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March 18, 2008— Once the world’s sixth largest air force, the Iraqi Air Force was nearly nonexistent in equipment and capability as recently as a year ago, decimated by near-constant war and lack of infrastructure.  In early 2007, the IAF was flying about 30 sorties a week in a country that remained a dangerous and unstable environment to conduct operations, the head of the Coalition Air Force Transition Team told reporters at the Pentagon via teleconference on March 17.

Maj. Gen. Robert Allardice, commander of the CAFTT, said that a group of about 360 US airmen working in Iraq with coalition partners have been aiding Iraqis in building up a self-sufficient air force, and have made impressive progress.

When Allardice arrived in March 2007, the IAF had about 700 personnel, 28 aircraft ready to fly, no entry level basic training, no air operations center and no technical training curriculum. Today is a different story, he said.  By the end of 2007, the IAF flew about 300 sorties a week and boasted a force of 1,350 personnel with an additional 450 students in training.

Plans are on the books to have 3,000 personnel by the end of 2008, and by the end of 2009, the force will have around 6,000 personnel, Allardice said. “That is the ‘break point’ where they need their counterinsurgency force,” he said.  The Iraqis will build to a force of 12 Cessna 172s by the end of 2008 to help train crews and are due to receive their first training Cessna 208 Caravan by the end of March, which will augment other training aircraft such as the Beechcraft King Air, which is used for light transport and some training.

“That’s a remarkable increase in the force in such a short time,” he said from his headquarters in Baghdad. In addition to flying intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions and mobility sorties with C-130E aircraft, the IAF is preparing to make a “significant kinetic contribution” to the counterinsurgency fight, he said.

Their inventory of aircraft is also expanding, with the IAF expected to have about 100 operational aircraft by the end of 2008. About half of that force will be helicopters, such as UH-1 Hueys and Mi-17 utility aircraft. They will be performing medical evacuation missions on the battlefield by the end of April, Allardice said. In 2009, the IAF plans to procure a dedicated counterinsurgency aircraft that will directly support Iraqi troops in their efforts.

As the IAF grows, the force is taking on more missions that coalition air assets have been performing in cooperation with the Iraqi military, including combat support in counterinsurgency efforts. To build an effective counterinsurgency air corps, Allardice said the Iraqis are building a training capability for pilots and maintainers. Currently 18 pilots are in training with more on the way in. While most of the IAF’s offensive capabilities are now built around their rotary aircraft—primarily the UH-1 and Mi-17 helicopters, which both can shoot forward firing rockets—Iraqi airmen are training in high demand tasks such as battlefield mobility and surveillance and reconnaissance, he said.

A key metric with which to gauge the increase in Iraqi air power is the degree to which the demand for coalition air support wanes, Allardice said. “Battlefield mobility is huge,” he said, noting that coalition air elements will not accept “movement requests” in Iraq until they have word from the Iraqis that they cannot themselves provide the assets for a mission in-country. Such missions mostly involve troops transport or supply drops.

In February, IAF C-130s were key in resupplying Iraqi Army and interior ministry troops fighting near Mosul, Allardice said. Their helicopters routinely fly supply missions to replace high-risk convoys—the same types of missions that USAF C-130s continue to fly to resupply ground troops located across the country.  Iraqi Cessna 208 Caravans also routinely provide valuable surveillance and reconnaissance over key infrastructure, such as oil fields and electrical lines and power stations prone to terrorist attacks, he said.