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Does Iraq need Russian S-400 air defense missiles?

By Paul Iddon 3/3/2018
Russian soldiers take part in an air defense exercise exercise at the Ashuluk range in the Astrakhan region of Russia. Photo: Russian MoD
Russian soldiers take part in an air defense exercise exercise at the Ashuluk range in the Astrakhan region of Russia. Photo: Russian MoD
On top of its recent purchase of Russian T-90 main battle tanks, Iraq is also contemplating buying sophisticated S-400 air defense missiles from Moscow.

"The issue is being studied in every detail," said Iraq's Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari on a recent visit to the Russian capital. "All necessary decisions aimed at strengthening Iraq will be made after that."

"Iraq has the right to own cutting-edge weapons to defend its territory and air space from air attacks," Iraqi MP Hakim Al-Zamili, who heads the Iraqi Parliament's defense committee, told Al-Ghad Press on February 24.

"Terrorism targets our country abundant in places sacred for every Iraqi," he elaborated. "There are signs and warnings that extremists might use aircraft for attacks on those shrines, which cause lots of worries and anxiety in the country, as it was after an attack on Samarra's holy places."

Al-Zamili was referring to the al-Qaeda bombing of the Al-Askari mosque in Samarra in February 2006 that led to years of Sunni-Shiite violence which often has been described as a civil war.

He went on to point out that even though the United States "is a developed country" it nevertheless lost the World Trade Center in the infamous September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. 

"So Iraq intends to possess such a system as S-400 to defend the land, shrines and air space," he declared. "We are serious about it."

Just how serious Iraq is has of course yet to be seen. Neighbouring Turkey is spending $2.5 billion for the S-400, which has put it at odds with NATO, invariably pointing out that the Russian system cannot be integrated with NATO air defenses.

"There is no delegation in Moscow now to purchase S-400," Iraq's ambassador to Russia, Haider Mansour Hadi stated, according to Russia’s TASS news agency. "When the Iraqi government decides to buy S-400, of course, this will be announced, and the issue will be discussed by the two countries."

The purchase of the S-400 would constitute the most sophisticated Iraqi air defense system since the French-made KARI [simply Iraq spelled backwards in French] integrated air defense system, which was largely destroyed in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The sophisticated missiles could cover large swathes of Iraq's airspace and enforce anti-access and area denial (A2AD) exclusion zones, which even advanced aircraft and missiles would have difficulty penetrating.

"There are elements of the Iraqi military that want to buy all kinds of new equipment to make Iraq a modern military force," Joel Wing, the author of the Musings of Iraq blog, told Rudaw English.

"When the US was rebuilding the Iraqi military it didn't provide a lot of that equipment," he added, “because it didn't want Baghdad to threaten its neighbors again and the insurgency was a much bigger priority.

“There are also some that argue because Iraq has been so weak, including on the military side, its neighbors were able to constantly interfere in its internal affairs since 2003 because there are no consequences."

"As for the S-400 it could be used against any of its neighbors’ air forces, but also might have an anti-drone/UAV capability, even though it wasn't obviously built for that," he concluded.

Regardless of whether or not it ultimately purchases S-400s, Iraq's growing preference for Russian hardware is becoming increasingly more evident. Its gunship fleet consists of quite modern Russian-made helicopters, since Baghdad preferred them to the US Apaches, while the only fighter jets in the air force are American-made F-16s. The United States placed clear constraints on Iraq's usage of F-16s, namely that they won’t target Iraq's cities or the Kurdistan Region — the kind of limits which Russia does not usually apply to its’ weapons exports.

Furthermore, the delivery of T-90 tanks to Iraq comes as General Dynamics, the manufacturer of Iraq's fleet of M1 Abrams main battle tanks, has threatened to pull out all support for the Iraqi tank fleet upon discovering that nine Abrams tanks are in the hands of Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitaries in contravention of the terms under which they were supplied. At least one such tank was destroyed by the Kurdish Peshmerga upon approaching the Pirde (or Altun Kupri) border-crossing between Erbil and Kirkuk provinces last October.

If General Dynamics does pull support for Iraq's Abrams fleet and Washington refuses to sell Iraq spare parts for these tanks, Baghdad will likely rely almost entirely on Russia, and perhaps China too, for its military needs. Iraq bought a few armed Chinese-made CH-4B unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), which are clearly based on the iconic American-made General Atomics MQ-1 Predator UAVs, and used them throughout the war against Islamic State (ISIS). Washington does not export such armed UAVs.

While tanks, jet fighter-bombers and UAVs are essential for Iraq to fight groups like ISIS the cost of the S-400s alone and the questionable nature of what exact threat they are needed to counter lessen the likelihood that Iraq will invest in this system anytime soon.

"I am not sure if Iraq really needs an air defense system so badly," Timur Akhmetov, a Middle East analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council, told Rudaw English. "Possibly, statements are coordinated with the Russian side which seeks to counter US sanctions, especially their effects on prospective Russian arms buyers in the informational sphere."

"The US hasn't resorted to real actions and is now only using rhetoric to dissuade buyers from dealing with Russia through threats of sanctions against prospective deals," he added.

Akhmetov suggests that the current Iraqi talk about an S-400 purchase "is more politics than simply a military issue."

"Iraq through such 'talks about talks' may seek to pressure the US," he elaborated. "And Russia seems OK to participate in this. It is a good advertisement for Russian-made arms systems in the region."

"But now it is just talk," he emphasized.

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