Iraqi Air Force

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Hunter FR.10 of the Iraqi Air Force 1973.

The Iraqi Air Force, initially created under the direction and guidance of the British Mandate government in 1931, grew steadily through six decades by importing technology and hardware from multiple sources, most notably Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. Its expansion was largely driven by the aftermath of unsuccessful attacks on Israel, which often led to the destruction of significant numbers of Iraqi warplanes. In 1991, it was virtually destroyed by the combined air forces of the international coalition formed to evict Iraqi occupation units from Kuwait (Operation desert storm). Just prior to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, much of the pre-1991 Iraqi air fleet was flown to Iran, in the hope of preserving the airplanes for future use. The government of Iran seized control of the warplanes, however, further degrading Iraq’s aerial defense capability. In the years after the Persian Gulf War, Iraq’s remaining warplanes slowly degenerated due to poor maintenance, a lack of trained aircraft technicians, and a shortage of vital repair parts. During the 2003 Anglo-American-led invasion of Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom), coalition forces reported virtually no aerial activity by the Iraqi military.

In 1931, the air arm of the Iraqi Army was created, primarily using obsolete British equipment. Throughout the next four decades, the growing Iraqi Air Force continued to use equipment considered obsolete by Western standards, but of sufficient quality to become one of the most powerful Arab air forces in the Middle East. Regionally, only the Israeli and Egyptian air forces were of superior size and quality. When Iraq became an independent nation in 1947, it continued to pursue surplus equipment from Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. By using cast-off warplanes, the fledgling Iraqi government kept the purchase and maintenance costs of its air force manageable.

In 1948, the Iraqi Air Force saw its first significant action outside of the national borders. When the state of Israel proclaimed its independence on May 14, 1948, it was immediately invaded by the armies of Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Transjordan. Because Israel had no warplanes at the start of the Israeli-Arab War of 1948-1949, Iraqi attack aircraft held complete air superiority and could attack Israeli ground forces with impunity. They proved largely ineffective, however, and over the course of the war the nascent Israeli Air Force proved equal to the task of driving back the Iraqi warplanes. In June 1967, Israel launched preemptive strikes against Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, fearing an attack from the Arab nations was imminent. This prompted the Six-Day War. After the initial assaults, the Israeli Air Force turned its attention to Iraq, launching massive raids against Iraqi airfields and destroying much of the Iraqi Air Force on the ground. The few warplanes that survived the attacks remained grounded at airfields in eastern Iraq, presumably outside the range of Israeli raids. In the October 1973 Yom Kippur (Ramadan) War, elements of the Iraqi Air Force joined the conflict in support of the Syrian Army, and performed well enough against the Israeli Air Force that Iraq exited the war with its aerial fleet largely intact.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Iraq used France and the Soviet Union as its primary warplane suppliers. Over 100 French Mirage F1 jets replaced the obsolete fleet of British Hawker Hunters. These were supplemented by approximately 100 French-built Gazelle, Super-Frelon, and Alouette helicopters. The most advanced Soviet fighter in the Iraqi arsenal was the MiG-29 Fulcrum; 24 joined a fleet of more than 200 MiG-21 Fishbed aircraft in 1987. Air transport capacity was primarily supplied by the Il-76 Candid transport and aerial tanker. During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), the Iraqi Air Force served primarily in support of Iraqi ground forces. Iraq was able to maintain local air superiority over the primary battle zone of the war, but could not withstand the numerically superior Iranian Army. Soon the Iraqi Air Force began to deploy chemical weapons in a desperate attempt to hold off massive Iranian offensives.

After only two years of peace, the Iraqi Air Force was again committed to combat. On August 2, 1990, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein ordered an invasion of Kuwait in the form of an overwhelming combined-arms assault on the small Persian Gulf nation. The world reaction was outrage, as American and Saudi Arabian military units scrambled into position to prevent further aggression. The United Nations (UN) imposed economic sanctions and threatened the use of force to drive Iraq from Kuwait. When Hussein refused to withdraw his troops, a U. S.-led multinational invasion of Kuwait and Iraq ensued (Operation desert storm). The invasion began on January 17, 1991, and lasted several weeks, involving massive air strikes against Iraqi command and control centers, airfields, and antiair defenses.

Despite the fact that Iraq owned the sixth-largest air fleet in the world, including as many as 750 warplanes in 1990-1991, the Iraqi Air Force offered minimal resistance to the coalition’s establishment of complete air superiority. During the entire aerial campaign, Iraqi fighters did not shoot down a single coalition aircraft, and rarely attempted to intercept coalition warplanes. Coalition forces downed 42 Iraqi aircraft, including 9 Mirage F1s and 5 MiG-29s, and reported that Iraqi pilots were poorly trained and ineffective in aerial combat. Rather than face annihilation, approximately 130 Iraqi combat pilots flew to Iran, where they were interned by the Iranian government for the duration of the war. When the conflict ended, the pilots were released, but the aircraft were integrated into the Iranian military. According to American estimates, more than 200 Iraqi aircraft were destroyed on the ground during desert storm. By the end of the war, the air force contained only 50 Mirage F1s, 15 MiG-29s, and less than 100 older aircraft models.

In the period after the Persian Gulf War, coalition forces established a pair of “no-fly” zones over Iraq, prohibiting Iraqi warplanes from overflying all but the central third of the nation. Coalition aircraft frequently bombed targets in Iraq to enforce compliance with the terms of the 1991 cease-fire. From 1991 until 2003, the Iraqi Air Force rapidly deteriorated due to massive shortages of spare aircraft parts and trained mechanics. As of 2002, Iraq owned only 5 serviceable MiG-29 fighters and less than 40 serviceable Mirage F1s, supplemented by less than 100 older warplanes. By the beginning of the Anglo-American-led coalition invasion of Iraq in March 2003 (Operation Iraqi Freedom), the Iraqi Air Force had virtually ceased to exist. Coalition forces routinely found derelict aircraft as they captured Iraqi airfields. Some advanced Iraqi warplanes were found literally buried in the desert in an attempt to preserve them from enemy air strikes.

References Butler, Richard. The Greatest Threat: Iraq, Weapons of Mass Destruction and the Growing Crisis in Global Security. New York: Public Affairs, 2000. Herzog, Chaim. The Arab-Israeli Wars: War and Peace in the Middle East from the War of Independence to Lebanon. Westminster, MD: Random House, 1984. Hiro, Dilip. The Longest War: The Iran-Iraq Military Conflict. London: Routledge, 1991. Murray, Williamson, and Robert H. Scales Jr. The Iraq War: A Military History. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2005. Rubin, Barry, and Thomas A. Keaney, eds. Armed Forces in the Middle East: Politics and Strategy. Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 2002.

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