Iraq’s New Trainer-Fighters: FA-50 Bounces the Czech
Iraq may be on track to become the first export customer for South Korea’s T-50 Golden Eagle family of supersonic jet trainers and lightweight fighters. But the KAI/Lockheed Martin plane ran into a familiar set of international competitors, plus one dark horse contender. In the end, the dark horse won. Iraq will begin flying Czech L-159s in 2013, and begin receiving the main body of the order in 2014.
Iraq’s basic trainer purchase was Hawker Beechcraft’s T-6 Texan II, but a jet trainer is required as an interim step between the T-6 and more advanced planes like the F-16s that Iraq is buying. DJ Elliott of ISF Order of Battle says that South Korea’s TA-50 was suggested in fall 2007 to the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, by MNSTC-I’s Coalition Air Force Transition Team. Other contenders can also be equipped as light attack jets, albeit without the same loaded supersonic capabilities. Iraq evidently decided that was good enough.
Contracts and Key Events
2011 – 2017
September 18/17: An investigation by South Korean prosecutors into corruption at Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) has been widened to include a $2.65 billion sale of T-50IQ light attack aircraft to Iraq. According to prosecutors, officials at KAI inflated the value of the proceeds of the 2013 sale, which saw 24 of the advanced trainer aircraft sold as part of Baghdad’s air force modernisation. They have also uncovered circumstantial evidence of corruption in the KF-X indigenous fighter contract. The fraud allegations at KAI were first raised in 2015 when the state auditor’s inspection found that KAI pocketed some 24 billion won in illicit profits by manipulating development costs in the Surion helicopter project.
June 20/14: L-159s. The Czech Republic’s Defense Minister Martin Stropnicky says that they are in talks to sell 7 of their 17 Russian-built Mil Mi-24 attack helicopters to the Iraqi Defense Ministry. The Czechs, keen to push an advantage, are also pushing Iraq to buy L-159 light attack jets. Aero Vodochody had lost (q.v. Dec 12/13) that contract to Korea’s KAI, but the FA-50s won’t even begin arriving until 2015 – 2016.
The Iraqi government has already lost Kirkuk to the Kurds, and most of the northern and eastern Sunni areas to hard-line Islamist forces that are backed (for now) by local Sunni tribes. Attacks are now intensifying near Baghdad. If the Mi-28s were ever delivered in late 2013, there haven’t been any announcements, nor have there been battlefield reports of their use. At this point, Iraq needs any flying attack platform that can be delivered quickly.
The Czechs have about 8 jets in storage that they could deliver fairly quickly, and that may be enough for Iraq’s immediate needs. If Iraq wants more, restarting the L-159 production line won’t solve their problem in time. If the Czechs divert L-159 planes directly from their own air force, on the other hand, they could offer almost-immediate as part of a helicopter/jet package deal. The Czechs would then be able to choose whether to refurbish the 8 stored L-159s for their own use, and/or backfill CzAF stocks with the new L-169 that’s in development. We’ll have to see what gets negotiated, if anything. Sources: Defense News, “Iraq Eyes Czech Mi 24 helos To Combat ISIL Militants”.
Dec 12/13: FA-50. Iraq signs a $1.1 billion deal to buy 24 T-50IQ light fighters, which Korean news agencies cite as an FA-50 variant. The price works out to about $46 million per plane, but it necessarily includes added costs like initial training infrastructure. If the Iraqis have learned anything from their other programs, it will also include a solid initial supply of spare parts. KAI expects a 25-year, $1 billion T-50IQ support deal to follow shortly.
These “T-50IQs” will apparently serve double duty: as the IqAF’s advanced jet trainers once pilots graduate from T-6B turboprops, and as a backup fighter force. The deal is a big save for KAI, as Iraqi interest in the TA-50 armed trainer had apparently waned in favor of the Czech L-159T. Increased instability in the region may have helped revive their interest, as it will take more than the IqAF’s 36 ordered F-16IQs to provide even reasonable airspace control. A supersonic “F-16 lite” provides Iraq with better air defense, though it may come at the cost of some counterinsurgency strike performance relative to the L-159. KAI is quoted giving a delivery window of 2015 – 2016, while Reuters cites April 2016 – 2017.
