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Nov. 26, 2008—Today, about 350 US airmen of the Coalition Air Forces Transition Team are working with the nearly 2,100 members of the fledgling Iraqi Air Force to help the Iraqis build a credible air arm. Envisioned is a force capable of deterring outside aggression and maintaining the internal security gains achieved through the US troop surge and Iraqi military’s own buildup.

Even with the progress that the IqAF has made to date, achieving that goal “is going to take some time and quite a bit of effort,” said Col. Sean Frisbee during a sit-down meeting with the Daily Report earlier this month in Baghdad. He is CAFTT’s chief of staff and vice commander of the US Air Force’s newly established 321st Air Expeditionary Wing that was created to consolidate CAFTT’s elements.

This prognosis comes despite the fact that the IqAF is experiencing significant growth, Frisbee said. It has almost doubled in size from the 1,100 personnel that it had when he arrived in the country in February.

Historically top heavy with officers, the IqAF needs good noncommissioned officers and mid-level leaders, Frisbee said. CAFTT’s adviser corps is constantly trying to look for promising recruits to balance out the experience of older pilots and crew who have returned to service from the Saddam Hussein-era force now that the security situation has improved. The end strength goal of the IqAF is 6,000 by the end of 2009.

The Iraqis are also in the midst of greatly expanding their air fleet. As of Nov. 8, the IqAF had 78 airframes, according to CAFTT data. This total included eight Cessna 172 and three Cessna Caravan 208B fixed-wing aircraft and five Bell Jet Ranger and 10 OH-58 helicopters, all for training. It also included 17 Mi-17 and 16 UH-II helicopters as well as one King Air LTA and three C-130Es, all for battlefield mobility. And, it incorporated eight CH-2000, three Cessna Caravan 208B, and four King Air ISR fixed-wing aircraft for intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance roles.

Frisbee said 14 additional aircraft are anticipated by early 2009, including five Bell Jet Rangers, four Cessna 172s, and two Cessna Caravans, all for training, as well as one King Air ISR platform, and two armed Cessna Caravans for ground attack.

The armed Cessnas, dubbed “Combat Caravans,” are scheduled to arrive beginning in December, Frisbee said. But the Hellfire missiles destined for them will already start to show up before the end of this month, he noted. Together they will constitute the new IqAF’s first ground attack capability.

In addition, an Iraqi forward air controller class is under way, said Frisbee. The Iraqis have also requested weaponized T-6s for ground attack, with first arrivals anticipated between 2011 and 2012.

To elevate the importance of the CAFTT mission, the Air Force stood up the 321st AEW on Nov. 1. The move means that CAFTT airmen are now organized under one full-fledged AEW, whereas before they were grouped in various advisory units under the Multi-National Security Transition Command–Iraq, which oversees all US training activities in the Middle East country.

The new wing encompasses all US air expeditionary advisory squadrons from bases in Baghdad, Basrah, Kirkuk, Taji, and other locations. It also includes mission support units, CAFTT advisors to the Iraqi air staff, and the associated training squadrons with the 321st Air Expeditionary Training Group. (Read more on CAFTT in our earlier article Building an Iraqi Air Force.)