The Complex

U.S. Missiles and Drones Won’t Make Iraq Any Safer

The U.S. may be scrambling to send hellfire missiles, drones and other military gear to help Iraq's worsening security situation. But it may make only a minor impact there, experts and former officials say. And at the same time,  the arms shipment raises uncomfortable questions about the future U.S.-Iraq security relationship for an Obama administration still smarting from its failed efforts in 2011 to keep troops in country. 

The U.S. government confirmed Thursday that it had been rushing the military equipment into Iraq in an effort to help Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government's struggle against a tide of violence at the hands of al-Qaida that has killed more than 8,000 Iraqis this year -- the worst year of violence since 2008, according to U.N. figures. The Obama administration is selling to Iraq 75 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, and this spring is expected to sell the Iraqis about 10 Scan Eagle reconnaissance drones. Administration officials confirm that the Obama administration has also given Baghdad three sensor-laden Aerostat balloons -- the large, blimp-like sensors that were commonplace around large U.S. bases in Iraq during the heights of the war there. The U.S. government has also provided three additional reconnaissance helicopters to the Iraqi military and is expected to send 48 hand-held Raven reconnaissance drones by the end of next year, according to The New York Times, which first reported the story of the new lethal assistance to Iraq. The U.S. is also selling F-16 fighter jets to the Iraqis. 

With Syria, North Korea, Afghanistan and Arab Spring countries all dominating Washington's foreign policy apparatus in recent years, Iraq, for all the attention it demanded for so long, has been all but forgotten. Earlier this fall, Iraqis had pushed the U.S. to provide armed drones to them as the threat posed by al-Qaida became more and more lethal. But the U.S. said it was not interested in helping to start a drone war over Iraq again -- an effort that would require U.S. troops to man the unmanned aerial vehicles and to train Iraqis. Joseph Quinn, an instructor at West Point's Combating Terrorism Center, told Foreign Policy that the administration has no interest in getting back into Iraq after making a proud accomplishment of getting the U.S. out. "They might also be weary of what in the military we call ‘mission creep.' It starts with drones, but where does it end?" 

Then last month, Prime Minister Maliki visited Washington to ask for security assistance. The shipment of the Hellfire missiles and the agreement to sell the Iraqis more materiel appears to be the result of those conversations.

The Hellfire missiles and some of the other assistance will help, but not by much, said Jim Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq. "It will make a difference but the question is if it will make enough of a difference," Jeffrey, now a distinguished visiting fellow at the Washington Institute, told Foreign Policy. 

The Hellfire missiles will not be mounted on fast moving, adaptable drones but to the bottom of the Cessna-like fixed wing aircraft flown by the Iraqis. Those planes fly "slow-and-low," Jeffrey notes, and are easily outmaneuvered. "It's not a helicopter and it can't hover," he said.

Jeffrey said the Iraqis had learned to hit their targets when the U.S. was actively training the Iraqi Air Force, so there's some chance the missiles could have an impact. But the Iraqis, he said, "clearly need an attack helicopter."

Jeffrey, who served in Iraq between 2010 and 2012, said the U.S. could provide attack helicopters in short order and the Iraqis would be reasonably adept at learning how to fly them effectively. 

Experts agreed that news of the new lethal assistance to Iraq will raise the profile of the security issues the country faces, sending a signal to administration and to Congress about the need to take Iraq's security situation seriously. 

"It does open the door for more and I would encourage the administration to deploy everything in our power," Jeffrey said. It could help foster a debate about what the U.S. should do for Iraq over the long term after the failed negotiations to secure a security agreement with the Iraqis -- leaving the country with no significant American troop presence after one of the costliest wars in modern U.S. history and nearly 4,500 fatalities of American troops.

The White House was eager to frame Iraq as a checked box, a success story, and has taken pains to defend the fact that it failed to negotiate a security agreement with the Iraqi government in 2011 and removed all American troops from the country after one of the costliest wars in modern history. Indeed, at an event hosted by Foreign Policy and the State Department earlier this month, Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken dismissed the notion that there would have been any impact on security in Iraq had the U.S. been able to leave thousands of troops in the country.

