Helicopter Crashes In Iraqi Kurdistan Reminder That Peshmerga Lacks Basic Airpower
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The recent crashes of two helicopters in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Duhok province as they flew Syrian Kurdish-led fighters to the autonomous region’s eastern Sulaimani province in mid-March raised many questions. Aside from highlighting political divisions in Iraqi Kurdistan, the crashes were a reminder that Iraqi Kurdistan’s armed forces, the Peshmerga, lack the most basic airpower despite the U.S.-allied autonomous region facing various challenges and threats to its security.
“The main problem is how [the Kurds] use their oil. Within ten years, the Kurds will have an army and air force, same as the Israel model, and they will request some of the territorial parts from Turkey,” predicted former Turkish air force officer Mesut Hakki Casin back in 2005.
That alarmist prediction did not, of course, prove accurate, far from it. Iraqi Kurdistan proved incapable of acquiring fighter jets. As an autonomous region within Iraq, it cannot independently import such advanced military hardware. Erbil does not possess even attack helicopters to this day. The best it can muster for air support and medevacs for the Peshmerga are small utility helicopters, which are unarmored. In 2017, Peshmerga Chief of Staff Jabar Yawar admitted that the Kurdish forces needed helicopters.
While Iraqi Kurdistan did not acquire airpower, it has faced various aerial threats in recent years.
A decade ago, Iraqi Kurdistan lobbied the United States not to sell F-16 fighter jets to Iraq. At that time, the Kurds credibly feared that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would feel confident enough to move militarily against their landlocked region if he obtained those jets.
During the 2010s, the Iraqi military made significant headway in rebuilding its airpower, which had been completely destroyed by 2003. After Maliki stepped down, it received 36 F-16s. Iraq also bought a fleet of Mi-28 and Mi-35 attack helicopters from Russia.
Even though the Peshmerga played a significant role in the war against ISIS, losing 1,700 troops in the process, it was not provided with such airpower. However, the U.S. deployed AH-64 Apache helicopters at Erbil International Airport (EIA) and provided essential air support to the Peshmerga throughout that war.
Since October 2020, the region has endured several intermittent rocket and drone attacks by Iran-backed Iraqi Shiite militias, often targeting the U.S. troop base at EIA.
On Mar. 13, 2022, Iran directly attacked a residential house in Erbil with 12 ballistic missiles. In the immediate aftermath of that unprecedented attack, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said that Washington was consulting with the Iraqi and Kurdish governments about getting them missile defense capabilities. What he was referring to was unclear at the time, and a year later, there is no indication that the U.S. has supplied or even discussed supplying Iraqi Kurdistan with its own air defenses.
Iraqi Kurdistan lacks even rudimentary air defenses. The United States briefly deployed MIM-104 Patriot air defense missile systems to EIA after Iran infamously targeted U.S. troops in Iraq with ballistic missiles in January 2020, a few days after the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. It has also deployed Counter-Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar (C-RAM) systems to defend against those smaller recurring rocket and drone attacks. However, no systems have been provided to the Kurds for the general defense of their region against such threats.
There are some potential solutions could address Iraqi Kurdistan’s glaring lack of military helicopters and air defenses.
Iraq is presently facing difficulties keeping its Mi-17 helicopters operational. The Iraqi military has long relied on its Mi-17 fleet to support ground forces against ISIS and carry out medevacs. But after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, it became difficult for Baghdad to maintain these helicopters since Moscow was sanctioned and faced severe supply chain issues. Consequently, Iraq will replace these essential helicopters with four U.S.-built Bell 412EPX and 16 Bell 412M helicopters.
A supply of similar utility helicopters to Iraqi Kurdistan would substantially improve the Peshmerga’s ability to provide logistical and medevac support to its troops. Also, supplying even a small number of light attack helicopters, such as the Boeing
Regarding air defenses, it’s inconceivable that the United States would supply Iraqi Kurdistan with anything like the Patriot. But providing some C-RAM systems could enable Erbil to defend itself against drones and rockets. The German Gepard self-propelled anti-aircraft gun, which has successfully downed a number of Iranian-built drones over Ukraine, could also provide Erbil with a cost-effective defense against the kind of drones used against it in recent years.
An Iraqi Kurdistan with a sizable helicopter fleet and short to medium-range air defenses wouldn’t pose any threat to its neighbors, not that Erbil intends to threaten its neighbors in the first place. However, gaining such capabilities could markedly improve the ability of the Iraqi Kurds to defend their region.