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Thoughts on ISF Development and Iraq’s Ability to Defend Itself


ISF Brigade OOB as of 31 December 2010.  At this point, most are just speed bumps to a conventional invasion.


This is a pure opinion piece – a rant.  Most of the times I write about what I think the Iraqi Security Forces are doing or report on what they are actually doing.  Some readers think that I agree with what is being done to develop those forces.  Not true.  I think that they are making some very dangerous errors.


Politics – the Ruling Politicians are in Fantasyland


When I outlined my top 5 procurement priorities if I were the Iraqi Minister of Defense in an e-mail, one of my regulars replied:  “Actually DJ your top priority should be the agreement to keep US forces in Iraq after 2011. All the items below are secondary.”  He was quite correct.


However, both the current US and Iraqi administrations apparently do not want to listen to realistic appraisals of the ability of the ISF to defend Iraq in 2012.  The ISF is a good counter-insurgency force but, it is incapable of defending Iraq against a conventional invasion. The ISF was never planned to be ready for external defense in 2012 – that capability was planned for 2020.  Both US and Iraqi politicians chose the 2012 withdraw date without regard to military advice.


The ISF in 2012 will be capable as a counter-insurgency force but, would be a speed-bump to any conventional invasion by any of its neighbors.  I could see a late 2012 Iranian invasion as things stand.  Without the US air defense and armor presence, the IA is dead in less than 2 weeks against Iran.  And the US cannot react fast enough to prevent the fall of Iraq if we are not already there – especially given the political delays.  Iraq needs the US air cover and tripwire forces guaranteeing Iraq for another decade.


Even with every weapon reported on order - delivered tomorrow instead of over the next 4 years - the IA fighting on its own would lose any fight it got into.  Against an Iranian conventional invasion, the ISF would be driven back to the Shatt-al-Arab/Tigris/Diyala river line in the first 48 hours.  The fall of Basrah and Baghdad would occur 5-7 days after the start of the invasion.  Iranian forces would the Euphrates river line south of Baghdad at 1 week with most of the ISF destroyed.


Also, I could see the Turks being given the green-light to occupy the Kurdish region by the Iranians - "To protect the Turkic minority".  While Syria gets Anbar.  There would be a COIN fight for the invaders after that but; insurgents have historically only won when the enemy loses its will or if they have a conventional Army to assist them... 


These are optimistic estimates - it would probably be faster.  The ISF is like the South Korean Forces in June 1950: Without the necissary weapons to be more than a speed bump.  Without the terrain and geographic advantages that Korea had – there will be no Pusan Perimeter.


My priorities for rearming Iraq are not all inclusive – they are just the top 5 weaknesses.  Iraq will still need 10 years to effectively field them.  Maybe longer if the budget isn’t there.  The following priorities are not their only needs – just the 5 most urgent.  [Note:  I would not cancel the existing orders/options – this is just what the follow on focus should be IMO.]


Priority 1 – Real Air Defense


It does not matter how bad the enemy's Air Force is if you have nothing to counter it.  Iraq has no air defense and will not start to field an effective air defense prior to 2018-2020.  That is not just my opinion – it is the stated plan.  In 2012, Iraq will not have a single operational fighter squadron.  Fighters are expensive and the training pipeline for effective combat pilots is 2-3 years after receipt of aircraft to train on.  At least 100 operational fighters are needed with 200 total fighters being optimal given the potential threats.  Iraq also needs a squadron of airborne radar aircraft to provide low-altitude and gap-filler coverage.  These aircraft do not need to be top of the line – they just need to be better than the most likely threats – Iran/Syria.


Iraq is currently negotiating for 18 used French Mirage 2000s and 6 US F16 plus is reported to be considering 24 Chinese J17s.  The Mirages and F16s are a start but, the J17 suffers from the same problem all Russian/Chinese aircraft have.  Russian engines only last half as long as western jet engines and Chinese engines are either Russian or based on Russian.  Put that together with the engine overhaul facilities being in Russia or China, with the exorbitant prices and delays in spares/overhauls, means half would be grounded at any given time.  Spares and engine overhauls are where the Russians and Chinese make their profit.


Currently the US provides Iraq’s air defense and there has been no reported agreement to keep that air cover beyond 2011.  If I were the Iraqi Government, I would have already commenced negotiations for 8-10 USAF or NATO Fighter Squadrons [with AWACS support] to remain until the Iraqi Air Force can replace them with OPERATIONAL squadrons.  I would put 50 percent of the equipment procurement budget towards this problem until they have 200 fighters with sufficient spares and munitions to be operational.


