Stinger anti-aircraft missiles are included in a $2.4 billion air defense package between the US and Iraq. (Lance Cpl. James B.M. Drake / US Marine Corps)
The US government is poised to sell billions of dollars worth of military equipment and maintenance support to Iraq at a time when the Baghdad government is struggling internally with a resurgent al-Qaida movement, while weighing external responses to the continuing Kurdish independence movement in the north, the Syrian civil war to the west, and the potential of a nuclear Iran along its eastern border.
Since July 25, the Pentagon has notified Congress of more than $4 billion worth of Foreign Military Sales to Iraq that includes everything from infantry carriers to ground-to-air rockets. And while these equipping, logistics, and maintenance deals are hardly small change, one US Army officer has recently said that dozens of deals worth billions of dollars more are in the pipeline.
When taken as a whole, analysts say that the sales can be seen as a hedge against a variety of threats both internal and external, the most pressing of which remains the recent series of al-Qaida in Iraq-sponsored bomb attacks against Shia targets in Baghdad which have killed hundreds of Iraqis.
“Iraq is moving back to a primary state of civil war, and its internal focus is coming back to counterinsurgency and counterterrorism” said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The recent announcement of a potential sale of air defense systems may be useful against a potential outside threat he said, but “the real world problems in Iraq are very much dominated by internal stability.”
That said, on Aug. 5, the Pentagon notified Congress of a $2.4 billion air defense deal for 681 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and 40 truck-mounted launchers, Sentinel radars, and three Hawk anti-aircraft batteries with 216 Hawk missiles.
These systems “will provide Iraq with the ability to contribute to regional air defenses and reduce its vulnerability to air attacks and also enhance interoperability between the government of Iraq, the US, and other allies,” the Pentagon wrote in its filing to Congress.
These new purchases may point to the fact that the Iraqi army has “started transitioning from more of an internal role to more external defense, even if that’s always been a difficult balance for the Iraqis to strike,” said Nora Bensahel, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
The sale of the radar and missile systems are just one part of a larger US strategy sales in the region which includes sales to the United Arab Emirates of a sophisticated AN/TPY-2 radar, and a deal in November 2012 with Qatar for two Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) fire units, 12 launchers and 150 interceptors for $6.5 billion.
Around the same time, the UAE also agreed to purchase another $1.9 billion worth of THAAD missiles. Elsewhere in the region, the US inked contracts for Patriot missile systems with clients like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, and Qatar in a series of deals which can be seen as “a response to increasing demand from countries in the region who are looking at the potential of having a nuclear Iran as a neighbor,” Bensahel said.
Looking at the internal threats from al-Qaida and the restive Sunni minority who continue to bristle under the Shia-led government of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad, on July 25 the DoD sent a another letter to Capitol Hill outlining more potential deals with the Iraq totaling $1.9 billion.
The deals included 50 Stryker infantry carriers, 12 helicopters, and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of maintenance and logistical support for Iraq’s thousands of American-made military vehicles that have been languishing under the breakdown of the Iraqi logistics system in the wake of the December 2011 American withdrawal.
While the sale of 50 General Dynamics-made nuclear, biological and chemical Stryker reconnaissance vehicles worth about $900 million may have raised the most eyebrows, a source with knowledge of the negotiations between American and Iraqi military officials said that the real concern for both parties was the $750 million, five-year logistics contract that would cover the maintenance on thousands of American-made vehicles. The vehicles include BAE Systems’ M88A1 recovery vehicle, the M88A2 Hercules, M113 infantry carrier, Howitzers, and AM General-produced Humvees.
American frustration with the disinterest Iraqis have shown toward maintaining their equipment was on full display in an April 2013 report from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, which included a frank interview with the commander of the Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq, Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen.
As the top American military official on the ground at the US Embassy in Baghdad who works with the Iraqi military on a daily basis, Caslen reported that when touring Iraq’s main American-built military supply warehouse earlier this year he found thousands of spare parts for the country’s ground vehicle fleet literally gathering dust on the shelves because the Iraqis lacked the ability — or the desire — to get the parts to units that needed them.
“When we left, it all crumbled, and the institutional base of the Iraqi Security Forces started crumbling too — because the U.S. forces had been holding it up,” he said. “Iraq didn’t have the resources to sustain what we left.”
The hope is the new $750 deal for maintenance support will begin to fill in some those widening gaps, since Caslen also said that “Iraq has a desire to hire somebody to do the maintenance rather than doing unit maintenance themselves.”
There are still well more than $10 billion worth of FMS deals in the works, he added, and his office “continues to push the total-package approach,” which means equipment plus maintenance and logistics support tied in.
“Arms transfers of this kind build ties between the US and Iraq and give Iraq choices in creating a deterrent, so they’re useful measures,” Cordesman said. “But that doesn’t mean they can reshape what is a relatively weak force.”
Still he said, the Strykers mean that the Iraqi army will now have “an armored vehicle that can move through Iraq’s mixed terrain” at high speeds, and “336 main battle tanks is not a negligible force. They do have a vast pool of artillery but much of its towed.”
The critical weakness of the Iraqi force however is that “you don’t have an effective mixture of anti-air weaponry, and the [36 F-16s Iraq has ordered over the past two years] is going to take time to mature as a capable force.”
CNAS’ Bensahel sees the latest deals for helicopters and infantry carriers as being able to fulfill a variety of roles. “The kinds of capabilities they are getting are in many ways internally focused as well. These are things that can carry infantry, and the helicopters are likely to be internally focused as opposed to external.”