Iraq set to invest in modernised fighter force

Aside from the JF-17 fighter mooted for the past two years, Iraq is also looking wider afield.


The delivery of F-16s enhanced the Iraq fleet but now focusing on alternatives. Picture:USAF

With a resurgence of ISIS activity, Iraq is hoping to enhance its defence capabilities. The commander-in-chief of Iraq’s armed forces, major general Yehia Rasool, has confirmed that modernising its air force is a priority, and that the fighter force is in particular need of renewal.

Iraq regained a fast jet combat air capability in 2015 with the delivery of the first of 36 Lockheed Martin F-16s.

The Iraqi government formally requested 24 F-16C/D fighters from the US in March 2010, and outlined an eventual requirement for a total of 96 fighters. Two 18-aircraft orders were placed in 2011 and 2012.

The Iraqi F-16s were significantly downgraded, with no AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles (AMRAAM) capability, and the 34 aircraft delivered were heavily reliant on US contractor support. The 36 (now 34) F-16s were augmented by 12 Aero L-159s from 2015 and two KAI T-50IQ aircraft delivered from 2017.

Iraq began looking for a new fighter in 2020, and then-Iraqi defence minister Juma Enad Saadoun met the French Air and Space Force chief of staff, general Philippe Lavigne, in November 2020.

The Iraqi minister watched a demonstration of the Dassault Rafale quick reaction alert capabilities at Saint-Dizier. Saadoun confirmed Iraq’s interest in the Rafale two months later.

On Tuesday, May 23 2023, major general Rasool hinted that France is one of the countries from which Iraq is considering purchasing “modern military equipment”.

Iraq has reportedly now finalised a US$3.2Bn contract with Dassault Aviation to purchase 14 Rafale aircraft, with a down payment of US$240m. The Iraqi government has proposed paying for the new aircraft in oil supplies rather than currency.

Though reported as a replacement for the F-16, the relatively small Rafale purchase may be intended to augment the F-16s, perhaps in order to provide enhanced air defence capabilities with the Rafale’s MBDA Meteor armament, or perhaps to provide a heavier and longer-range air-to-ground punch.

It is by no means a given that Iraq would be allowed to purchase the Meteor, which has been withheld from Egypt as a result of pressure from Israel.

Since 2021 there have been a rumour that Iraq has been negotiating for the supply of 12 block three and the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) JF-17 Thunder aircraft from Pakistan, at a reported cost of US$664 million.

Jon Lake

Jon Lake

Jon is defence editor for both Arabian and African Aerospace magazines.