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Last Updated:  Monday, 17 March, 2003, 13:27 GMT
Analysis: Iraq's air force
Mirage F-1 graphic
Mirage F-1: Once Iraq's elite fighter

Estimates of the fighting strength of the Iraqi Air Force vary, although there is agreement that in terms of sheer numbers and capability it is no match for the American and British forces ranged against it.

During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the Iraqi Air Force (IQAF) went from 332 combat aircraft to more than 950, with about 40,000 men, making it the largest in the region.

But it lost more than 200 planes during the last Gulf War, about 90 through attacks by coalition aircraft - either in the air or on the ground - while other pilots took their aircraft to Iran.

The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) says that in terms of fighter planes that could take on any attacking coalition planes, there is a total of about 180.

Most are of Soviet design, including 40 MiG-21s, 50 MiG-23s a dozen MiG-25s and 10 MiG-29s, plus 50 French-built Mirage F-1EQs.

But the institute says that little more than half of these are serviceable.

The military analysts in the Jane's group have different figures but also estimate a low serviceability - for example only 13 of a total of 30 Mirage F-1s, fewer than 25 Mig-21s, fewer than 20 Mig-23s - perhaps 90 aircraft in total.

These are in about 16 to 20 major air bases repaired since the Gulf War.

Evidence emerged late in 2002 that a Yugoslav weapons company had violated the Iraq embargo by refurbishing MiG-21 and MiG-23 jet engines and providing other services.

Fighter types

The single-engined, single-seat MiG-21 dates back to the 1950s but has been much upgraded.

It was produced in its thousands for air forces around the world - in volume terms, probably the most successful short-range fighter of the later 20th Century.

The aircraft can manage 1,355 mph (2,175 km/h) at altitude - something over twice the speed of sound.

Its successor, the MiG-23, was designed in the 1960s and has variable wings which sweep back at speed like those on the RAF Tornado.

Also widely used around the world, it is capable of about 1,500 mph.

MiG-25s are the fastest fighters in existence, capable of almost 2,000 mph or three times the speed of sound.

The MiG-29 is a highly agile fighter-bomber with a similar turn of speed to the MiG-23 but better avionics, although early versions had a very limited range.

But the consensus is that Iraq has very few of these more up-to-date aircraft.

Former elite

According to the US think tank GlobalSecurity, the French-built Mirage F-1s and their pilots were the Iraqi Air Force elite during the 1980s.

It says Iraq had a wide range of weapons and electronic warfare equipment for the F-1s, and the French-trained pilots showed "a high degree of skill and determination when attacking Iranian surface targets, and were more willing to engage in air-to-air combat than their colleagues flying Soviet-built aircraft".

This included strikes on Iranian shipping - it was an Iraqi F-1 that mistakenly fired two Exocet missiles at the American frigate USS Stark in 1987.

But the Iraqi air force did not put up anything of a fight when the international coalition attacked Iraq over Kuwait in 1991.

Advanced missiles

Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC said Iraq had put French-made Matra Magic 2 "dogfight" air-to-air missiles on its Mirage F-1s since then - virtually its only major improvement in air force equipment.

"It is not clear whether these missiles were delivered before the war, were stolen from Kuwait, or have been smuggled in since," he said.

They were an advanced type similar to the more advanced export versions of the US AIM-9, highly manoeuvrable and with a maximum range of about three miles.

The CSIS believes Iraq still has extensive stocks of short-range air-to-ground missiles and cluster bombs - but lacks training.

"Iraqi Air Force air-to-air and air-to-ground training is limited and unrealistic," Mr Cordesman said.


"In the past, command and control has been over-centralised and mission planning has often set impossible goals.

"The two 'no-fly' zones have further limited air training and combat experience.

"While it can surge to high levels of sorties and it has some experienced and capable pilots, overall training hours are minimal and training levels rarely involve realistic war-fighting capabilities."

And he said aircraft of all types - both fixed wing and helicopters - had little experience in supporting ground forces.

Nor was there any modern airborne reconnaissance other than a small number of unmanned vehicles.

But the IQAF had practised "penetration raids" by single, low-flying aircraft, and had shown it could conduct independent, small-scale attacks.

One thing the US administration has complained about is reports that Iraq has been attempting to convert some of its MiG-21s and L-29 trainers into unmanned aircraft, fitted with converted fuel tanks that could be used to spray chemical weapons.







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