By By Andrew Drwiega, International Bureau Chief | September 3, 2014
Here we go again. Another crisis in the Middle East with the U.S. and the Great Britain among the first to react with military assistance to protect and resupply civilians freeing from the surprisingly well organized and equally well armed forces of the Islamic State (formerly ISIS). News of the Iraqi Air Force and Army, the force that took over from American and allied forces when they exited the country and who were touted by politicians at the time as being up to the job, has been scarce. At least two Iraqi Air Force Mi-171s had been taking supplies up to the Yazidi refugees reportedly cut-off on Mount Sinjar until one crashed the day before this column went to press. According to Iraqi news sources, the helicopter delivering aide was rushed by frantic people trying to get off the mountain, some of whom fought to get onboard forcing the pilot to lose control. He was killed and several others inside were injured.
There is also unconfirmed video showing Iraqi Mi-35M attack helicopters supposedly engaging Islamitc State (ISIS) positions somewhere in Iraq. There have been several announcements of arms deals for Iraqi forces involving helicopters, some of which have since been tainted with suggestions of corruption. Possible deals over Russian Helicopters, in addition to the Mi-35Ms, have included Mi-28NEs and potentially KA-52s.
On May 21, 2013, the 24th Bell IA-407 helicopter and associated support equipment was delivered to Iraq; a capability designed to give them an armed reconnaissance force. Even Boeing’s Apache attack helicopters have been the subject of a potential sale. In January, the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) announced a potential Foreign Military Sale (FMS) to Iraq of Boeing’s latest AH-64E Apache Longbows.
But what evidence is there that this capability will be used in an effective way? During one of my brief embeds with U.S. and UK forces in Iraq, I recall witnessing those Iraqi Air Force Mi-171s at Basra airbase in 2008. There were three and they were supposed to be training with the Iraqi Army to develop tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) including air assault and logistical resupply. But there were serious internal operational divisions on who would work with those in charge at any particular moment.
At the time, a member of the U.S. 770th Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron seconded to the Military Transition Team (MiTT) working with the Iraqis told me that training air/land integration was slow and met with continuous resistance from both sides. In the old Saddam Hussain days both services had been kept apart. “They still didn’t trust each other,” he said. Additionally, few pilots were proficient at flying in degraded weather conditions or at night. But as long as the MiTT guys were breathing down the back of their necks, there was progress, albeit slow.
On August 31, 2010 the last U.S. combat troops withdrew from Iraq, although up to 50,000 remained on as advisors. How successful were they – and where is the evidence? The mission in Iraq was changed from Operation Iraqi Freedom to the optimistically named Operation New Dawn. Unfortunately that dawn has arisen with a fiery sky.
If the message (at time of writing) from President of Obama of ‘no boots on the ground’ is adhered to, then that means the involvement of forces such as the U.S. Army’s Combat Aviation Brigade, based in Kuwait since the end of the Army’s presence in Iraq, will be limited. However, in July the Pentagon revealed that a limited number of U.S. troops were sent back into Iraq, together with an unspecified number of Apache helicopters and unmanned aerial systems for the protection of U.S. personnel. It is not clear if these were used to bolster the Iraqi Army’s protection of the capital from the rapidly advancing fundamentalist forces. Since then, U.S. military personnel have also been sent to ‘advise’ the Kurd forces in the north of the country and air strikes have been made against Islamic State positions.
The worry is that Iraq was supposed to have been a successfully completed campaign. Clearly, the job was not done. And now Afghanistan is approaching a similar departure of well equipped, professional forces, to be replaced by another force that has been roundly praised as capable of defeating its opponents. Déjà vu anyone?