It is becoming abundantly clear that if the Iraqi government is going to have any chance of defending itself against the onslaught by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), it will be as the result of massive foreign assistance. In particular, the Iraqi military will need airpower and lots of it. Nearly a month ago, Prime Minister Maliki requested massive air strikes by the United States on ISIS advances down the road to Tikrit and Baghdad. At the time and to this day, the White House has refused such requests although it is reported that some of the 700 troops deployed to Iraq since the current crisis began are working at various intelligence centers to develop the necessary targeting plans should President Obama change his mind.
Other nations have not been nearly so hesitant to throw their airpower hats in the ring on behalf of the beleaguered Maliki government. Iran has been operating both reconnaissance platforms, including drones, as well as strike aircraft in Iraqi airspace. Bashar al Assad’s Syrian Air Force also has begun to operate against ISIS targets in Western Iraq. Russia is reported to be deploying a dozen SU-25 Frogfoot ground attack aircraft, Moscow’s version of the U.S. A-10 Warthog. Some sources suggest that Russian pilots will be operating these aircraft until the Iraqis are recertified.
Iraq had agreed to acquire some 24 U.S. F-16 fighters as part of a larger package of aircraft and helicopters including C-130s, Bell 407s and even Apache AH-64s. Problems with payments, delivery schedules, and Iraqi capabilities to receive not only the aircraft but support equipment and training systems delayed the actual transfers. As a result, the Iraqi Air Force today has only a handful of light attack aircraft and helicopters available.
Meanwhile, next door in Afghanistan, the United States is moving forward with a program that seems tailor made not only for the situation confronted by the government in Kabul but that of the Iraqi government as well. Back in 2009, the Coalition in Afghanistan recognized that it would need to ensure that the Afghan Security Forces had a viable air force. The challenge was to provide the Afghans with a simple, easy to maintain and low cost, yet versatile and rugged strike aircraft. After putting two competing teams through an, even Byzantine, acquisition process, the Air Force finally settled on the A-29 Light Air Support (LAS).
The winning team, led by Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), is under contract to build and equip at least 20 LAS. Embraer will supply its proven A-29 Super Tucano aircraft (but these will be built in the U.S.) and SNC will provide mission equipment and perform the integration. The sturdy, propeller-driven Super Tucano is a perfect fit to the Afghan environment. It carries advanced electro-optical sensors, modern avionics, a laser target designator and a wide variety of precision munitions. In addition, the team will provide training devices, mission planning stations, mission debrief systems, long lead spares, Afghanistan base activation, site surveys and flight certification support. Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, has reportedly been chosen as the site where Afghan pilots and mechanics will be trained on the LAS.
In view of the explosion of Islamic insurgent groups across North Africa and the Middle East, the need for light attack aircraft can only be expected to grow exponentially. It would seem to make sense to turn out LAS like sausages for our various allies and anti-terrorist partners such as Nigeria, Mali, Libya and Yemen. Iraq, which also requires higher-end fighters such as the F-16 and attack helicopters like the AH-64 to provide border security, could also be well served by acquiring the LAS.
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