Note that the Yonhap article has a key error. The plane exported to Indonesia, Peru & Turkey is KAI’s KO-1/KT-1 turboprop trainer and counterinsurgency aircraft, not the T-50 family. The T-50 family has been exported to Indonesia, and the Philippines is negotiating. KAI hopes that the breakthrough in Iraq may trigger interest elsewhere in the Middle East. Perhaps it will re-open the UAE’s 48-plane armed trainer pick, which has been stalled since 2009. Sources: KAI, “KAI has signed the contract with Iraq for exporting T-50 supersonic advanced jet trainer & light attack” | Korea Times, “Korea exports 24 attack jets to Iraq” | Reuters, “S.Korea’s KAI sells fighter jets worth $1.1 billion to Iraq” | Yonhap, “S. Korea to export 24 FA-50 light attackers to Iraq “.
Feb 22/13: No finalization. Czech media are saying that the Iraqi L-159 deal has failed, implying that Aero Vodochody doesn’t want to invest in an entire production line for 24 planes. That’s an odd explanation, since the company presumably understood the contract it signed.
Aero CEO Ladislav Simek has conformed that the contract hasn’t taken effect yet, though some preparatory steps have been taken within the supply chain. Meanwhile, they’re negotiating “some commercial and technical details,” and a new contract might be expected, including the accompanying weapon deals.
Talk of a new contract is a significant setback. Former Czech defense minister Alexandr Vondra makes a point about needing “patience, patience and patience again… [with Arabs, who] have a different notion of time than we in Europe.” Even so, Iraq needs to grow its air force, and delaying too long will create a problem. Prague Monitor.
Oct 12/12: Iraq. Iraq signs a $1 billion deal with the Czech Republic to deliver 28 L-159 trainers and light attack aircraft, and train Iraq’s pilots. Local Iraqi TV says that they’ll also set up a T-72 tank upgrade facility within Iraq, which may have been the decisive edge that helped them clinch the L-159 deal.
Aero Vodochody has confirmed that all of Iraq’s planes will be 2-seaters. The initial 4 will be converted from stored L-159As to L-159T trainers, retaining their previous attack and air policing capabilities. Those 4 are scheduled to arrive within 7 months. Another 24 new 2-seat L-159BQ jets will be delivered later, built to Iraq’s full specifications. They’re expected to begin arriving within 26 months, which is to say by December 2014.
Iraq is beginning to have obvious trouble with its airspace, as flights from Iran to Syria are taking place without any ability to stop them. It’s a convenient excuse for buying the jets, anyway. Iraq’s government, and its Shi’ite majority, both remember the Sunni Muslim terrorists who infiltrated Iraq from Syria, and caused so much trouble during the civil war. A government of those people next door is seen as an even worse outcome than Assad, though other factions within Iraq will see this situation differently. Meanwhile, Iraq needs advanced jet trainers, and also needs aircraft that can back up its handful of F-16s in basic air policing and ground attack roles after 2014. Aero Vodochody pre-announcement | Ceske Noviny in Czech and English | Agence France Presse | AP | Lebanon’s Daily Star | Russia’s RIA Novosti.
Contract: 28 L-159s
May 23/11: L-159. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says that a deal for Czech L-159s is close after a meeting with his Czech counterpart Petr Necas. This is the first trip to Iraq by a Czech prime minister since Saddam Hussein’s government fell in 2003, and the delegation also includes Czech Defence Minister Vondra. L-159 negotiations were described as “intensive” but not final in Czech newspapers.
The Czech delegation is busy with a range of initiatives, and one noteworthy non-defense deal involves Czech-made Zetor tractors, once known in Iraq under the Antar trademark, and license-built in Iskandariya, Iraq. A deal appears set to re-open that asesembly line, and the size of Iraq’s agriculture sector makes it an attractive opportunity on its own merits – even if Zetor/Antar isn’t done as a defense deal industrial offset. Ceska Pozike | Ceske Noviny || Russia’s RIA Novosti.
