Iraq's first F-16, RB-01, takes its first flight over Fort Worth, Texas. On Thursday, the Iraqi government took ownership of the F-16, the first of 36 planned by 2017. (Liz Kaszynski)
Nearly three years after the last U.S. troops left Iraq, F-16s are returning to Balad — this time, they will be the vanguard of the Iraqi air force.
Balad was a major U.S. base during the war and one of the busiest airfields in the world at one point. Now the U.S. government is helping the Iraqis make sure the base will be ready for the first batch of F-16s, which are expected to be delivered in September, said Lukman Faily, Iraqi ambassador to the U.S.
On Thursday, the Iraqi government took ownership of the first of 36 F-16s fighters that will be delivered between September and the fall of 2017. The fighters will allow Iraq to secure its border with Syria, attack al-Qadia bases in western Iraq — including Ramadi — and intercept any planes transiting its airspace that it wants to inspect, Faily told Military Times on Thursday.
U.S officials have pressed the Iraqi government to stop Iran from using Iraqi airspace to fly weapons and other supplies to President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria.
Iraqi pilots have been training to fly F-16s in the U.S. Each combat mission requires a minimum of two F-16s: a flight lead and a wingman, said Jennifer Spires, a spokeswoman for Air Education and Training Command. After finishing the basic course in F-16 training; pilots must complete about nine months of wingman training, another 18 to 24 months of “seasoning” training to be a flight lead. Instructor pilots need another 18 to 24 months of training.
“In the case of the Iraq pilots, eight have graduated from the basic course and are therefore considered ‘wingmen.’” Spires said in an email Wednesday. “They are now completing ‘seasoning’ training and will become ‘Flight Lead's’ upon graduation. Following seasoning training, the Flight Leads will go on to complete instructor training so that they can train future wingmen.”
Even though the Iraqi pilots are still in training, Faily said it won’t be long before the Iraqi F-16s are in the fight.
“We already have the pilots ready — we have quite a few of them and they have a few hundred hours under their belt,” he said. “We don’t anticipate a long delay for us to start utilizing that capability.”