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The Missing Links: A Realistic Appraisal of the Iraqi Military

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IA line battalions,July 2011(click to view full) Guest Article by DJ Elliott Recently, I saw a comment that claimed the Iraqi Army (IA) is the best Arab army in the Mid-East. That it had been trained by the US in Corps- and Division- level operations, and thus was better than the rest of the Arab […]
IA, July 11

IA line battalions,
July 2011
(click to view full)

Guest Article by DJ Elliott

Recently, I saw a comment that claimed the Iraqi Army (IA) is the best Arab army in the Mid-East. That it had been trained by the US in Corps- and Division- level operations, and thus was better than the rest of the Arab armies, since they effectively operate at only Brigade-level.

This is pure fantasy. The IA doesn’t have Corps and only started expanding divisional communications this year. Even the Iraqi Ministry of Defense never planned on the Iraqi Army being at that level of capabilities prior to 2020. Right now, the Iraqi military is only equipped and trained as a counter-insurgency force – and it will remain that way for a while. This article explains the Iraqi Security Forces’ planned stages of growth, the current gaps as they manifest at all levels, and some conclusions about the future.

ISF: Plans & Visions

M1 Besmayah

M1A1 qualification,
(click to view full)

There are major differences between counter-insurgency operations and external security. Low-intensity conflict [aka. COIN] is infantry- and intelligence-centric. Combined Arms capabilities and large-scale unit operations, while useful, are not essential to COIN. Armor, air defense, and artillery are not major players in COIN. In high intensity conflict [aka. conventional warfare] armor, air, artillery, etc. operating as large-scale combined arms will make or break you.

The Iraqi Security Forces are on a planned development schedule. Phase 1 is complete but, according to the Iraqi Minister of Defense himself, Phase 2 and 3 may be delayed.

Phase 1 – Tactical Independence [2006-2010].

* This is internal security only [COIN].

* The Iraqi Army in the lead performing police functions.

Phase 2 – Operational Independence [2011-2015].

* This is the beginning of the Iraqi Army training and transitioning to external security while the Federal Police start to take over internal security.

* Four IA Divisions [3rd, 5th, 7th, and 10th] started rotating battalions through US lead external security training in November 2010. There are 14 divisions in the IA. 18-20 are planned.

* The 8th IA Division was unofficially added to this external training in February 2011.

* The 9th Division is still in the process of training on the new equipment [M1A1s/M113s/BTR4s/M109s/etc] being received and is not yet in this external defense program.

* The IA is receiving additional armor, standing up its first howitzer equipped formations, its first chemical defense battalion, its first divisional signals battalions, additional engineers, and is mechanizing the 5th Division. The FP is adding one or two divisions to expand its internal security capacity this year.

* The Iraqi Air Force was going to buy F-16s, but that money was diverted to welfare programs. Iraq has no air defense at this time.

* The helicopter assets of the Iraqi Air Force have been transferred to the IA, reducing the IqAF to a propeller-driven training, recon, and transport wing [7 squadrons].

Phase 3 – Strategic Independence [2016-2020].

* This is the period that the IA plans to be external security with the Federal Police training on its secondary role as IA reserve infantry. Local police taking over the lead for internal security with FP in over-watch.

* During this period, the IqAF was expected to have a legit air defense. Repeated delays in purchasing jet trainers and fighters make this goal unlikely to be met.

Iraqi Security Forces: Current State & Gaps

AC-208 firing

Cessna AC-208B
(click to view full)

To some people, the IA seems large. Taken in context of their neighbors’ strengths, they are weak. Iran, Syria, and Turkey individually out-number and out-gun the IA in every measurable category. Jordan, Saudi, and Kuwait individually out-number and out-gun the IA in all categories except infantry. Truth is, I only gave the IA even 2 weeks of fight in a war with Iran’s 48 Army and Revolutionary Guard divisions because of Iranian logistical deficiencies.

To note a very important deficit in the tank-friendly Middle East, only Iraq’s tank and BTR-4 equipped battalions have anti-tank capabilities. Kuwait, with the equivalent of only a reinforced Armored Division for an army, has more Tanks, MICVs, APCs, Howitzers, etc. than Iraq has.

In the air, where control is paramount, he smallest air force bordering Iraq has 100 jets – Iraq has none. Just as significant, in light of Iraq’s own history, is that half of their bordering countries are known to have chemical weapons – the IA has almost no chemical defenses.

What follows is a list of major deficiencies in the Iraqi military by unit-size, and then overall in key categories. It is not all-inclusive. The Federal Police and Department of Border Enforcement are 5 years behind the IA in development – they would require their own book to list their problems:


* No chemical defense suits or training.
* No Air Defense [MANPADS like the FIM-92 Stinger].


