Iraq Really Buys F-16s
October 3, 2011: Iraq has bought 18 American F-16 fighters. Again. But this time Iraqi actually signed the contract. Before that, Iraq proposed this deal two years ago. But it didn't happen. As recently as February, the contracts were to be signed. But at the last minute, government officials were informed that putting money down for the warplanes would interrupt needed food purchases. If the food did not get paid for, there could be riots. So the purchase was delayed.
Back in 2009, the Iraqi Air Force thought it had convinced the government to spend $1.5 billion to buy a squadron of 18 F-16 jet fighters. The U.S. was inclined to cooperate, and sell Iraq the 96 F-16s the Iraqi Air Force wants to eventually purchase over the next decade. That process is now starting again. Iraq needs an air force, because at the moment it has no way of dealing with hostile jet fighters entering its air space, other than calling on neighbors, or the United States, for some air support.
Meanwhile, Iraq is slowly building a new air force. This force currently has 160 aircraft, 56 percent of them helicopters. There are only 7,500 personnel in the air force, but Iraq plans to more than triple the size of the air force by the end of the decade and equip it with over 500 aircraft, most of them non-combat types. By then, there will be about 35 squadrons (14 fighter, 5 attack helicopter, 5 armed scout helicopter, 2 transport, 2 reconnaissance, 1 fixed wing training, 1 helicopter training, 3 helicopter transport, 1 utility/search and rescue, and 1 special operations). The Iraqis are eager to buy F-16s partly because neighboring Turkey and Jordan have done well with this model.
Currently, the air force is flying mostly transport and reconnaissance missions. Iraq got its first combat aircraft two years ago: three Cessna Caravan 208 aircraft with laser designators and Hellfire missiles. Mi-17 helicopters were equipped to fire unguided rockets. Most helicopters have a door gunner armed with a machine-gun. The $3 billion the air force needs for its first 18 F-16s includes what it will cost to build maintenance and training infrastructure for that type of aircraft.
The F-16 is currently the most popular fighter aircraft in service. The U.S. still has about 1,300 F-16s in service (about half with reserve units). Over 4,200 F-16s were produced, and America has hundreds in storage, available for sale on the used warplane market. The end of the Cold War in 1991 led to a sharp cut in U.S. Air Force fighter squadrons. Moreover, the new F-35 will be replacing all U.S. F-16s in the next decade. So the U.S. has plenty of little-used F-16s sitting around, and many allies in need of low cost jet fighters.
F-16s are still produced for export, and these cost as much as $70 million each (the F-16I for Israel). Some nations, like South Korea, build the F-16 under license. A used F-16C, built in the 1990s, would go for about $10 million on the open market. The 16 ton F-16 has an admirable combat record, and is very popular with pilots. It has been successful at ground support as well. When equipped with 4-6 smart bombs, it is a very effective bomber.