Late last year, the U.S. government acknowledged that the Iraqi Army and Air Force will not reach what the Pentagon calls Minimum Essential Capability (MEC) by December 2011. MEC is jargon for being able to secure the country from internal attacks (by gangs and terrorists), as well as defend Iraqi airspace and territory from conventional attack.
The Iraqi Army has improved. The April 2008 Charge of the Knights offensive demonstrated that the Army's best units were able to plan and execute a multidimensional internal security operation. The quality of individual units even within Iraq's Quick Intervention Corps varies widely, however.
The U.S. will continue to provide training assistance, logistical support and intelligence support to the Iraqi Army. Realists in Baghdad and Washington, however, know that a reinforced U.S. division would provide a reliable, readily available backup in an emergency. The Iraqi Air Force exists, barely. After some two years of indecision, the IAF is on the verge of buying a squadron of U.S.-made F-16 jet fighters. It intends to add a second squadron (for a total of 36 aircraft) as funds become available.
The F-16 is the plane Iraq needs. Two F-16 squadrons, supported by an integrated surface-to-air missile defense system, would go a long way toward securing Iraqi airspace -- if the pilots are well-trained and the planes are well-maintained.
Building those two squadrons and training their personnel takes time, however. 2016 is the earliest date the IAF could go it alone. Who defends Iraqi airspace in the interim? Air defense arrangements with Kuwait, Jordan and Turkey are a possibility, but here's the realistic answer: the U.S. Air Force.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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