Small Wars Journal

Drones for Dinars, not Dollars

Tue, 12/18/2018 - 8:54pm

Drones for Dinars, not Dollars


Arin Kumar Ghosh


After a string of alarming defeats to ISIS in 2014, the Iraqi Armed Forces rebounded to ultimately evict ISIS from Iraq by the end of 2017. The military ballooned to 2 million serving as Iraq finally got a much deserved rest after shattering the dreams of ISIS, or so they thought. Iraq continues to be at risk of every political disease a nation can be infected with: terrorism, militancy, sectarianism, and a slew of other issues. Outstanding political issues with post-ISIS emerging terrorist organizations, the Kurds to the north, coupled with an uneasy arrangement with Iran in the post, non-ISIS threat centric region, beckon Iraq not to repeat the same steps which allowed ISIS to gain so much ground in the first place.  


One of the key umbrellas that shields all the political plagues that could topple a future Baghdad administration lies in its future counter insurgency (COIN) planning. Part of Iraq’s COIN strategy has more recently been to conduct F-16 airstrikes against Daesh positions, including in neighboring Syria as Iraq tries to insulate against sub state existential threats – but this strategy will not prevent the inevitable. The real threat to Iraq’s future stability is from inside its borders. In this struggle, the ability of the armed forces will be tested to contain a future rise of ISIS type elements or the rise of organized sectarian enemies.


In 2014 at the offset of ISIS’s rise, Iraqi troop numbers painted a paper army; in one instance two Iraqi divisions retreated in the face of an ISIS force more than thirty times smaller in size. Iran heavily supplemented Iraq’s armed forces, fearful of what effects an Iraqi collapse could have on the region. Outside of other support to Iraq, Iran at the time provided Iraq with its first true close air support (CAS)/ ground attack (GA) aircraft for operations, a small fleet of SU-25s. While Iraq grew its traditional military filled with fresh soldiers, new munitions, and advanced F-16s, it simultaneously developed what will be the nation’s savior: the Iraqi combat drone force.


In late 2015, Iraq announced that it was operating Chinese made CH-4B combat drones which sport similar capabilities to the U.S. MQ-9 Reaper including the ability to fire the Chinese AR-1 laser guided missile and Chinese “Hellfire” equivalent, the HJ-10 anti-tank missile, which in one instance was the Iraqi weapon of choice to destroy an IED laden vehicle. Could an F-16 do that? Sure, but at what cost? Iraq spent a small fortune to the tune of billions of dollars to buy F-16IQs which it can certainly justify as a multirole fighter, especially when used for air defense, but the F-16s are a very costly system for COIN purposes.


As Iraq works to create an efficient armed force in post ISIS Iraq, it must reconsider the traditional defense template of weapons systems that need to be purchased with its own needs. Combat drones may not only be used to supplement other air assets the nation possesses but Iraq could take a quantum leap towards a true drone force, one that completely reigns for COIN/CAS/GA roles with limited anti-air capabilities. Yes, you read that correctly, anti-air capabilities. Iraq’s potential hedge on drones creating a credible combat drone force hedges on the continued development of drone technology, and this development is sure to not disappoint. Just in September, a US Air Force drone shot down an aerial target with what was either an AIM-9X sidewinder or FIM-92 stinger. The aircraft was an MQ-9 combat drone.


There is no doubt that China will continue to develop their drone offerings into robust war fighters, including in the air to air role, since they want to continue dominating the combat drone market in the future. One of their latest for export offerings, the CH-5, is priced at around $ 8 million per unit, boasts a true operational range of 1,243 miles, has a 60 hour endurance, and is able to carry over 2000 lbs of ordinance, matching the combat ground attack loadout weight of Iraqi F-16s which recently were outfitted with four 500 lb laser guided munitions against ISIL in Syria in April of 2018.


With extended loiter times, the Iraqi drones can support ground operations or exclusively strike internal threats to Iraq. Additionally, the advent of armed drones to provide immediate CAS to ground troops will only enhance their combat effectiveness and morale. Combat drones would enable the Iraqi armed forces to play a more proactive role in COIN as opposed to strictly reactionary as the drones conduct reconnaissance and attack functions with more flexible terms than their fixed and rotary winged siblings.


As Iraq continues to get more T-50s to supplement the light combat aircraft attack role, it sits at a pivotal crossroads where it can continue to partially follow the traditional air force template of primary trainers, advanced trainers/light combat aircraft, multi-role fighters, and air superiority fighters to the tune of billions. Or, Iraq can genuinely and simultaneously embrace combat drones at a time when the U.S. is modernizing its drone export policies. Should it embrace that path, Iraqi drones can provide COIN at a low cost, measurable more in dinars than the excessive dollars that would be spent on excessive platforms to perform the same functions.


Categories: Iraq - drones - counterinsurgency - COIN

About the Author(s)

Arin Kumar Ghosh recently completed his Masters Thesis on the commercialization of drones while at Johns Hopkins University. Ghosh graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of Southern California in Political Science. He is currently an independent analyst before intending to pursue his PhD in Political Science, specializing in defense.