The U.S. Air Force general in charge of training Iraq’s embryonic air force confirmed that Iraqi air space will be unguarded for at least two years after the United States withdraws its forces from the country. Here is an excerpt from a Stars and Stripes article on the subject:
The U.S. general in charge of training Iraq’s fledgling air force said Monday that there are no plans to have American aircraft protect the country’s airspace when U.S. forces depart next month.
The Iraqi air force is in the process of acquiring 18 F-16 fighter jets from the U.S., but the jets and pilots won’t be ready for at least two years, according to Maj. Gen. Russell J. Handy, commander of the 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force-Iraq, and director of the Air Component Coordination Element-Iraq.
“The short answer is there will be a gap, and it will be up to the Iraqis on how they deal with that gap,” Handy said.
“I know of no discussions or arrangements about U.S. help,” Handy said. “We have no authorities or arrangements to defend the (Iraqi) skies.”
This is good news for officers in the Israeli Air Force (IAF) who have been tasked with planning an air campaign against Iran’s nuclear-industrial complex. Such a campaign will be challenging enough for the IAF, with required targets in Iran near the range limits of its aircraft. With the direct line between Israel and Iran left unguarded by the U.S. exit, such an Israeli air campaign, although still an extreme stretch, becomes slightly more feasible.
This situation brings to mind two considerations to ponder. First, time pressures that result from opening and closing windows of opportunity may compel decision-makers to exercise options that they wouldn’t have exercised had those options not faced an expiration date.
Second, we can all understand the political pressures in both Iraq and the United States that resulted in the removal of U.S. ground forces from Iraq. More difficult to understand (from both Iraqi and U.S. perspectives) is why the U.S. will not maintain modest or even occasional combat air patrols over Iraq, until Iraq’s new F-16s are operational. Such U.S. air patrols could have been flown from other bases in the region or by the Navy, at a very modest cost.
U.S. air patrolling over Iraq could reduce the probability of surprise attacks between Israel and Iran. U.S. policymakers are not interested in such patrols. Iraqi policymakers seem fine with this – they are apparently making no alternative arrangements to have their air space patrolled by any other air force.
What does the absence of such patrols imply (if anything) about the strategic calculations of both Iraq and the United States, especially regarding the Iranian nuclear situation?