Priority 2 – Field Artillery: and I am not talking mortars.


At this point the Iraqi Army could be destroyed by stand-off howitzers since they have nothing to counter-battery enemy howitzers.  Considering that their most likely enemy is an infantry heavy force - they need this firepower to offset the greater Iranian troop numbers as well. This means they need more howitzers than Iran has.


Each division needs a minimum of 72 howitzers, preferably 155mm.  Not just the IA requires these.  All division planned to be used in frontal roles in a total mobilization require these.  That means that the IA will need to stand up separate Field Artillery Regiments to augment the Federal Police, Border Enforcement, and Kurdish Divisions in wartime or that the Ministry of Interior/KRG will need to buy their own modern artillery.  About 3,000 howitzers and/or long-range [accurate] multiple rocket launchers are needed.


The only howitzers in the current Iraqi inventory are salvaged pre-war and are of questionable functionality.  They have not been reported firing since they started showing up 2 years ago.  They are probably worn-out training dummies. The US is providing 120 towed and 24 self-propelled 155mm howitzers in 2011 – enough for 2 divisions.


NATO standard 155mm howitzers are common and Iraq needs 3,000 of them and their ammo.  About 20 percent of them should be self-propelled.  I would put 20 percent of the equipment procurement budget towards this problem until they have 2,000 howitzers with sufficient spares and munitions to be operational.  After that I would reduce to 10 percent until the remaining 1,000 howitzers and/or Multiple Rocket Launchers are bought and use the remaining 10 percent for other needs.  The US does not have to be the only source, some of the best are made in South Africa. 


Priority 3 – Anti-Tank Guided Weapons


At this point the only element of the ISF capable of defeating enemy tanks is 9th Division and that limited amount of armor cannot be everywhere at once.  Company-sized armor spearheads could punch thru the IA Infantry Brigades as the IA is currently armed.  The only capability Iraqi infantry have to deal with enemy armor is short-ranged RPGs.  The only ATGWs currently on order are the Barrier ATGWs for the 350 combat versions of the BTR4 on order and they only carry 2-4 missiles each.  Why the Iraqis have not ordered larger orders of the relatively cheap ATGWs for their infantry heavy force is baffling.


Providing 100-200 ATGWs of TOW II level or better per infantry Battalion would force Iran to concentrate its armor into Brigade or larger sized formations to break-thru. This is 350,000-500,000 missiles including MoI Battalions with secondary external security roles.


This reduces the number of potential axis’s of attack.  Only 7 of the 48 Iranian Divisions are heavy.  Combined with the need to concentrate at least 2 heavy Divisions opposite any IA heavy Division, the missiles in the infantry forces would reduce the number of potential armor attack points by an order of magnitude.  By mounting them on vehicles – even pickups, they could be shifted within the Division to concentrate fire as needed.


I would put 10 percent of the equipment procurement budget towards this problem until filled.  I would provide each non-tank equipped battalion with 25 launchers and 100-200 missiles.  Using existing vehicles – even pickups – they would provide each of the battalion’s heavy weapons companies with the ability to stop armored Battalions and even possibly Brigades from breaking through and seriously complicate enemy planning.  At this time only the tank and BTR4 equipped(ing) Battalions have any realistic anti-tank capability – the rest are just grease for tank treads.


Priority 4 – TANKS


The only place that the IA has a concentrated armor capability is Baghdad.  And that is a slowly converting Armor Division.  With the exception of terrain limitations, the rest of Iraq is wide open to armor attack.  Iraq needs a mobile counter-attack force to make the opposition have to further concentrate their armor.


Once the 9th Division is up to full strength, a 3-heavy Iranian Division force would be needed to strike at Baghdad.  But south of Baghdad there is nothing but terrain to slow the Iranian armor down.  If 7th Division does fully mechanize and deploys to Basrah then the Iranians would need 2-heavy Divisions to strike for Basrah.  Those 2 IA Divisions are the only heavy forces potentially available to Iraq and Iran has 7 heavy Divisions.  This does not include potential Syrian participation – with the Israeli front pining most Syrian forces – Syria could invade Iraq as an Iranian ally with a maximum of 4 heavy Divisions.


Once the IA has 5 heavy Divisions or more [1,000 tanks], the Iranian armor options start to shrink rapidly.  But that will not be anytime soon.  I would put 10 percent of the equipment procurement budget towards these Tanks until 4 Armored Divisions are upgraded and use existing/delivering Armored Personnel Carriers for the infantry component.  Then I would shift the funds to mixed Tanks/APCs and convert the 6 Mechanized Divisions.  About 2,400 Tanks for the 10 heavy Divisions are needed.