2009 – 2010
Oct 25/10: L-159. Prague Monitor and Iraq Business report that the Czech Republic might sell up to 25 used Aero L-159s to Iraq. Iraq had been holding a competition for 24 jet trainers between Korea’s T-50, the UK’s Hawk, and Italy’s M-346. The L-159 offers a competitive entry from the same manufacturer as the L-39s they used to fly, all in a package that’s fully compatible with NATO standards, and capable of carrying precision guided weapons and air-air missiles.
If the L-159 has become a focus, rather than just a competitor, it’s likely that the price of new aircraft proved prohibitive, and that Iraq is now looking at value over newness. Time will tell.
April 29/10: Competition. A report in the Times of London notes that the Iraqi trainer purchase has become a full-fledged competition. Officials from the Iraqi Air Force will reportedly be in Britain in May and June 2010 to test BAE Systems’ Hawk, which would compete with KAI/Lockheed’s T-50 and Alenia’s M-346.
The T-50 is being delivered to South Korea’s air force, while Italy and Iraq’s neighbor the UAE have ordered the M-346. The Hawk trainer has been available for decades, and variants fly for regional owners Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.
The Times says that the expected 24-plane Iraqi deal could be worth GBP 500 million initially (currently about $760 million), rising to GBP 1 billion over the life of the aircraft once servicing and maintenance contracts are included.
Feb 24/09: T-50. Iraq officially requests T-50 trainer jets during the Korea-Iraq summit in Seoul. The Korea Times reports:
“When the MOU was signed in late February, Talabani asked Lee to sell T-50 trainer jets and other advanced communication equipment to the Middle Eastern country,” a source close to the deal told The Korea Times, asking not to be named… “Once the terms and conditions of the sale, including prices, are met, they agreed to include them in a binding contract,” he added.”
The 2 countries also struck a $3.55-billion deal to develop oil reserves in southern Iraq near Basra, a move that could double or even triple the amount of oil to which South Korea has assured access. At the same time, ROK President Lee Myung-bak and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to give South Korean firms the right to participate in rebuilding projects inside Iraq. The Korea Times reports that Iraq plans to spend $150 billion on power plants and other forms of public infrastructure over the next 8 years.
Jan 15/09: T-50. Yonhap news agency and the World Tribune both file reports concerning Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi’s ongoing visit to South Korea. The minister was briefed concerning South Korea’s ongoing projects with Turkey, which include the K9/K10 Thunder mobile howitzer and the new XM2/Altay main battle tank.
Minister al-Obeidi also inspected the KAI/ Lockheed Martin T-50, and said that a defense expert in his entourage had recently test-flown the jet in Korea and expressed satisfaction. The Yonhap News Agency translation quotes him as saying that “The T-50 proved to us that South Korea has modern technology of an international standard.” Al-Obeidi added that more review would be required before the T-50 could be added to Iraq’s air force. Yonhap report | World Tribune.
Appendix A: TA-50s and the Region
The T-50 family comes in a number of variants, from pure T-50 jet trainers, to a T/A-50 trainer that can act as a secondary fighter, to the full F/A-50 version that began serious development in late 2008.
A purchase of T/A-50s with their APG-67v4 radars, advanced Sidewinder missiles, and ability to carry precision guided weapons would effectively offer Iraq its first jet fighters. A T/A-50 would have to depend on superior situational awareness and piloting if confronted by Syrian or Iranian MiG-29s, but their induction would give Iraq qualitative parity or better versus many of the fighters currently flown by its semi-hostile neighbors: Syria’s MiG-21/ MiG-23/ Su-22s, and Iran’s F-4E/ F-5 variants/ F-7 MiG-21 variants. In a volatile region where hayba counts, those kinds of perceptions matter.
So, too, do personal ties. South Korea sent a 3,600-strong contingent to the northern Iraqi city of Irbil in September 2004 as part of the U.S.-led coalition, and a total of 18,000 South Korean troops served in rotation around northern Iraq until the end of their deployment in 2008.
That work was apparently valuable in establishing ties, and the countries are now discussing ways to broaden their economic relationship as well as their defense relationship. A February 2009 agreement that opens Iraqi public infrastructure contracts to Korean firms, while securing ROK investment to develop some of the oil fields near Basra in southern Iraq, appears to have set that process in motion.
DID thanks Iraq Order of Battle author DJ Elliott for his assistance.