Middle Eastern armed forces need practical kit and service from Middle Eastern industry.
As Congressman Mack Thornberry pointed out with a letter in the Washington Post earlier this month, hashtags and placards don’t kill terrorists. People with guns and aircraft do. But what kind of guns and aircraft are best for fighting them is another matter—and who delivers them can matter as well.
It’s not just that the Iraqi armed forces lack the institutional capacity to manage complicated armaments. It’s that they needn’t bother. Showy parades aside, Al-Baghdadi’s armaments consist almost entirely of Kalashnikovs, rocket grenades, mortars, and land mines, all mostly carried in pickup trucks. Baghdad’s troops need weapons for countering, and then rolling over, that junior varsity squad, but without a heavy burden of maintenance. That means MRAPs and flying artillery, not 70-ton tanks and fighter jets.
That’s why the Emiratis are now sending the Iraqis A-29s, just like the Afghans are getting from the Americans. Despite General Post’s rantings last week, it’s clear that someone is not getting the no-low-and-slow memo. ISIS, though, seems to be on the receiving end of that ground attack concept. It’s remarkable how the well-regarded UAE Air Force can get the A-29, and send it to Iraq, but the US Air Force can only buy it for the Afghans. Then again, it was remarkable that the US Army could send a thousand MRAPs to the Iraqis in 2006, but could not make its own purchases of that size until ordered the following year by Defense Secretary Gates.
Whether in Iraq or the US, the misplaced attention is a demand-driven problem. Plenty of military people prefer preparing for prestigious missions, even at the expense of fighting the wars they have at hand. If Lockheed hadn’t been allowed to offer its Fighting Falcons, Dassault would have been showing its Mirage and Rafale brochures the next week. Any of these would be wholly inappropriate for any country whose security problems are mostly internal, and whose current existential conflict is an irregular war.
So why the sudden change? Today, with oil at $50 per barrel, and plenty of production overrun by ISIS, the Iraqi government has little money. The Afghan government has absolutely no money, and is thus completely dependent on American donations. And after the C-27 scandal, Kabul will only get what Washington thinks Kabul can handle. Besides, there are several countries around the fighting with heavily-equipped, professional armies and top-notch, jet-driving air forces—most notably the Kingdom of Jordan and the Emirates. With those backstops, Iraqi contributions to the fight against the barbarians needn’t consist of the same. It’s very smart, then, that the Emirati government is donating those aircraft.
This also points to a possible supply-side solution to that demand-driven problem. In the half-century or so since independence, Middle Eastern countries have been almost entirely dependent on imports for their armaments and aircraft. It’s useful to remember that those A-29s, like the now-ubiquitous ERJs, came from Brazil’s Embraer, which has began the march of its now-global brand by building aircraft for middle-income countries or mid-range needs. The emerging Middle Eastern armaments and aerospace industries may similarly find a valuable and important role in developing and servicing the equipment most suitable for regional needs. They may find ready markets with robust, locally-maintainable gear, both from proximity and cultural affinity in the sales process. That’s not being Boeing from a standing start, but it’s a step up the ladder, and a realistic and useful goal.
James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.