"If we still had troops in Iraq today the numbers would have been very small, they would not have been engaged in combat, that would not have been their mission," Blinken told the audience. "So the idea that they could or would have done something about the violence that's going on now in Iraq seems to me to be detached from the reality of what the mission would have been had they stayed in any small number."

Veterans of the Iraq conflict have questioned Blinken's calculus. Gen. John Allen, who was credited with playing a significant role in luring Sunni sheiks back to Iraq from Jordan, thus creating what was called the Anbar Awakening that arguably led to higher security across Iraq for some years, believes even a residual force of American troops in Iraq would have prevented much of the violence. 

"We weren't there long enough to provide the top cover for the solution of many of the political difficulties that might have resolved itself had we had been there for a longer period of time," he told attendees of the Foreign Policy Initiative forum in October. "So consequently, as we departed, we have seen those tectonic plates begin to grind against each other and that has created instability and the body count is going up, the bloodletting is going up."

Other analysts were not that impressed by the arms sale to remedy Iraq's worsening security situation. . Kim Kagan, president of the Institute for the Study of War, a longtime advocate of an aggressive security policy in Iraq, said she thinks the administration is continuing to confuse materiel assistance for bona fide military cooperation.  "The U.S. does not seem to be imposing pressure on Prime Minister Maliki to refrain from using his security forces for political ends, such as suppressing the Sunni protest movements, the camps of which the [Iraq Security Forces] have surrounded over the past several days," she told Foreign Policy via e-mail.

"The U.S. has ignored Iraq almost completely since our forces withdrew two years ago," she said. "The United States has national interests in containing the rise of al Qaeda and sectarian conflict in Iraq and the region. It is time for serious engagement and serious policies to redress the deterioration of security in Iraq and the region that has followed that withdrawal."

Juan Cole, a Middle East analyst and professor at the University of Michigan, noted the irony that the U.S. is fighting Sunni militants in Iraq but is backing them in Syria.  

"The U.S. is supporting the Shiite government of Iraq, which supports Iran and Syria, against Sunni extremists. But it is backing Sunni rebels in Syria against the Alawite Shiite government in Damascus," he wrote on his blog. He noted that some of the Iraqi radicals' "new momentum" comes from money they have received from Gulf states like Kuwait to fund their Syrian operations. And Cole argues, President Obama should veto an effort aligned to formally arm the Syrian opposition because of the lessons of the past: weapons sold to Iraqi government troops can easily end up in the hands of insurgents in corrupt governments.

National Security

Air Force Warns: We Could Run Out of Pilots

The Air Force is flying into gale force winds as commercial airlines start a hiring spree while military aviators struggle with low morale due to cutbacks and idle jets. And the Air Force may see a shortage as pilots vote with their feet.

Over the next year, the commercial airline industry is going to begin hiring tens of thousands of new pilots as aging flyers retire and the industry regains its economic footing. That could put dark clouds in the way of the Air Force's wild blue yonder as it tries to persuade pilots to stay in a service even as top officials worry that pilots don't have enough yoke time.

"If pilots aren't flying in the Air Force because of our readiness issue, we worry that a number of them are going to say, 'I'm flying somewhere else,'" acting Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning told Foreign Policy in an interview this month. "If I'm looking at my jet parked on the ramp instead of flying it and I can get a job somewhere else flying, then I'm going to do that. So we are concerned that there is a sort of perfect storm approaching us in terms of flying retention."

Fanning said current retention rates are better than historical averages. But he fears there are a number of lagging indicators that don't tell the real story of how furloughs, the government shutdown, and lower readiness rates will affect the force over the next few years. The Air Force has publicly raised the alarm about its lower readiness rates because of sequestration and budget cutbacks. It may be using the threat of a pilot shortage to convince its budget overseers in Congress to ensure the service is properly funded. But no one disputes the factors at play are real.

Those factors start with the commercial aviation sector. There are three issues the industry is facing that could affect the Air Force in a significant way. The biggest one is the change to mandatory retirements for commercial airline pilots. In 2007, the FAA changed the mandatory retirement age for pilots from 60 to 65, keeping more seasoned pilots in the cockpits. But now thousands of those pilots are reaching retirement age and the airline industry, which is experiencing a comeback, will confront a shortage of experienced pilots across many airlines.

