Recent events, such as the end of major ground combat operations in Iraq and Iraqi Air Force pilots coordinating attacks outside of their borders, have shown an increase in capabilities that will allow U.S. forces to pull back in the region and likely focus resources elsewhere.
The ground mission in Iraq was transferred to Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve last week when officials announced the “end of major combat operations” in the fight against ISIS and deactivated the Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command.
This week, British Maj. Gen. Felix Gedney, deputy commander of CJTF-OIR, posted on Twitter that Iraqi pilots continue to strike ISIS targets in Syria as part of Operation Roundup and will “destroy the last of their fake caliphate.”
These advancements by the Iraqis allow them to rely less on American airpower except in certain mission types or capabilities, such as air refueling.
Some of the Iraqi Air Force’s newly expanded capabilities were on display April 19 when its pilots conducted an airstrike near Hajin, Syria, against ISIS fighters near the Iraq-Syria border.
“This operation highlights the capabilities of Iraq’s armed forces to aggressively pursue Daesh and to maintain their country’s internal security,” said Brig. Gen. Robert Sofge, deputy commanding general of operations for CJTF-OIR, in a release.
Military Times spoke recently with Air Force Col. James Howard, who is the commander of the 370th Air Expeditionary Advisory Group, which assists the Iraqi air mission in the fight against ISIS.
Howard emphasized that the Iraqi Air Force has a nearly 90-year history and a legacy of fighting in the Iran-Iraq wars. But the addition of the F-16 fighter jet in 2015 has brought their capabilities into a fresh territory.
The post-2003 Iraqi Air Force that remained somewhat regionally focused has a national capability now, Howard said.
And after sending pilots to train in the United States, the Iraqis are now developing pilots at home, after having reopened the air academy in February. The Iraqis now have an established squadron of fixed-wing pilots.
Howard said over the past three to four years, there has been a growth in the number of pilots, as well as their capabilities.
They’re especially adept at using laser-guided bombs, such as the GBU-12, he said.
“They’ve honed those skills over the last few years,” Howard said. “There’s been solid integration with the coalition through advise-and-assist that has really enabled that type of capability and taken the fight across the border.”
Those missions remain somewhat simple by U.S. standards, however, and air refueling still requires coalition assistance.
In addition, Iraqi forward air controllers, similar to American joint terminal attack controllers, are being trained at a clip of 40 per class.
So far, three classes have graduated, with another in progress.
But Iraqi forward air controllers are limited to deconflicting air missions. They’re not authorized to clear aircraft hot for fire missions, Howard said.
Some of the effects they can accomplish now are a result of work last year to retake Mosul from ISIS occupiers, Howard said.
As they rebuild, Iraqi pilots still have operations on which to hone their skills. They are doing both border security, such as the recent strike in Syria, and internal missions.
And Howard sees a dramatic shift in capabilities since as recently as last fall. as the Iraqis have established a “broader footprint” over the spring in western Anbar province.
“The Iraqi Air Force is a willing and perfectly able partner, capable of strikes internally and across the border,” Howard said.