There Are So Many Warplanes Over Iraq That Baghdad’s Air Traffic Controllers Can’t Keep Up
Denmark is setting up a radar to help out
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
It’s no secret that skies above Iraq and Syria are teeming with warplanes from the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State. There are so many jets, in fact, that Baghdad’s military air traffic controllers apparently can’t keep track of them all.
At the end of January, the Danish military sent troops with a radar to Al Asad air base in western Iraq. Normally the radar would help detect incoming enemy aircraft. But ISIS doesn’t have an air force — so the Danish sensor is helping to sort out the overwhelming friendly air traffic.
“The operators are able to coordinate coalition flights and improve flight safety,” Linda Liboriussen, a spokeswoman for the Danish ministry of defense, told War Is Boring in an email. “The coalition had identified the need for ground-based air-surveillance radars.”
Apparently recognizing that the Iraqi government was overwhelmed trying to sort out its own, increasingly-congested airspace, the coalition asked its member states to fill in the aerial gaps. With so many planes flying at different speeds and in different directions, inadequate air traffic control can lead to accidents.
The Danes’ Lockheed Martin-made TPS-77 radar is an “electronically-scanned array,” meaning it’s made up of many, small transmitter-receivers. Mounted on a rotating platform, the TPS-77 can track planes up to 160 nautical miles away in any direction.
Troops can load the radar into a C-130 cargo plane or tow it behind a truck. Lockheed has sold the units to two dozen countries around the world.
This part of Denmark’s contribution “made it possible to use the more flexible airborne assets for other tasks,” Liboriussen added. “The deployment of the Danish radar thus provided the coalition with a sought-after capability and made it possible to use the more flexible airborne assets for other tasks.”
The airborne assets in question are undoubtedly American and British E-3 radar planes. A derivative of the Boeing 707 airliner, these aircraft carry their own powerful radar to coordinate air strikes, keep a look out for potential enemies and even track targets on the ground.
“The decision [to send the radar] … was made by the Danish parliament, as is always the case when Danish military capabilities are deployed into international operations,” Liboriussen explained.
Ground-based defensive radars aren’t necessarily much different from air-traffic-control radars. In the United States, both the U.S. Air Force and the civilian Federal Aviation Administration have operated the FPS-117.
To protect friendly pilots from surface-to-air missiles and enemy aircraft, an attacker will generally go after radar sites first. During the Gulf War in 1991, U.S. Army Apache gunships — led by specialized Air Force MH-53 choppers — kicked off Operation Desert storm by blasting Baghdad’s radar sites.
The post-war no-fly zones and the subsequent U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 decimated the country’s air-defense and air traffic control networks. Six years later, the Pentagon and the FAA were still trying to put it all back together.
“We realized that we needed the fuller study, to make sure we looked at the entire country and to be able to provide a complete roadmap,” Brian Schultz, head of the foreign military sales division of the Air Force’s 853rd Electronic Systems Group, told the service’s reporters in May 2009. “It was not easy to even get simple information about the conditions we had to work in.”
Five months later, the flying branch hired Lockheed Martin to work on the project with the Iraqi air force. The terms of the $28 million-contract included setting up a TPS-77 radar.
At the time, the Pentagon estimated Baghdad wouldn’t have complete control of its skies until around 2019. But with the majority of American troops on the way out, Washington officially turned over the country’s airspace to the Iraq Civil Aviation Authority on Oct. 1, 2011.
“With this step, Iraq has assumed full air traffic control responsibility … for the first time since 2003,” the American embassy in Baghdad proudly declared. “Much work remains to be done in order to improve Iraq’s aviation support and communications infrastructure systems.”
While Iraq’s six international airports were able to operate normally, this civilian arrangement was clearly never expected to handle a major air war. In 2013, the Pentagon announced plans to sell the Middle East nation additional TPS-77s, along with other, unspecified “medium-range radars” to boost the military’s ability to guard the skies and guide its planes.
On July 22, 2015, the Air Force held an online meeting with defense contractors to see who might be able to maintain military air traffic gear and train Iraqi personnel at three of Baghdad’s air bases. While the flying branch was still working to draw up a formal contract, the Pentagon had agreed to the basic plan with Iraqi officials more than a year earlier.
The proposal noted that contractors would have to go to the sites just to figure out “what equipment and services are required for operations” might be necessary to get the airfield control towers up and running in the first place, according to the briefing. At Al Sahra air base in Tikrit, the private workers would need to “restore operations” that had lapsed.
The Air Force included a sample schedule to help companies put together timelines for their offers. The example allots nearly eight months simply to purchase new or fix existing equipment. The Pentagon has already paid for, and installed, the gear at Al Sahra and Al Taji once before.
With military air traffic control still so limited, it’s no wonder the Danish military had to step in with its own radar. Denmark became one of the first countries to join the fight against Islamic State when it joined the coalition in August 2014.
Along with the radar, the Danish military has deployed more than 100 troops to Iraq to help train Iraqi and Kurdish forces. On April 19, Copenhagen announced that it was expanding its role and sending seven F-16s to attack ISIS in both Iraq and Syria.
A separate contingent of the Danish fighter-bombers had flown missions against the brutal terrorist group up until the end of 2015 — but only in Iraq. This new group will also include a C-130 cargo plane for shuttling cargo and dropping humanitarian aid.
On April 20, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter lauded the small European country as a “ steadfast partner” in the campaign against the brutal terrorist group. His statement focused primarily on the return of the F-16s to the region.
But until Baghdad’s air-traffic situation improves, the TPS-77 could be the real star of Denmark’s efforts.