U.S. Air Defense Systems and Iraqi Airspace Sovereignty

On August 5, the Pentagon notified Congress of its intent to sell Iraq an Integrated Air Defense System along with its associated equipment, parts, training, and support for USD 2.4 billion. Specific items to be sold include the following: “40 Avenger Fire Units, 681 Stinger Missiles, 13 Sentinel Radars” among other items.

Defense News notes that this sale is a part of over USD 4 billion in proposed arm sales to Iraq since July 25, with more deals likely to come. “When taken as a whole, analysts say that the sales can be seen as a hedge against a variety of threats both internal and external,” Defense News notes. The Pentagon’s specific justification for the air defense system states, “[the new capabilities derived from the sale] will provide Iraq with the ability to contribute to regional air defenses and reduce its vulnerability to air attacks and also enhance interoperability between the Government of Iraq, the U.S., and other allies.” This air defense system comes in addition to a USD 6.5 billion Iraqi purchase of 36 F-16 aircraft in December 2011, which are scheduled to be delivered beginning in September 2014, according to a recent CRS Report.

Iraqi officials have requested improved air defense capabilities from the U.S. in the past. The request comes amidst renewed United States criticism that Iraq has not done enough to prevent Iran from using Iraqi airspace to deliver weapons to pro-Assad forces. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry complained about these Iranian flights during his last trip to Iraq in March, and he raised the issue again Thursday during a visit to Washington by Iraq’s foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari. Secretary Kerry stated, “There has been some progress in this area since my visit to Iraq in March, but Foreign Minister [Zebari] agrees there is very significant progress yet to be made.”

In response to U.S. criticism, Iraq’s Ambassador to the U.S. Lukman Faily argued in July that Iraq does not have “full control of our airspace because we don’t have an Integrated Air Defense System in place.” Foreign Minister Zebari repeated a similar argument even after the Pentagon announced its intended sale. In a Friday speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Zebari stated: “But we cannot [prevent the shipment] without the capabilities and the sophisticated, integrated defense system that we lack. And this is what we have been asking from our friends to help us with.”

The Pentagon’s air defense system sale notification does not set a target date for delivery. But since recently purchased American F-16s will not be delivered until next year, it is unlikely that the air defense system or the F-16 jets alone will help Iraq establish sovereignty over its airspace. This point was acknowledged by an unnamed senior administration official, who held a briefing on Thursday about the foreign minister’s visit. The official stated:

The Iraqis today came very forcefully with the fact that they have a hard time monitoring and controlling their overall airspace and guarding their sovereignty above their – in their skies. We just notified to Congress a sale of an integrated air defense system, which will help the Iraqis with that problem, but that system will not really be up and running for some time as we train the Iraqis on it and get it into place.

 Even if Iraq were capable of halting Iranian flights, however, it is not clear that the current government would move to do so. The Institute for the Study of War’s Stephen Wicken claims:

 The Iraqi government is in a difficult situation here: they want, and need, to maintain good relations with both Washington and Tehran…Iraq can’t afford to engage in confrontation with Iran, so even with the ability to police Iraqi airspace, I would expect the two to reach a workable understanding that would allow Iran to keep resupplying Assad without making Iraqi collaboration even more visible.

Moreover, Iraq has also turned to other countries to improve its air defense capabilities, including Russia, which is aligned with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and is unlikely to support Iraq’s efforts to halt Iranian weapons shipments. The June CRS report notes, “[Prime Minister] Maliki visited Russia on October 8, 2012, and signed deals for Russian arms worth about $4.2 billion. The arms are said to include 30 MI-28 helicopter gunships and air defense missiles, including the Pantsir.”

In short, while the new air defense system sale proposed by the Pentagon may help Iraq down the road, it will probably not achieve the U.S.’s goal of stopping Iranian flights. And despite claims made by Iraqi officials, a lack of capacity is unlikely to be the only reason preventing Iraq from stopping these flights. Ramzy Mardini, a former Iraq desk officer at the State Department, observed back in March that there are other, more fundamental, issues between the U.S. and Iraq. “It’s not surprising that Iraqi foreign policy would conflict, rather than converge, with U.S. desires,” Mardini notes. “Although foreign military sales can strengthen ties with clients, don’t expect them to produce a reliable ally when there’s no common strategic purpose.”

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