I would not buy all M1A1 tanks as the IA is doing now.  I would buy large numbers of cheaper used operational T72s as-is or M60s up-gunned to 120mm NATO smoothbore guns.  After getting the numbers, I would then modernize the older tanks.  [“Perfection is the enemy of good enough.”]


Priority 5 - Attack Helicopters


Existing orders/options for 50 SA342s, 50 EC635s, and 50 Bell 407s provide adequate Scout/Utility helicopter forces.  Iraq needs to follow this up with a buy of 4 squadrons of real dedicated Attack Helicopters [100] to provide the anti-tank/anti-infantry mobile quick reaction force for any enemy break-thru.


I would put 10 percent of the equipment procurement budget towards these.  As expensive as these are - they will not have enough to deal with more than 1 major break-thru at a time.  Aircraft are grounded by weather that does not significantly affect ground forces which is a potential limit on their usefulness.  This is why they are 5th in priority and the infantry's ATGWs are 3rd.  If there are limited funds, the ATGWs come first.  Once these are bought, then I would shift to expand the transport helicopter force to expand the number of infantry air-assault forces.




Without the weapons and training on using those weapons, it does not matter how good your troops are.  It is like using lance armed horse cavalry against panzers in early World War II – an ineffective waste of good troops.  Iraqi Forces are missing or grossly under-equipped in several key areas.  Even Kuwait - the smallest country bordering Iraq - will outgun the ISF in all five of these key capabilities in 2012.  Iraq will not be able to effectively defend itself until 2020 against its most likely enemies – that was always the plan.


Related Link:  ISF Order of Battle


the withdrawal date is getting closer with no solution in sight. Even a US Airforce "overwatch" programme from Kuwait/Saudi would be insufficient as Iraq's ground forces can be rolled back very easily by Iran. There's no other way than keeping US ground forces in Iraq until at least 2016, followed by USAF until 2025 IMHO.

sheytanelkebir (01/16/2011 07:33:44)


I say ,, I dont know what to say !

Almaleki (01/16/2011 08:37:54)


sheytanelkebir: You are being practical - not political. Unfortunately the political makes the decisions./// Almaleki: I have rendered you speachless?!?

DJ Elliott (01/16/2011 09:01:29)


Good tactical analysis. I don't think Iran would bother with an invasion; they've got Mr. Moktada Sadr as a proxy for their politcal interests, an invasion would buy a Sunni insurgency headache (one we would be only too glad to equip) and any gains from the oil fields would be countered by oil embargoes/blockades. Now Turkey is a different matter...

Steffenleonum (01/16/2011 10:07:47)


HI DJ Good article as always but I think the numbers you’re talking about are too big, let’s be realistic Iraq Is not going to spend that much; to buy 2400 tanks or 1000 artillery pieces. Now some of you might say why not? Let’s look back five years DJ when did you ever see the GOI spend that much, the deal in 2008 was spread over 2009 ,2010, 2011, The same amount the UAE or Saudi spends it in less than one year on their military procurement. And still in Iraq people were upset; they said the government should have spent it on services. How much do you think Iraq is going to have for procurement for the next 10 years at best 30 Billion (even less by Mohamed al-askari); A 100 good fighters would eat have of that in aircraft, support, munitions, training and other expenses. There isn’t that sense of urgency, because Iraq can’t match what Iran is spending In GDP Numbers, Syria won’t attack for Iran nor anyone else their army is to keep basher in power. Turkey is a lost fight for Iraq economically before military. So you have to have good relations with everyone and hope for the best.

Jack Winters (01/16/2011 10:38:09)


Jack winters. Iraq COULD equip that if they followed this plan.

sheytanelkebir (01/16/2011 11:40:11)


Jack: The aircraft are expensive - true. Which is why I expect them to be spread out over 2 decades with only 100 by 2020. Ditto for the tanks - which is why they should be buying used and again I expect that to be spread out over 2 decades as is. The ATGW and howitzers are not so expensive and could be fielded by 2020. //// Sheytan: Focus, Focus, Focus. First the top 5. As those essentials are completed then you shift money to the other not-as-essential toys. As is, the list provided there slows development by spreading the available spending over too many items and leaves you weak. Plus Chinese aircraft would cost more in the longrun because they do not export the overhaul capabilities. That is how they make their profits... //// [PS Why do people insist in mis-spelling my last name with the English-version? My dad would be greatly insulted by that since he was Irish. It is ELLIOTT.]

