Desperate for Air Support, Maliki Turns to Russia (and now Iran)*

Exasperated at the lack of air support to from the United States to fight ISIS, the Iraqi government has purchased second-hand Sukhoi fighter jets from Russia and Belarus. But how effective will they be in confronting the Jihadist threat on Baghdad’s door?

*This article was updated on 2 July 2014, see below.

As the Iraqi Army and Shia militias struggle to prevent ISIS forces from reaching Baghdad and with continuing Western refusal to conduct airstrikes without political preconditions, Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has announced the purchase of second-hand Sukhoi fighter jets from Belarus and Russia which he hopes will ‘destroy the terrorists’ dens ... within one week’. This is an unexpected and desperate move but also one which exposes continued political ignorance about what is required to make air power effective on the battlefield.

What Iraq has Bought?

Mr Maliki has complained that the long-term purchase plan of F-16s from America has taken too long and that, as a result, air power was lacking when ISIS attacked, resulting in defeat for the Iraqi Army. It is true that, three years after the order was signed in 2011, the first F-16IQ Block 52s destined for the Iraqi Air Force have been built but are still in the United States being tested and used to train the first six Iraqi pilots who will eventually fly them home. In his desperation for air support, Mr Maliki has evidently decided he can get a decisive capability much faster by turning to the Russian aircraft industry.

Whether the Sukhoi fighter jets mentioned come from Belarus, Russia or both they will most likely be either Su-25 ‘Frogfoot’ or Su-27 ‘Flanker’ types. These aircraft are relatively cheap to maintain and operate despite good performance and versatility in ground attack. However, the fact that these jets are second-hand and are being acquired so quickly should raise serious questions about their usefulness to Iraq.

Even ‘new’ Russian combat aircraft have a poor record in recent years on the export market. In 2007, Algeria refused to accept twenty-eight Mig-29 fighters bought from Russia at the cost of US$1.3bn when it was found that the supposedly ‘new’ aircraft had been assembled from second-hand parts and had serious structural issues including cracks in the vertical tail surfaces. In March 2014, it was widely reported that more than 50 per cent of the Indian Air Force’s brand new fleet of over 200 Su-30MKI fighters from Russia had been grounded for over a year due to ‘unresolved servicing issues with the aircraft's Russian manufacturers’.

Therefore, it seems reasonable to assume that whatever fighters Iraq has just bought second hand from Russia or Belarus will not only be outdated but will suffer from serious serviceability problems and possible structural flaws. They will also be incompatible with the US-made systems and weapons which equip the Iraqi armed forces, from Hellfire missiles for ground attack, to communications systems and logistics infrastructure.

Can They Operate in Iraq?

It will be very interesting to learn what sort of support package has been purchased along with the jets themselves. Without trained fast-jet pilots, the Iraqi Air Force will presumably have to rely on foreign (probably Belorussian) pilots. They will likely be unable to communicate easily with the Iraqi forces they are supposed to be co-ordinating with, and the systems on their aircraft will almost certainly be incompatible in frequency, linguistic and electronic terms with other Iraqi Air Force and Iraqi Army assets. If the jets are indeed arriving within two to three days and are to operate against ISIS within a week as Mr Maliki claims, they will, therefore, need to bring a comprehensive logistical support package with them.

To have any chance of being effective the Sukhoi jets will need trained maintenance teams and armourers familiar with the aircraft as well as stockpiles of specific munitions, fuel and spare parts. They will also need to be supported by compatible Intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR) assets and connected to a functioning command and control (C2) network which can co-ordinate their strikes. This is especially important for combat against ISIS since the most common insurgent assets are either ex-civilian pickup trucks or captured Iraqi Army military vehicles, making target discrimination and the avoidance of friendly fire incidents extremely challenging.

The fact that none of these support arrangements appear to have been considered by the Iraqi government speaks to the tendency for politicians around the world to assume that fast jet airframes alone equate to a capability to project air power. Without extensive logistical support, proper C2 and ISTAR assets, fighter jets are simply incapable of operating effectively against ground targets in a complex environment, let alone ‘turning the tide’ against a committed insurgent force such as ISIS.

The large Syrian Air Force’s inability to defeat ISIS in Syria despite possessing many of the support enablers discussed here and being many times larger than the jet buy that Iraq can have agreed at such short notice with Russia illustrates the folly of Mr Maliki’s belief that this acquisition can have any meaningful effect on the dire situation on the ground in Iraq.

UPDATE 2 July 2014

Iranian Su-25 in Iraq
Left: A screenshot from the Iraqi Ministry of Defence showing one of the Su-25's which arrived on Tuesday 1 July. Right: The same Su-25 (serial number 51) in IRGCAF service on Iranian state TV.

On 1 July, Iraq has received at least 3 more Su-25 jets. Unlike those bought from Russia, these were flown in and appear to be in good condition. These aircraft are the property of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Air Force (ARGC-AF) as the compound image above shows. The picture on the left is a frame from Iraqi footage of one of the newly delivered Su-25s whilst the image on the right is a photograph of the same aircraft (serial number 51) in ARGC-AF service shown on the Islamic Republic News Agency in 2013. As with the Russian Su-25s discussed in the main article above, all the trained maintenance personnel, armourers, munitions, spares and almost certainly the pilots will have to be brought in with the aircraft, since Iraq does not possess these assets internally.

Su25 close up iranian


Justin Bronk

Research Fellow, Airpower & Technology

Military Sciences

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