lot of help, and we have already accomplished many things, but we need to keep growing."

Building an air force is no simple undertaking. Eidsaune noted that Iraqis will face many challenges along the way. "One of the major challenges for them is funding," Eidsaune said. "The whole country is really stretched right now as far as funding and commerce, and air forces are not cheap entities. It will take them time to build up their capabilities."

To assist them, the U.S. has given the Iraq a small fleet of C-130 Hercules cargo aircraft.

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Charles Franks observes and instructs Iraqi crew chiefs inspecting a propeller on an Iraqi air force C-130E Hercules cargo aircraft. Franks is part of the Multinational Security Transition Command Iraq, Coalition Air Force Transition Team. The Iraqi trainees are members of the 23rd Squadron, assigned to Al Muthana Air Base on Baghdad International Airport.

Photo by Lance Cheung / DoD Photo

But funding is not the only obstacle Iraqis will face. Recruiting the next generation of Iraqi airmen will also be a challenge. "Right now, most Iraqi airmen come from the ‘old air force’ – prior to the 1990s," Eidsaune said. "The Iraqis need to recruit more airmen and build up their air academy and staff colleges. There are already initiatives under way to accomplish this, but it will take time."

Despite these growing pains, the Iraqi air force is taking part in some coalition operations. "The IAF is playing a limited, but effective role in our operations," Eidsaune said. "Their current aircraft are kept busy transporting troops, supplies and distinguished visitors."

In addition, the Iraqi air force plays a small role in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations. "Iraqi ISR assets are tasked by the local (Iraqi) army division to scan their local infrastructure, including pipelines and borders," he said. "These assets bring back valuable intelligence to ground commanders, and are definitely making a difference."

With the first Iraqi air base opening March 7, the air force will begin to take on ground and airfield operations as well. "Mastering these functions is critical for survival as a defense force," Eidsaune said. "The Iraqis are motivated and eager to learn. They welcome our help. Our efforts are very much a partnership."

Barzanjy agrees. "We are working together as one team," he said. "Of course we still need support from our allies, but we are growing."

When asked about how he sees the Iraqi air force, Eidsaune said, "(The service) is small, but proud. One day they will be large and proud, like they once were."