Iraqi military’s lack of airpower enabling ISIS’s advance

This week’s stunning advance by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) presents some serious questions about the legitimacy of Iraqi security forces (ISF) and Washington’s policy of giving billions in military aid to troubled Middle Eastern governments. Since the fall of Fallujah in early January, the Iraqi military has failed to put down the rising insurgency in the west. Now with the fall of Mosul, Tikrit, and Bayji, it has collapsed completely in the north and much of central Iraq.

It is easy to draw the conclusion that US aid has been a waste and its faith in the Maliki government has been misplaced. While it is true that the Shiite-dominated government has alienated much of the Sunni community, feeding ISIS’s growth, it can also be argued that the Iraqi forces were never fully equipped to provide for their own security.

In December 2011, when the last US forces left Iraq, they took with them much of the vital air assets which enabled security forces to quickly respond to insurgent attacks. This included aircraft for gathering intelligence, transporting troops, providing close air support, launching special operations raids, and conducting MEDEVACs. Since then, Iraq has struggled to make due with a handful of American and Russian-made attack helicopters, and three lightly-armed Cessnas in addition to a small number of trainer and transport aircraft.

Iraq just received its first of 36 F-16 fighter jets requested in 2010 and 24 AT-6 light attack aircraft were approved for sale by the State Department in May. Iraq is also expecting from the US 24 Apache helicopters and 58 unarmed drones, as well as 24 light fighters from Korea, a dozen older light fighters from the Czech military, and several Russian-built attack helicopters.

Meanwhile, Iraqi ground forces have been fairly-well equipped for years with thousands of armored vehicles, a couple hundred tanks, and enough body-armor and small arms to make some Western armies jealous. However, today’s Iraqi military was trained and mentored by a US military which had hundreds of varying types of advanced aircraft in-country that could be called upon when needed. Iraqi soldiers today are not nearly as fortunate.

Iraqi troops cannot be airlifted quickly to threatened areas throughout the country, they cannot rely on medevac helicopters to retrieve their wounded from the battlefield, and they cannot call for immediate close air support if under attack by hordes of ISIS fighters. These are factors which severely hamper morale and are likely contributing to ISF hasty retreat. What advantage the ISF has in armor seems to be evaporating due to poor leadership, sectarianism, and ISIS’s battle-hardened tactics.

Even if the expected aircraft were to arrive tomorrow, it will take time for Iraqi pilots to be trained on them and for Iraqi commanders to learn how to utilize them in an effective way. The exception is the AT-6 light attack aircraft as it is an armed version of the T-6 trainer aircraft the Iraqi air force has been training on for some time. The immediate delivery of these nimble propeller-driven planes, which resemble World War II era fighters, could have some limited effect on ISIS’s advance towards Baghdad.

The AT-6 is actually better suited for the Iraqi air force than its earlier requests for armed drones. They are cheaper, faster, more survivable, better armed, and possesses many of the same optical and infrared sensors found on Predator and Reaper UAVs. They also can operate from dirt runways and share many of the same parts as Iraq’s existing trainer aircraft. Nevertheless, the small number will limit Iraq from having persistent airpower which can monitor ISIS’s movements and respond to calls for air support.

Time is not on Iraq’s side as ISIS’s advance is moving faster than the equipment is being supplied to the country. The one hope Iraq may have is that ISIS is moving so quickly, it could become overstretched and unable to maintain the large, fast-moving force that it has morphed into. ISIS had much more flexibility as an insurgent force. But it will face new strategic and logistical challenges as it seeks to hold the territory it has conquered, while supporting an advancing army.

Patrick Megahan is a research associate for military affairs at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he manage’s

Are you a dedicated reader of FDD's Long War Journal? Has our research benefitted you or your team over the years? Support our independent reporting and analysis today by considering a one-time or monthly donation. Thanks for reading! You can make a tax-deductible donation here.

