An F-16 fighter in flight with the Iraqi flag on its tail. Photo: Lockheed Martin/the Aviotionist
Iraqi Air Force (IAF) F-16 jet fighter-bombers have carried out a series of airstrikes against Islamic State (ISIS) targets in neighboring Syria since April. These strikes demonstrate, among other things, the IAF’s growing capabilities since the beginning of the ISIS war in June 2014.
Since ISIS seized a third of the country in the summer of 2014, Iraq has acquired several different warplanes, making it a formidable force for the first time since the rule of Saddam Hussein.
Both Russia and Iran immediately supplied the country with Su-25 Frogfoot attack planes to help it combat the ISIS threat. Interestingly, the Iranian Frogfoots were formerly in the Saddam-era Iraqi arsenal and were flown to Iran to evade likely destruction in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
The US has also supplied Iraq with a fleet of 36 F-16s. These saw their combat debut against ISIS in 2015.
However, the Su-25s flew by far the most Iraqi sorties during the ISIS war in Iraq. According to an official IAF info-graphic of airstrikes conducted between June 10, 2014 and December 31, 2017, the country’s F-16s carried out 514 sorties, while a small fleet of Iraqi An-32 cargo planes converted into bombers carried out 990 strikes. Su-25s Frogfoots carried out a whopping 3,500.
Consequently, usage of the country’s more modern and sophisticated F-16s against ISIS targets across the border in Syria gives the IAF an opportunity to garner more combat experience with these particular jets.
The US-led anti-ISIS coalition has a plethora of different warplanes operating from nearby aircraft carriers and bases in the Gulf, which is why the increasing number of Iraqi airstrikes and support of the ongoing offensive against ISIS remnants in Syria is noteworthy.
Colonel Thomas Veale, the Director of Public Affairs spokesman for the anti-ISIS Coalition Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), told Rudaw English although he “cannot speak for the United States,” the coalition is nevertheless “extremely proud of our work with the Iraqi Security Forces, including the Iraqi Air Force, which has developed into one of the region’s premier air forces.”
“The IAF has demonstrated its capabilities repeatedly through effective cross-border strikes at Daesh [ISIS] targets in northeastern Syria over the past month as we accelerate the campaign to destroy Daesh remnants through Operation Roundup,” he added.
Col. Veale went on to emphasize how “proud” the coalition is to have Iraq as a partner, stressing “we look forward to continuing the relationship through reliable partnership, which will enhance Iraqi Security Forces’ ability to train and equip themselves.”
“Reliable partnership will build resilience in security and sustainment capabilities as well as the growing air enterprise, security policy and operations, intelligence and counter-terrorism,” he concluded.
The war against ISIS and the broader war in Syria have given several modern militaries the opportunity to test out their weapon systems in actual war zones.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has stressed there is no better training for his armed forces than their operations in Syria. By the same token there is no better way to conclusively determine the actual effectiveness of military equipment.
This also applies to the IAF, which has fought its first major war in decades. Even during the 2003 invasion, the remnants of Saddam’s air force was literally buried in the desert rather than attempting to fight.
Joel Wing, author of the Musings on Iraq blog, also pointed out to Rudaw English that the Iraqi Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitaries commanded by Baghdad are also shelling ISIS across the frontier – the very same international border ISIS infamously claimed to have eradicated in 2014.
“These are signs of renewed military strength in Iraq which, since 2003, has usually been the victim of neighbors and groups across the border,” he noted.
Michael Knights, a noted Iraq expert and Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute, points out that Iraq has its own self-interests in neutralizing ISIS in eastern Syria, since those forces still pose a threat to Iraq. He also believes Iraq is taking the initiative in carrying out these strikes and not necessarily being encouraged by the coalition.
“ISIS may relocate into Iraq if they’re not all killed,” Knights told Rudaw English. “That ISIS pocket northwest of Qaim is killing Iraqis all the time, through the launching of attacks into Nineveh and the killing of Iraqi PMF [Hashd] in Syria.”
While Baghdad publicly claims its airstrikes in Syria are coordinated with Damascus, there are reasons to be skeptical about whether this is actually the case.
Arnaud Delalande, a freelance defense and security analyst and author of ‘Iraqi Air Power Reborn: The Iraqi air arms since 2004’ among other books on military aviation, told Rudaw English it is likely the “US provided intelligence in order for Iraq to do the job.”
“I don’t think there is any real coordination with the Syrian regime,” he said. “The Iraqis certainly communicate with the Assad regime but only after hitting the target in order to ensure that there is no violation of sovereignty between the two neighboring states. Iraqi military officers I asked think these communications are a facade and not real coordination.”
Delalande further reasons that the IAF strikes are “political.”
“Iraqis must recover sovereignty of their country including in the air,” he said. He is doubtful the US has allotted the IAF this role to give it more combat experience. Rather, the decreasing operational tempo in Syria as ISIS is being rolled back meant that “the coalition let the Iraqis carry out these operations and gave them support.”
Overall, these airstrikes have demonstrated the Iraqi military is once again a formidable force in the region.