By Jim Loney
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - - Saddam Hussein once commanded one of the most powerful airforces in the Middle East with 40,000 personnel and 1,000 aircraft including Soviet MiG and French Mirage fighters.
Now its combat capability lies largely in three Cessna propeller planes armed with Hellfire missiles.
In a move to redress the balance in the face of an Islamist insurgency and regional turmoil, Iraq on Monday said it had signed a multibillion-dollar contract to buy 18 Lockheed Martin F-16s warplanes.
But their delivery is several years away and both U.S. and Iraqi officials say Iraq will need help to control its airspace.
"They will tell you, as will I, that (air defense) is their number one priority when it comes to gaps," said U.S. Brigadier General Tony Rock, who is helping rebuild Iraq's air force.
"When we leave here...there will not be air intercept capability until they (have) a multi-role fighter like the F-16."
Eight years after Saddam was toppled Iraq's two airborne units, the Air Force and Army Aviation Command, comprise 158 aircraft, including helicopters, and about 7,500 personnel, according to U.S. figures. That's just over 1 percent of Iraq's 650,000-strong military and security forces.
REFUELING DEPOTS, RADAR COVER
Its not just the lack of aircraft which is problematic. When the Army Aviation Command dispatches a helicopter to hunt Islamic militants, it often needs to refuel at one of the dozens of fuel depots installed and run by the U.S. across Iraq.
But with the U.S. military dismantling its bases and just three months from leaving Iraq, many of the Forward Arming and Refueling Points (FARPs) the Iraqis have relied upon to extend their aerial range against the insurgency are disappearing.
"I have found that the fuel truck is more important than the aircraft. We don't have enough mobile trucks to provide fuel for the Air Force and the Iraqi Army," said General Hamid al-Maliki, head of the Army Aviation Command.
"We can operate without the Americans. But we still need them."
To ease Iraqi worries the U.S. military has ordered eight HEMTT (Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck) fuel trucks and is turning over some of its far-flung fuel stations.
But a shortage of timely fuel is hardly the only deficiency in Iraq's air defense.
By the time U.S. forces pull out, Iraq will be able to monitor only 60 percent of its air space, mostly the heavily populated eastern areas, via two long-range radars stationed at Tallil in southern Nassiriya and at Taji northwest of Baghdad.
The air force wants two more long-range radars to cover more of the north, northwest and west, as well as ground-based air defense systems. Those are years away.
While it waits for its F-16s, the Air Force relies on what Rock called "nascent but credible capabilities" with 69 aircraft including three missile-equipped Cessnas, three reconnaissance Cessnas capable of capturing and downlinking real-time video, as well as C-130E transports, training and other planes.
The Army Aviation Command runs 89 rotary aircraft including Russian Mi-171s and is beefing up with 27 Bell 407 helicopters, most of them fitted with weapons. Delivery had been expected by December 31 but has been pushed back until March or April.
It could be late 2014 or 2015 before the first F-16s are delivered. But even when the warplanes arrive, Iraq will lag far behind its neighbors.
"Having these fighter jets will not mean Iraq is about to stand at the same level of neighboring countries' air forces," said an Iraqi ex-military commander who asked not to be named.
"If you compared the level of the Iraqi air forces with the time before 2003, I can say, if it is not zero percent, it does not exceed 10 percent," he said. "This is a long term mission."
The U.S. military will hand over six major air bases to Iraqi control in the next few months -- Tikrit, Kirkuk, Taji, Balad, al-Asad and Ali --- in addition to leaving behind some of the fueling stations and other hardware as Washington draws down from its current 43,000-odd troops to zero by year-end.
"You'll see what I call a tsunami of stuff coming their way in the next few months," Rock said.
Iraq shares borders Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Iran and Kuwait. Unrest in Syria threatens the government there, and Turkey and Iran regularly launch air or artillery strikes on Kurdish rebels along Iraq's northern border.
But in spite of the region's instability, General Nasier Abadi, the Defense Ministry vice chief of staff and a military pilot, said Iraq was capable of deterring internal threats from the insurgency and has no current external enemies.
"I think we are ready now to go solo. We will have lots of problems but in the end that's the way it has to be."
(Additional reporting by Suadad al-Salhy and Waleed Ibrahim; Editing by Matthew Jones)