DJ Elliott (01/16/2011 09:09:03) BTR4 update

DJ Elliott (01/17/2011 01:21:57)


Ukraine tried to deliver An32s with used engines and avionics. Apparently they did the same with the BTR4s...

DJ Elliott (01/17/2011 01:41:06)


DJ that was a very well thought out rant, but I must rant a little myself on something you touched upon, and that is JF-17!?! Are they seriously considering that now after all the talk about F-16's? Seriously what is it with these single engine multirole types? I mean don't get me wrong it is an adequately modern fighter and is fairly cheap but between the ongoing issues with the Chinese copied RD-93 or whatever is in that thing now and the non-compatible avionics and the fact that the PLAAF does not fully believe in that aircraft (They want the J-10) it just doesn't make sense for Iraq to buy Chinese. As for the PAC built version, that's a different story altogether but the bottom line there is that Pakistan cannot churn those out at a high enough rate to supply both its foreign (if any) and domestic orders to which I think there is something like 1 fully operational squadron of them in the PAF. Its more money and time, especially time that the IqAF doesn't have. I said it once and I'll say it again, T-50 is the way to go for them. Yeah its a premium aircraft but its capabilities give them actual parity against Syrian MiG-21s (23s?) and Iranian F-5s/ FrankenTigers. Ok I think I'm done. Forgive me but I just tend to get worked up whenever I start talking about defense analysis and military procurement. (Don't even get me started on this country haha!)

Trophy Wench (01/18/2011 08:25:38)


TW: I had a hard time believing it myself. I would have expected that they would have learned from their previous experience about the downsides of using Russian/Chinese aircraft. But, I have 2 different sources saying this - 1 from Iraq and 1 with contacts in China...

DJ Elliott (01/19/2011 09:34:55)


One of the sources did say IMoD was getting desperate for fighters. //// Note: Russian T50 is not ready for production and suffers from the same engine/spare issues - it is not a viable option...

DJ Elliott (01/19/2011 09:39:33)


HI DJ I don’t know where you guys got the idea that Iraq is going to buy Chinese, that isn’t going to happen simply because Iraq doesn’t have a new DM yet the prime minister is taking this role therefore no decision will be made before that. The new DM will set the new tone for procurement.

Jack Winters (01/19/2011 02:58:19)


HI DJ Since every body is ranting, I would like to show; what I would do. buy british surplus, why you would ask? read this article and I will garentee you every one will agree with me.

Jack Winters (01/19/2011 03:58:30)


Slightly inaccurate. The PM is acting DM. The absense of a Defense Minister has not stopped any other procurement decisions like the authorization to buy 18 Mirage 2000s and 6 F16s. Why should it stop this? /// The word I got was there is a negotiating team in China. Also they are looking at L15 trainers to go with them.

DJ Elliott (01/19/2011 04:17:12)


I don't think the UK will offer any special deals. Challengers are not cheap. On the other side of the coin, there would be no wait for production and 350 Challengers is enough for the tank component of 2 mech divs. [10 Tank Rgts]

DJ Elliott (01/19/2011 05:29:37)


Sorry, DJ I meant the Korean Aerospace T-50 advanced trainer/ light fighter not the Sukohi one. But anyway L-15's now too? Wow they are desperate if they think that that's a better choice than the M-346 it takes after (well Yak-130 but I don't want to digress.) DJ, could you share with us the sources for the Chinese contacts? I would really be interested to see what the IMoD thinks they can get from China. As for the Chally's, its just a redundant system at this point if the orders are being put in and timely deliveries for new..err re manufactured M1A1's there isn't much point other than sheer numbers and as you stated earlier, Russian tanks can fill gaps much more cheaply.

Trophy Wench (01/19/2011 06:48:25)


TW: My read is it is about delivery time and minimum capabilities. They want some Fighters with Iraqi markings flying AD in 2012 - if for no other reason than politics. None of their current options deliver fast enough. Iraqi politicians thought we would break the agreement and insist on staying - they never really believed we would leave. Reality is setting in ATT and they are getting desperate. //// Depends on the price for the Challengers - They speed up the fielding of tanks. Note: The M1A1s are new build - not remanufactured. Which is why it took 18 months for the first ones to deliver after the contract was signed and why only 140 will be delivered by fall. The US is still having new M1A3s built for our own use, as well as upgrading A1s to A2/A3 - there are no spares to remanufacture...

DJ Elliott (01/19/2011 07:11:48)


I suspect the UK armor will end up going to a NATO country upgrade. E.G. Poland is trying to replace its T72s. Which might make some older tanks available sooner...

