In the span of a few short years, Iraq went from having a nonexistent air force to having one just barely getting on its feet.
Now Baghdad’s shaky flying corps is getting into real trouble as it tries to contain a worsening civil war. Iraq’s front-line helicopter gunships are taking so much punishment, the government is growing desperate for replacements.
On June 20, the Czech defense ministry revealed that Iraq approached Prague with an offer to buy up to seven Mi-35M Hind gunships—the export version of the famed Mi-24 Hind—for a total of $12 million. “They have shown interest in the helicopters,” Martin Stropnicky, the Czech defense minister, told the Dnes newspaper.
The main culprit for Iraq’s helicopter woes is the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham. ISIS forces shot down at least six helicopters between January and May, according to The New York Times. The terror group’s attrition warfare has continued into June as ISIS shot down another helicopter near Fallujah last week.
But the Times report noted a more startling fact. Militants shot up around 60 helicopters—damaging but not destroying them—over the same period. ISIS appears to have largely used heavy anti-aircraft machine guns to do most of the damage.
That’s a huge number of destroyed or damaged helicopters—including Iraq’s growing fleet of Hind gunships. “This represents a significant proportion of the Iraqi Army Aviation Command’s assets,” observed Jeremy Bennie of IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly.
More MANPADS, more problems
It’s difficult to determine the exact size of Iraq’s helicopter fleet. But estimates compiled by Jane’s and the Center for Strategic and International Studies puts the number at more than 100 helicopters of various types, including Bell-407 scouts, Eurocopter EC-635 training birds, dual light attack and transport Mi-17 helicopters, among others.
The United States has also sold 24 AH-64 Apache attack helicopters to Iraq, but these are still awaiting delivery after Congress delayed approval until earlier this month.
Iraq’s main current attack helicopter force includes—on paper—around 30 Mi-28NE Havoc and 40 Mi-35M Hinds purchased from Russia. But it’s unclear how many of each kind Iraq received to date. What we do know is that both the Havoc and Hind are in action over Iraq.
In one recent video circulating online, Iraqi Hinds attack and destroy ISIS technical fighting vehicles with rockets, guided missiles and cannon fire. An orbiting surveillance plane zooms its cameras toward the burning vehicles, which were caught out in the open and destroyed by the swooping “armored tanks,” as the Hind is popularly known.
But the big question remains whether ISIS has shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles—otherwise known as MANPADS—of which helicopters are extremely vulnerable. There’s good reason to believe the militants do. ISIS militants filmed themselves firing SA-7 MANPADS in a propaganda video released this month.
ISIS could have acquired these missiles on the black market or by capturing them from the Syrian government. There, the missiles are used with deadly effect against Bashar Al Assad’s helicopter forces. Or ISIS could have acquired the missiles from sympathetic Arab state allies. But how many missiles are circulating around Iraq is a different and much more difficult question.
Either way, the possibility alone is enough to make officials in Washington sweat bullets.
If Pres. Barack Obama orders air strikes to assist the beleaguered Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki—who has requested U.S. strikes—the presence of MANPADS means American pilots could conceivably be shot down, captured and executed. And that’s a full-blown political nightmare.
But Maliki is already living through his worst nightmare. Massive losses to his air force gives the prime minister all the more reason to want American fighter-bombers flying overhead.