"That wave is just hitting," said one Air Force official.

The FAA also increased the minimum number of flying hours pilots must have after the crash in Buffalo, NY, in 2009 of a Colgan Air commuter flight that pointed out problems with more inexperienced pilots. There are additional crew rest regulations as well that require airlines to maintain more pilots on staff.

The numbers suggest the Air Force's fears are grounded in reality: Some worst case scenarios suggest the airline industry -- including international carriers -- could hire as many as 50,000 pilots over the next 10 years, and some estimates are even higher. If the industry aggressively targets pilots serving in the U.S. Air Force, the service could be in for some turbulence. The Airline Pilots Association, the primary trade group representing the interests of pilots and which is tracking the issue, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

It's a major concern for the Air Force, not only in the next year or so, but for the next several, said Dick Newton, executive vice president at the Air Force Association in Washington. "As the current demand for pilots grow from the U.S. airline industry so will Air Force pilots be compelled to leave the service for civilian cockpits," he said. "Coupled with the recent grounding of Air Force flying squadrons as a result of sequestration, many Air Force pilots aren't sure what the future is in store for them." Newton said as a result, many will seriously consider a civilian career which guarantees them flying time -- and in most cases a more stable lifestyle for their families without deployments and frequent moves that are a hallmark of the military lifestyle. The Air Force is perhaps uniquely vulnerable to the threats of such private sector hiring binges. None of the other armed services has so many individuals whose skills so easily and directly translate outside of military service. The Air Force is watching all of this very carefully. In July, top Air Force officials from the service as well as the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve met to discuss a variety of issues with industry leaders. But the hiring frenzy the airline industry is embarking on became a central discussion point as thousands of Guard and Reserve pilots are already working for the airline industry. Airline executives meeting with defense officials gave the Air Force a heads up: They would be having to hire thousands of pilots. Then this fall, the Air Force four-stars met for an Air Crew Summit at Andrews Air Force Base, MD, to discuss the potential pilot shortage.

"That's the level of attention this is getting," said one Air Force official.

It's the active-duty side of the Air Force that is in the private sector's crosshairs, since many commercial pilots are already serving in the Air Force's Reserve and Air Guard components. And it's as yet unclear just how many pilots the airline industry will hire. The forecast may not be dire yet. There is plenty of reason to worry, however. Thousands of pilots were furloughed in the wake of 9/11 and some may be asked back into service. Many have been grounded for years, while others may have found flying opportunities in the Guard and Reserve or in other jobs in the private sector. But only when the industry can determine what that "take rate" is will the Air Force begin to see how it should shape its own retention efforts.

The Air Force is already facing a pilot shortage in its combat air force, where the service has not been able to train as many pilots as it needs. The Air Force, Guard, and Reserve has a requirement for about 5,000 fighter pilots; there are about 4,400 -- a shortage of about 600. That shortage could change depending on the budget number the Air Force is given over the next year or two.

To retain pilots, the service offers a fairly standard maximum retention bonus of $25,000 per year for pilots in years in which there are shortages. The Air Force had asked for a five-year commitment in return. Now pilots can sign up for nine years for a maximum of $225,000. And to sweeten the deal, the Air Force last year began offering 50 percent of the bonus in a lump sum. Air Force officials say they think the retention bonus program may prevent an exodus of pilots but say they just don't know what the next few years will look like. During fiscal 2013, 132 fighter pilots out of 211 eligible took the pay -- a 63 percent average. Overall, the take rate for the retention pay for all pilots was about 68 percent. Those are healthy rates by most standards. But it's still anybody's guess what effect a commercial airline hiring frenzy will have on Air Force pilots already experiencing a lot of down time.

"Pilots like to fly, they like to yank and bank," said C.J. Ingram, a program analyst at the Air Force. "They're not getting the flying time, so that's not making them happy."

Tech. Sgt. Michelle Larche/DVIDS