Russian Aircraft Can’t Save Iraq

Baghdad needs tough troops, not tough aircraft

Like many nations whose armies disintegrated, the Iraqi government is looking to the sky for salvation.

As Sunni militants continue their mostly unopposed blitz across northern Iraq, Moscow has sold Baghdad a dozen Su-25 Frogfoot close air support aircraft—in essence, Russia’s equivalent to America’s A-10 Warthog—as well as trainers to teach Iraqis how to fly the straight-wing jets.

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has blamed his army’s rout on Washington’s refusal to speed delivery of new F-16s, currently slated for handover this fall. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria militants “could have been repelled if Iraq had proper air defense,” Maliki said, according to Russian media.

“I’ll be frank and say that we were deluded when we signed the contract [with the U.S.],” Maliki complained to Russia’s RT News. “We should have sought to buy other jet fighters—like British, French and Russian—to secure the air cover for our forces.”

“If we had air cover we would have averted what had happened,” Maliki griped.

Say what? The Iraqi army disintegrated before a numerically inferior force of lightly armed fundamentalists because Iraq lacked “proper air defense?”

In fact, Iraq’s air arms—including helicopter gunships and missile-armed Cessnas—have fought hard against the ISIS onslaught … and suffered heavy casualties.

A lack of air power is not the problem.

Coalition forces destroyed this Iraqi Su-25 during the 1991 Gulf War. Photo via Wikipedia

A handful of Su-25s is not going to make much of a difference to the Shia-dominated Iraqi government. For one, Iraqi rather than Russian pilots apparently will fly the Su-25s, thus raising the question of how long it will take to bring the Iraqis up to speed for the demanding task of providing close air support with what is, to them, a new warplane type.

Iraq deployed Frogfoots during the 1980s war with Iran, but that almost 30 years ago.

Let’s be optimistic and assume that Iraq can keep two-thirds of its Su-25s flightworthy. That’s eight Frogfoots providing air support at a time when entire divisions of Iraqi army troops are dropping their weapons and fleeing.

But the biggest reason why air power will have a limited impact is that it hasn’t had much affect in the neighboring conflict that most resembles the situation in Iraq. The Syrian government had ample strike aircraft and helicopters at the start of the country’s civil war.

No doubt their firepower was an asset. Yet the Syrian army nearly collapsed anyway. What saved it weren’t bombs from above, but rather boots on the ground as Hezbollah fighters intervened to stiffen sagging government morale.

ISIS is a force of fanatical ground troops. Only an equally determined Iraqi army can stop them. Air power can help, but it’s not salvation from the sky.

You can follow Michael Peck on Twitter at @Mipeck1 or on Facebook. Medium has an app! Sign up for a daily War is Boring email update here. Subscribe to WIB’s RSS feed here and follow the main page here.