A Flying Fighting Force

The Iraqi Air Force assumes responsibility for conducting aerial operations against Daesh


By the second half of 2021, the Iraqi Air Force had largely taken ownership of conducting independent airstrikes on Daesh targets. In fact, we launched more strikes between June and December 2021 than all non-Iraqi coalition force strikes in the same period in 2020. 

This ability to plan and conduct autonomous operations represents a significant step toward self-sufficiency for the Iraqi Air Force and provides a credible Iraqi dynamic strike capability that will help ensure the success of the counter-Daesh mission.

Success, however, brings its own challenges. Like many advanced air forces across the globe, the Iraqi Air Force (IQAF) must learn how to manage and maintain an expensive fleet of military assets to meet ever-changing security threats. It must do so against a backdrop of global political instability and turbulence in the international economy.

Iraqi tactical attack controllers (ITACS) train at Al Asad Air Base. By providing ground-based targeting, ITACS improve the performance of flight crews. Staff SGT. Jose A. Torres Jr./U.S. Army

History and background

The Iraqi Air Force was founded in 1931, during the period of British control of Iraq after World War I. The Air Force continued to grow from 1930 to 1990, culminating in the buildup during the long Iran-Iraq War, when the IQAF consisted of 1,029 aircraft, 550 of them combat aircraft. That made it the largest air force in the region at the time.

The war of 2003 devastated Air Force assets and infrastructure. The resulting depletion of equipment and manpower represented one the biggest challenges to the Iraqi Air Force and its coalition partners. Since that time, the IQAF has embarked on a hard and costly rebuilding campaign conducted by experienced Iraqi pilots. The IQAF receives most of its training and aircraft from the United States.

Currently, the IQAF consists of approximately 175 aircraft and acts as a support force for the Iraqi Army and Navy, allowing them to deploy their forces rapidly. 

Smashing Daesh

In June 2014, Daesh conquered large parts of Iraq and Syria. Almost 30% of the Iraqi sovereign governorates were under the control of the terrorists. However, the prospect of widespread instability and humanitarian crises prompted Iraqi society to act.

How could Iraq halt Daesh’s momentum and then defeat an organization that controlled such large parts of the country without catastrophic losses? The answer quickly became clear: air power.

Despite all the technical and logistical challenges, IQAF shared responsibility with the coalition forces for supporting Iraqi ground forces. Flyers dropped humanitarian supplies, conducted air reconnaissance, transported military and civilian casualties, and struck Daesh assets and infrastructure.

All these operations hastened the process of eliminating one of the most ruthless modern enemies ever to harass our ancient civilization.

The U.S. military and its coalition partners — 29 countries — contributed military support by providing essential intelligence and precision airstrikes. In short, Iraqis would not have been able to retake territory from Daesh without U.S. and coalition airpower.

Iraq’s coalition partners, stationed inside and outside the country, have given the members of the IQAF the knowledge, skills and experience to take the lead in aerial combat against Daesh.

The global coalition’s forces have provided significant amounts of logistical and operational support to the IQAF, and Iraqi pilots have gone from strength to strength in developing their capabilities.

By 2021, the Iraqi Air Force had become the country’s principal strike force, hunting and destroying Daesh remnants and their few remaining hideouts.

An Iraqi Soldier coordinates an air assault with a U.S. partner during military training near Mosul Dam in October 2021. SPEC. TREVOR FRANKLIN/U.S. ARMY

Improving air power

Air power plays a critical role in modern warfare; aggressive air operations accelerate the defeat of the enemy. Joint aerial operations — in other words, integrating the efforts of all partners — are essential to reduce losses in wartime. 

That means the Iraqi Air Force must continue to modernize and keep pace with threats in the region. 

In practical terms, Iraq must acquire advanced fighter aircraft and integrated air defense systems. The Air Force must participate in military exercises with coalition forces. Perhaps most importantly, the IQAF must sharpen skills through training and courses offered by international and regional coalition member countries.

Some recent innovations have improved the efficiency of our forces. The first is the creation of an “air cell” to coordinate activities among Iraqi Air Defense, Army Aviation and the Air Force.

Iraqi Tactical Attack Controllers, or ITAC, are Soldiers from the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service trained to direct air strikes day and night with portable communications equipment. These specialized troops — who number from eight to 10 in each Iraqi Special Operations Forces brigade —  receive 10 weeks of  training.

There is little need to elaborate upon what we all know, that today’s most critical challenges are global in scope: the pandemic, the refugee crisis, destabilizing economic changes and violent conflicts exploited by global extremists.

All these challenges require a shared interest among security forces in coordinated, collective action.  

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