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Building Iraqi air force is tough job

by Capt. Suzanne Ovel
20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

11/18/2005 - SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. (AFPN) -- Building a nation's air force from the runway up is never going to be easy, a fact one can see at first glance. Dig a layer deeper, and the issues increase dramatically.

For the Coalition Air Force Transition Team -- a U.S. Central Command Air Forces think tank of 28 specialists assisting with the development of the Iraqi Air Force -- each layer peeled is teeming with revelations.

An early finding was that the Iraqi Air Force couldn't -- and shouldn't -- be a clone of the U.S. Air Force. Planners must acknowledge the inherent cultural and logistical differences.

"I can tell you exactly how to set up an American Air Force, but it might not work for the Iraqis," team operations officer Lt. Col. Wesley Long said.

That doesn't mean the Iraq’s air force won't look at American programs and methods they can apply. The new air force is considering adopting the best practices from throughout the world, including NATO training.

Even so, some logistical aspects are unique to Iraq. For instance, while it's standard in the United States to pay salaries with electronic direct deposits, Iraq simply doesn't have a comparable banking system. Instead, a finance officer must journey to Baghdad to receive cash to dole out monthly payments to Iraqi Airmen, said executive officer Maj. Nathan Brauner.

That's just one tiny peg in the overall institution being developed.

The transition team's meatier focus is on the short- and long-term tactical and strategic progress of the Iraqi Air Force. This complex process began with an official mission analysis in August. A team of operations and maintenance experts followed this up with a more comprehensive roadmap for the future.

After sending Central Command teams to evaluate the new air force's progress, the transition team is ready to assess the results and move ahead with more extensive planning.

Part of this planning is working with Iraqi leadership to put into realization core U.S. military concepts.

"Centralized control, decentralized execution -- we go to bed at night praying for that," Colonel Long said.

Conveying these managerial and institutional practices is the easy part, he said. More difficult is acquiring the aircraft the air force needs to exist.

The Iraqi Air Force's current inventory consists of 38 aircraft, including three C-130 Hercules and 16 UH-1 Huey helicopter, all donated.

Acquiring a new inventory has the service considering a new reconnaissance platform and evaluating which multi-role aircraft would prove most valuable. Unmanned aerial vehicles are also under long-term consideration.

The key for now, though, is ensuring the aircraft's capabilities match the missions expected of Iraq’s air force. While future missions may include air assault, air defense and search and rescue, the service's current intensive focus is its reconnaissance contributions, Colonel Long said.

A strong reconnaissance mission for the Iraqi Air Force could be instrumental in halting terrorist assaults, particularly hard-hitting attacks on the country’s infrastructure.

"When the oil pipeline is interdicted, that's Iraqi dollars flowing into the ground," Colonel Long said. Of the recon mission, he said, "It's not sexy, but it's critical."

Air mobility missions are also vital right now. Every C-130 mission means one less coalition convoy is vulnerable to attack.

So as the Iraqi Air Force matures, the transition team will focus on presenting options to the new service, not directing its growth.

"We're just trying to help them do it a little smarter," transition team chief Col. Michael Byrne said.

The new air force being led from the top by an experienced commander, Maj. Gen. Kamal Al Barzanjy, the colonel said. From Baghdad, he’s both Sunni and Kurdish, and will lead the headquarters staff from Al Muthana Air Base.

One of the general's challenges is growing his service as his nation's government is itself developing. Colonel Byrne said it will be interesting to watch how the Iraqi Air Force evolves under the new government.

In the meantime, the focus is on building a capable force, now at about 360 Airmen. New Iraqi pilots are being recruited and older experienced flyers, many over 40 years old, are receiving refresher training.

The personal threat to Airmen is excruciatingly high. Many have false job descriptions for their neighbors. The individual Iraqi Airman inspires the team.

"He wants to serve his nation. He wants to make it better for his kid," Colonel Byrne said.
The Airmen know the importance of succeeding in their mission before they can realize a better future.

"If Iraq's going to succeed against their own insurgency, they're going to have to have air power to help," Colonel Byrne said.

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