AFP, BAGHDAD: Warplanes buried in desert sands and pilots who have barely flown for a decade are all that are left of Saddam Hussein's once mighty air force as the US-led coalition tackles the challenge of rebuilding the force from scratch.
As the coalition marched closer to Baghdad last year, the now ousted Iraqi leader instructed his air force generals to take some of their planes to the desert and bury them, according to senior military coalition officials.
“They hoped that if the regime came back somehow they would unbury the aircraft and fly them away, but the problem was that they were structurally damaged beyond repair,” said a coalition military official on condition of anonymity.
But the coalition now hopes that many of the Russian MiGs and French Mirages that made up the backbone of the former regime's air force can form the nucleus of a new post-Saddam force.
The problem is that the weight of the sand snapped the wings and tails of the aircraft buried in the desert and in addition, many more aircraft were destroyed when US-led forces bombed military bases, according to coalition officials.
The new force is being built from scratch with aircraft purchased from Jordan and former Iraqi air force pilots are being retrained there as well.
“The vision that we started out with was a complete new start for Iraqi aviation where promotion is on merit rather than by favour,” said another coalition official.
He said the new force will have the same rank structure as Saddam's air force and will be commanded by a major general, who has yet to be appointed.
Only those ranking colonel or below in the previous air force would be allowed in the new force as “they have not been tainted” by the nepotism and favouritism of the old regime in which only those close to Saddam's Tikriti clan and members of the ruling Baath party were promoted, said the official.
He described Iraqi pilots as “capable” but said that their skills may have eroded as most of them flew an average of only 32 hours a year during the 12-year period between the end of the Gulf War over Kuwait and last year's invasion that ousted Saddam.
By comparison, the average flight time for pilots in the West is 32 hours a month, he added.
The coalition enforced a no-fly zone in northern and southern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War to stop Saddam's crackdown on the Kurds in the north and on the Shiites in the south.
But a retooled and retrained Iraqi air force will operate in close coordination with coalition air assets as the coalition will continue to play a key role in ensuring Iraq's security after the June 30 restoration of Iraqi sovereignty.
The new Iraqi air force's main task will be to police the country's 3,500 miles (5,600 kilometers) of borders.
The coalition will fund the purchase from Jordan of two C-130B Hercules transport aircraft, which will be operational in October, and a squadron of six UH-1H Iroquois (Huey) helicopters due to go into service in July.
The Iraqi air force will also acquire a squadron of light reconnaisance aircraft which will be operational this summer, with initially four aircraft based in the southern city of Basra, and later additional aircraft possibly based in the northern city of Kirkuk.