Three weeks before all U.S. troops are out of Iraq, the U.S. Air Force has just awarded – on behalf of Baghdad – an $835 million contract to Lockheed Martin for 18 F-16 jet fighters. Even before the deal was inked, Iraqi pilots have been busy training for the day they take delivery of the sleek, Fort Worth-built single-engine aircraft. About 4,500 have been built for two dozen air forces around the globe.
“There are 10 pilots in the United States now training as we speak,” Air Force Major Russ Handy said in September. It takes about two years to train an F-16 pilot, suggesting Iraq won’t have its own Vipers flying overhead until at least 2013. “English-language training, quite frankly, is sometimes the hardest thing in that first step before they enter the rest of the training pipeline,” Handy noted. Given the Iraqis’ reluctance to let U.S. forces stay in Iraq, can the F-16 deal happen without U.S. trainers and advisers in Iraq to help them through the process? “Absolutely,” Handy said. Apparently, having Iraqi military forces on U.S. soil doesn’t present the same problems as having U.S. military forces on Iraqi soil.