DJ Elliott (01/19/2011 08:15:08)


Really? I never knew that about the M1's, I always thought they were from existing stock but I guess that would mean we have no existing stock correct? Getting back to the fighters this again raises my point about using T-50's or T-50 like aircaft (the possible sale of the ALCA's are an excellent alternative) to not only train up pilots in the pipeline now but also to quickly field fighters that, although not a world beater by any stretch, is still capable as I said earlier of achieving parity among their potential adversaries second tier fighter fleet(s). Now granted, all this would still end up taking the same amount of time that they are going to spend buying all those F-16's but at least they can streamline the training syllabus to allow them to field fighters similar to the training aircraft they already use, making it a lateral move of sorts. Now with all that being said for all we know the L-15 could be a superb trainer/ attack aircraft as its performance is somewhat similar to the T-50 but so is it's twice removed Italian cousin, the M-346 which, being a western aircraft is already compatible with the fighters they are already going to be getting... at some point.. in the future.. soon. (As for the L-159 ALCA, it may not be supersonic but its still a damn good little attack plane and advanced trainer.)

Trophy Wench (01/20/2011 12:12:10)


The problem with remanufacture for export is that domestic M1s have a DU layer in the composit armor. It is illegal to export DU. All export versions are built without the DU - about 2" of steel armor equivalent less than US M1s. //// Parrallel buys of simular aircraft would accellerate the fielding while minimizing training/spare issues since the T-50, T/A-50, and F/A-50 versions share cockpit design and parts with the F16. Apparently there is an issue with delivery. Remember that Iraq is not the only potential/actual purchaser and ROKAF has priority. ROKAF is replacing its trainers and F5s...

DJ Elliott (01/20/2011 02:51:38)


HI DJ you're making news these days, so the air force has real problem what's the fix?

Jack Winters (01/20/2011 05:21:19)


Hi DJ The BTR-4 saga continues.....

Jack Winters (01/20/2011 05:52:07)


Apparently, somebody there is reading me. Since I never said that verbally...

DJ Elliott (01/21/2011 04:03:30)


Good piece, DJ! I think that in the end, the Iraqi Gov't will ask for U.S. presence beyond this year, though, being an amateur psychologist, I think that they first need to demonstrate their "stupid pride". However as new year closes in, I think the age-old 'Iranian fright' will take precedence over every other consideration.

Joakim Ekstrom (01/21/2011 04:19:34)


1 problem: If they wait to the last minute - they are likely to be told no. The US will be entering the hard-core political silly season and Obama's support includes the anti-war crowd. He needs the time to spin this and if GoI doesn't provide that - he is likely to throw them under the bus...

DJ Elliott (01/21/2011 07:52:32)


HI DJ look Iraq is my country as is the US. so I can give you some idea of what is going on and all the Iraqis know this;It's pure Iraqi politics ,Al-Maliki was loosing support in his own ranks, so he gave his word to the Sader group if they back him he will make sure the US is out of IRAQ. Regardless if you like or don't like the Sader movement in Iraq they are consistent in wanting the US out. So believe me when I tell you no US army in Iraq, but good morning US embassy military assistance teams they will be in the hundreds not thousands.

Jack Winters (01/21/2011 03:06:35)


Already figured that. Problem is that it leaves Iraq wide open to Iran. No air cover and limited artillery, armor, and anti-armor. Which is what Sadr/Iran want. /// I am still watching NATO's NTM-I and the possibility of air cover under NATO vice US cover. NTM-I is staying after 2012...

DJ Elliott (01/21/2011 05:44:51)


RE: Howitzers... Iraq's best self-propelled 155mm howitzer option is probably South Korea's K-9 Thunder. Inexpensive, good quality, has been sold to its neighbors in Turkey so there's regional MRO options. If they want a lighter wheeled option, there's BAE's Archer or France's Ceasar, but it may not be a lot cheaper. For towed guns, there's all kinds of options. If it was me, though, I'd take a less conventional approach. I'd keep the Soviet calibers for artillery, buy Chinese towed tubes, and contract for wheeled Dana/Zusannas from the Czechs. The Poles are also looking to dispose of almost 2,000 D30s, and if even half are still good, that would be a fast way to make progress.

Joe Katzman, (01/24/2011 12:42:11)


I could see D30s for the brigade FA Bns. About a third of the needed howitzers/MRLs. For Div FA Rgts they need longer ranged weapons. //// Say D30s for Bde FA plus a mix of 155mm Howitzers and long-range MRLs for DivArt.

DJ Elliott (01/24/2011 06:51:59)

DJ Elliott