The United States government has suspended weapon deliveries to Iraq following growing concerns about the ultimate fate of such exports. This comes after continued tensions since the assassination of Iranian command Qassem Soleimani in the country in early January.
Particularly vulnerable is Iraq’s fleet of F-16s. The current pause impacts the country’s ability to find spare parts and to maintain their aircraft.
A few weeks ago, some U.S. contractors had been withdrawn from Iraq as a result of the deteriorating security situation, with the evacuation completed by January 8th. According to Defense Department spokesperson Maj. Rob Lodewick, “due to concerns about the safety and security of their personnel supporting Iraqi F-16 operations at Balad Air Base, Iraq, Lockheed-Martin initiated an evacuation of their personnel on 4 January 2020.”
There is some concern that the continued presence of Iranian-linked militias in the country could result in a technology transfer to Tehran. Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, a Shi’a paramilitary group that is now part of the state-aligned Popular Mobilization Units, is known to operate in the areas around Balad. With no U.S. personnel there, there is no way for the Pentagon to verify what level of information-gathering has taken place.
However, there is no evidence to suggest that such things have occurred as of yet.
At the same time, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters that he is seeking to place Patriot Missiles in Iraq in order to counteract any future Iranian strikes. With the Iraqi parliament having now voted to expel all U.S. forces, Esper has taken on a decidedly more diplomatic tone, stressing that “We need the permission of the Iraqis.”
The withdrawal of contractors poses the threat of seriously degrading Iraq’s operational capabilities. The more severe the issue of unsustainability becomes, with the F-16s possibly becoming a liability, the more likely it is that Iraq may turn elsewhere for new aircraft.
Simultaneously, Iraq is once more looking into the possibility of purchasing Russian-made long-range air defense missiles. Iraqi Member of Parliament Karim Elaiwi, who sits on the security and defense committee, recently told the Wall Street Journal that “we need to get these missiles, especially after Americans have disappointed us many times by not helping us in getting proper weapons.”
If a purchase is in fact made, it would most likely be for the S-300 missiles, which were introduced into service in the late 1970s. Russia does not seek to risk their relationships with both the United States and Israel, with the latter having successfully penetrated the S-300 defenses in Syria.
However, Iraq could be subject to the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, a U.S. law that seeks to penalize countries that carry out large-scale arms purchases from countries like Russia.
Despite this, Iraq has purchased dozens of Russian T-90 tanks and increasingly been replacing American M1 Abrams.