by Travis Sharp
In early September, several news outlets reported that Iraq is interested in buying 36 F-16 fighter jets from the United States. This proposed sale is the latest development in an intense push by the United States and Iraq to transform the Iraqi military into a legitimate fighting force. Recent weapons acquisition proposals would enlarge the Iraqi Security Forces’ purview from merely enforcing internal order to counterbalancing other countries in the region.
IRAQ BULKS UP
During the final week of July, the Department of Defense notified Congress about the proposed sale of $10.9 billion in U.S. military equipment and support to Iraq through the Foreign Military Sales program. The sale included 140 M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks; 6 C-130J-30 Hercules transport aircraft; 160 M1117 Guardian armored security vehicles; and 24 helicopters (either Bell Armed 407 or Boeing AH-6 Little Bird) with AGM-114M Hellfire missiles and launchers.
The Abrams tanks would provide Iraq with an enhanced ground warfare capability. The C-130Js would be able to complete round-trip sorties to all the major cities in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Turkey, and Israel, expanding the regional power projection capabilities of the Iraqi Air Force. The helicopters, while not designed for out-and-out attack, would be equipped with laser-guided Hellfire missiles with blast-fragmentation warheads, a capability the post-Saddam Iraqi Air Force has not possessed to this point.
The Iraqi Air Force is already set to double in size by next year. The addition of 36 F-16s would give Iraq significantly enhanced air power and make it less dependent on U.S. aircraft for combat support.
The role of a jet fighter like the F-16 in counterinsurgency operations, however, continues to be dubious. When provided with actionable intelligence, F-16s can deliver precision strikes against isolated targets – such as the attack that took out Al Qaeda leader Abu Musabal-Zarqawi in 2006. But air strikes risk accidental collateral damage and civilian casualties, which severely undermine the “population protection” principles regularly emphasized by General David Petraeus and his counterinsurgency brain trust in Iraq.
U.S. jet fighters in Iraq also spend a significant amount of time performing what’s called “show of force” missions, which are basically attempts to fly over insurgents and scare them away. With the exorbitant costs of modern jets and fuel, F-16s might be just a little too expensive to be used as scarecrows. (Although, at $100 million per plane, F-16s are relatively affordable compared to other platforms like the $350 million F-22 Raptor, which hasn’t flown a single mission in Iraq or Afghanistan).
While 36 F-16s won’t permit Iraq to draw quantitative parity with potential neighboring threats, they’re a start. Iran, for instance, possesses 286 fighter aircraft, but many of these are aging Northrop Grumman F-14 Tomcats; Russian-made MiG-29s; Chinese-built F-7 M jet fighters; and even older fighter-bombers such as F-4s, F-5s, Su-24s, Su-25s, and Mirage F-1s.
U.S. ARMS FLOW TO IRAQ
The United States has rapidly increased its arms sales to Iraq over the last several years. With the $10.9 billion deal announced in July, the United States has completed approximately $20 billion in arms sales agreements with Iraq since 2005. This total includes $132 million in 2005, $2.3 billion in 2006, $4.5 billion in 2007, and $12.7 billion (thus far) in 2008. Separate from these Foreign Military Sales, the United States also provided $17.9 billion in military-related aid since 2005 through the Iraq Security Forces Fund, according to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction’s latest July 2008 report.
The United States is already the unparalleled leader in arms sales agreements to the Middle East. As a March 2008 analysis by the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation detailed, the United States was responsible for 56% of all arms sales agreements with Middle Eastern countries from 1999 to 2006. This was nearly five times greater than Russia’s share, the second highest supplier, and over eighteen times greater than China’s. Blocking Russia and China’s influence in Middle Eastern arms markets is considered an important foreign policy goal by many U.S. defense officials.
Between now and a significant reduction of U.S. forces in Iraq, perhaps two years from now, Iraqi pilots and ground crews can be trained to operate and maintain the F-16 fighters. As long as U.S. forces stay in Iraq, they can protect the country from external aggressors. The Iraqi Security Forces’ primary responsibility will remain quelling the insurgency.
However, as discussed above, F-16s’ utility in counterinsurgency warfare remains ambiguous. Remember that the United States ostensibly sold F-16s to Pakistan for counterterrorism operations. Pakistan has used F-16s for this purpose, particularly as insurgents have come out to fight more aggressively and moved their operations to rural areas. But Pakistan’s use of F-16s in counterinsurgency missions has been limited because Pakistani F-16s are incapable of flying at night and lack the capability to deliver the type of precision-guided munitions required for urban strikes. Thus, F-16s have helped Pakistan fight terrorists, but they have not been a panacea. Moreover, India has decried the aircraft as a threat, increasing tension between the countries. Selling F-16s to Iraq could follow a similar pattern, with Iraqi F-16s becoming a symbol of deterrence to neighboring countries while playing some role in counterinsurgency operations.
U.S. policymakers are likely to support the sale of F-16s to Iraq because they believe it will accelerate the timeline for American withdrawal. That may or may not be a correct assessment; regardless, unintended consequences should always be a concern. Selling arms to strategic allies can backfire if the regime or relationship changes.