by Karim Toure
The crash of a lone F-16 flying a night training mission over the Arizona desert Wednesday June 24th 2015 did not initially hint of a setback for a major security program between the US and Iraq. The following day, a Iraq Defence Ministry spokesperson Brigadier General Tahseen Ibrahim revealed that Iraqi Air Force Brigadier General Rafid Mohammed Hassan was at the control of an Iraqi Air Force-owned F-16 Fighting Falcon that had crashed the previous evening a few miles from the town of Douglas, Arizona. Confirmation of the death of Brigadier general Rafid Mohammed Hassan came on June 26th when after battling an intense fire ignited following the accident, rescue teams recovered his body from the crash site.
Iraq Air Force general demise over the Arizona desert
The tragic and highly published death of such high ranking Iraqi Air Force officer had occurred at the most unlikely of places and circumstance. News of the downed F-16 had almost immediately evoked the certainty that an American pilot was at the control of an Arizona Air National Guard 162 Fighter Wing own F-16, the large F-16 unit based 120 miles away in Tucson. In fact death of an Iraqi Air Force general piloting a fighter plane over desert terrain could only logically occur in Iraqi territory where it is most currently needed to carry out combat missions notably against ISIS.
Instead the high ranking pilot had been flying alone in what has been reported to be a brand new Iraqi-owned twin seat F-16D Block 52 factory #1601, the very same aircraft paraded as the IrAF own first-of-the-kind on June 5th 2014 at Lockheed Martin’s main facility in Fort Worth Texas. That aircraft had first flown on May 2nd 2014 according to F16.net database.
A unit awaiting being re-located to Balad Air Base, Iraq
Brigadier General Rafid Mohammed Hassan had belonged to an aerial outfit consisting of 8 brand new F-16 Block 52 aircraft delivered from June 2014 onwards. This was part of the 36 aircraft order made by Iraq to Lockheed Martin, a deliberate effort sanctioned by American defense administration planners to re-arm the nation air arm post Saddam Hussein regime. With the tense security situation prevailing in Iraq and the perceived vulnerability of Balad Air Base complex where the aircraft were due to be stationed, decision had been made to deliver the aircraft directly to the group of Iraq pilots in-training with the 162 Fighter Wing at Tucson International airport. Delivery scheduling probably saw the first three of the new fighter planes arrive at Tucson by December 2014, subsequent to which one aircraft was added every month from January 2015 to May 2015 bringing the outfit to a total of eight aircraft. Iraq’s Defence Ministry recently indicated that with the fight against ISIS raging, the unit was expected to re-locate to its Balad home base, Iraq on July 12th before immediately starting full combat operations.
Life in the US with the 162 Fighter Wing
At the time of his death, General Rafid Hassan had been living in the US taking part in the program for 4 years. The group of Iraqi pilots had increased in size initially from 2 to 16 in 2012 and 26 currently. The 162 Arizona Air National Guard Fighter Wing based in Tucson International Airport had long housed the International Training Program for F-16 client nations pilots. The unit has relied on a core of 80 F-16 instructor pilots to work with 70 international trainee pilots each year getting them familiarized with operating the sophisticated combat jet. As early as April 1992, the program began training F-16 fighter pilots for the Republic of Singapore, followed in 1993 by Bahrain, Portugal in 1994 and Thailand, Indonesia and Turkey in 1995. By 1996 Belgium also joined followed in 1997 by Jordan and Norway, Denmark in June 1998, and Japan in late 1998. Italy was added to the program in October 2000 and Greece joined in January 2001. The United Arab Emirates gained access to the program in August 2001. By 2004 Oman and Poland had also joined. Other nations such as Israel, Chile and Taiwan have also participated either receiving initial F-16 pilot training or gaining advanced F-16 handling experience on specific weapons or qualifying F-16 instructor pilots. A six-to-eight month basic course is normally dispensed until flight lead upgrade training thus paving the way for the famed instructor pilot certification.
At one point the base’s own 162nd Fighter Wing Resident unit has also served host to foreign units such as the 148th Fighter Squadron, a United Arab Emirates outfit equipped with 13 F-16E/F (Block 60) aircraft instituted from June 27th 2004 until October 20th 2010.
Uncertainty lingers for the Iraqi F-16
With the Iraqi core F-16 pilot cadres having lost what is likely to have been their most senior member, the unit seems to have a long road to travel before becoming the combat ready outfit that Iraq so badly needs in the face of lingering adverse security issues. The pressing schedule motivated by a showdown with ISIS may adversely affect the morale and maturity of the entire unit compounding the risks for the entire program and especially Iraq.