Tags: ,


  • recon Runner says:

    Are we sure the Iraqi Army actually needs this technology in the current situation and for current internal conflicts? The US didn’t do the IA any favors by building the host nation forces in the image of the US military, which is a small portion of their failure during the current fight with ISIS.
    The IA don’t needed MEDEVAC helicopters; too expensive and unsustainable with regard to maintenance. The IA should focus on ground CASEVACing their wounded. Without the CF requirement of multiple vehicle convoys with their associated large audible/visual signitures as well as their local knowledge of the roads, CASEVAC is a much better and more sustainable option.
    The IA shouldn’t be dependent on drones either for intel and targeting of the ISIS. With the advances and the proliferation of drone technology, state and non state armies will surely become more dependent on the technology during future conflicts. During the present conflict, a central intelligence failure has been the Iraqi security forces and govt agencies appearent lack of HUMINT sources. Being caught by surprise by such a large ISIS operation shows would lead one to believe that their sources(both internal and external of their borders) lack the placement and access necessary to make for their lack of IMINT and SIGINT technology. The lack of counterintelligence assets is also evident in the lack of forewarning during all the reported security force deffections.
    Advanced fixed wing, rotary wing, and armed drone assets are nice to have but not necessary against ISIS. Assad forces in Syria appear to be using barrel bombs pretty effectively, which brings us to the crux of the Irqai Forces problem.
    The Iraqi Forces are a complacent, disorganized group of independent organizations who are too dependent on technology, which is then compounded by lack the creativity/initiative/problem solving skills as well as a lack of loyalty to their ineffective central government.

  • kush dragon says:

    Good article and I definitely agree. Part of the problem is the average ISIS fighter seems to be of medium-high quality compared to the low-moderate quality of the average IA soldier. When you compound this with the lack of air support you really have a problem. The IA’s armored vehicles are probably preventing a complete rout of the entire country, but armored vehicles are within the capability of a high quality insurgent group like ISIS to deal with. Aircraft, not so much.
    In a slight defense of the IA though, it’s fair to point out that even sizeable Western forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have been on the verge of being overwhelmed when the air support showed up. Had we not had a competent air force available at all times I think it’s beyond likely we would have witnessed some engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan reminiscent of Little Bighorn or Isandlwana by now.

  • recon runner says:

    It’s without question thatoverwhelming air superiority would be great for the IA to have and would be a tremendous force multiplier, but again we envision every fight through the eyes of the US military complex. How many countries can afford a well trained and maintained Air Force capable of rapid reaction?
    The ISIS took control of the Sunni triangle earlier this year, so they have a history of rapidly seazing large cities. The ISIS have made it known that they want to carve out their own territory between Syria and Iraq, so it’s not like this invasion wasn’t out of no where.
    Iraqi govt agencies started this fight completely flat footed, which is something you can’t afford to do when you don’t have CAS and armed ISR able to rapidly respond to emergencies. They made no effort to make any defensive preparations along key avenues if approach to which they could have delayed or atrited the invading ISIS maneuver element. Whatever intel operations(HUMINT, Recon, etc) they were running were terribly insuffient.
    You can wish for all of the assists that you want, but you plans have to be founded on men and equipment availible.

  • Charles says:

    As long as we are getting rid of our A-10 fleet, why don’t we give some of them to Iraq? Sounds like just the kind of air frame they need.

  • Mike E says:

    If only there was a country that could provide massive air support for the Iraqis at minimal risk to itself.

  • anan says:

    Patrick Megahan, good article. You are correct that a few dozen light attack turboprops would substantially and rapidly help the ISF.
    recon Runner, light attack turboprops are cheap per hour flown, per ton mile flown, per mile flown, and per unit of combat capability.
    Rotary wing attack aircraft are more expensive than light attack turboprops, but still affordable.
    The Iraqis also need more transportation fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft. Additional transportation aircraft would have been very helpful in the past week against ISIL.


Islamic state



Al shabaab

Boko Haram