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Plan to deliver F-16s to Iraq on hold

Iraqi F-16

Iraq’s first F-16, RB-01, takes its first flight over Fort Worth, Texas. (Liz Kaszynski)

A plan to start delivering F-16s to Iraq in September is on hold until the security situation improves, a U.S. official said.

Last month, the U.S. evacuated contractors building the base for the F-16s at Balad as Sunni militants took large swathes of Iraq.

Currently, 18 Iraqi pilots are training in the U.S. to fly F-16s, including 12 flying F-16s at Tucson, Ariz., according to Air Education and Training Command.

While the Iraqi pilots are skilled aviators, they need hundreds of flight hours in F-16s to become flight leads and instructor pilots, said Tom Fox, Iraq Training Team Lead at AETC. The complete training program could take two more years, but their government may call them to fly combat missions before then.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi government has purchased Russian fighters which it says are needed right now to attack Sunni insurgents who have taken large swathes of Iraq, but it is unclear who will fly the planes.

Despite the desperate security situation in Iraq, there are no plans to speed up the Iraqi pilots training, Fox said.

“Accelerating the F-16 flying training program for any pilot, Iraqi or U.S., would be insufficient for training them to the skill level necessary to adequately employ the aircraft systems and to fly and fight in combat,” he said.

Iraqi officials have complained that the U.S. is taking too long to deliver the 36 F-16s that Iraq has purchased. The fighters were expected to be delivered between September and the fall of 2017. Recently, the Iraqi government purchased SU-25 fighters, raising questions about whether Iraq has pilots who are trained and experienced enough to fly them.

The Daily Beast reported that the planes would be flown by Russian pilots, but Russia’s ambassador to Iraq was quoted in the Voice of Russia as saying no Russians would fly combat missions against Sunni militants.

The latest SU-25s delivered to Iraq have the same camouflage pattern and serial numbers as planes operated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, said Joseph Dempsey, from the International Institute of Strategic Studies.

“Given this recent apparent growth in their Su-25 inventory, it seems increasingly unlikely that Iraq retains the capacity to operate this type of aircraft in any significant number without some level of external support,” Dempsey told Defense News.

The Iraqi embassy in the U.S. did not respond to repeated questions from FlightLines about whether the SU-25s would be flown by Russian or Iranian pilots.

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