* No chemical defense.
* No air defense.
* No Anti-Tank capacity except in the few Tank Regiments [10 battalions] and the BTR-4 equipping Commando Battalions [~10]. RPGs are present, but they are platoon and squad level weapons.


* No chemical defense. Each brigade should have a chemical defense company.
* No air defense. Each brigade should have an air defense battery.
* No anti-tank capacity. Each brigade should have an anti-tank company at minimum.
* Most have no howitzers. Operational howitzers only started fielding this year. Each brigade is to have a field artillery battalion with 18 120mm mortars and 6 155mm howitzers. [US field artillery battalions all have full howitzers/ MLRS rocket launchers.]
* Most do not have Brigade Support Battalions. Only the 6 brigades of the 9th Division and ISOF have Level 1 maintenance support. This is part of the reason why half of the IA’s HMMWVs are inoperable.


* No chemical defense. The first IA chemical defense regiment [battalion] formed this year. Each division should have a chemical defense battalion.
* Most do not have adequate communications. Only 3 of the divisions have commissioned signals battalions this year.
* While each division has an Engineer Regiment [battalion], the heavy divisions will require a brigade. Only one division is expanding its engineers.
* No air defense. Each division should have an air defense battalion.
* Limited anti-tank capacity. Only just starting to equip the divisional commando battalions with the BTR-4/Barrier ATGW combination.
* Most divisions have no howitzers. Operational howitzers only started fielding this year in 2 battalions. Each division is to have 2-3 field artillery battalions [regiments] with 18-24 155mm howitzers or MLRS each. [US field artillery battalions have all howitzers/MLRS rockets.]
* Most divisions do not have Maintenance Battalions. Only the 9th Division has a maintenance battalion. Most level 1, 2, or 3 maintenance support has to be done at the level 4 facilities [Taji].


* Non-existent. There should be 4-5 corps in the IA.
* While the Joint Operational Commands can provide corps-level command and control, most do not have adequate communications and do not provide combat and logistics support.
* No air defense. Corps’ normally have Air Defense Brigades.
* No combat reserve. Corps’ normally have 1-2 independent line brigades to commit to key areas.
* No rear-area security. 1-2 Military Police or infantry brigades are normally assigned to provide convoy security and patrol the rear-areas of each corps.
* No artillery. Corps’ normally have 1-2 Field Artillery Brigades each to provide heavy fire-support.
* No Level 3 support. No Sustainment Brigades. The absence of Level 1 and 3 maintenance and logistical support is why the IA has large numbers of vehicles inoperable and fuel shortages when only in a low-intensity conflict. In a conventional war, High-Intensity Conflict, the IA would collapse.

Army Overall:

* IGFC can provide army-level command and control, logistics and maintenance but, it is overwhelmed having to fill the role of both Army and 4 corps’ worth of support.
* Iraqi supply is still a pull system where you request support/supplies and then wait. They need to correct that. The US Army uses a push system where supply needs are anticipated by higher level and provided without request.
* While the APC component is progressing, the IA is not acquiring sufficient tanks and anti-tank capabilities to go with them. The IA needs to purchase at least an additional 400-600 tanks to operate with the 420 BTR-4s and over 600 M113A2s APCs that are starting to arrive.
* The number of howitzers procured so far only equips 2 of the 14 existing divisions. The IA needs enough for all its forces, including corps’ level artillery brigades, plus enough to support the Federal Police and Department of Border Enforcement in their wartime infantry roles.
* Air defense does not exist at any level.
* Most divisions have no anti-tank capability beyond squad-level RPGs.

Air Overall:

* No air defense. Who cares how bad your neighbor’s air force is, when you have nothing to oppose it with.
* Still standing up Sector Operations Centers, so they can watch the enemy bomb them unopposed.
* No jets. Not even jet trainers. Until they have the aircraft and support equipment, they can’t train on them. It takes 3-5 years of training before a fighter squadron is combat effective after it is equipped.

You can’t train on what you don’t have. It’s possible to partner with the USA for advanced jet training on supersonic T-38 lead-in fighter trainer jets, but I’ve been through the USN airwing training cycle enough times as both squadron member and instructor. It just does not count until you have real fighters of your own, and Iraq needs a minimum of 5 operational fighter squadrons – preferably 10.

Navy Overall:

* No naval air, or air defense.
* Capable of inshore work, but the lack of missile capability makes them vulnerable in engagements away from the radar-seeker shadow of the coast.


The IA is on par with the ROK Army in June 1950: missing major capabilities, and only capable of internal security. Unfortunately for the Iraqis, they lack Korea’s terrain advantages.

Improvement is progressing almost on schedule, but the Iraqi military is not ready to stand alone – and never was planned to stand alone at this time. The 2012 date for U.S. withdrawal was a political date – not a realistic one.

DJ Elliott is a retired USN Intelligence Specialist (22 years active duty) who has been analyzing and writing on Iraqi Security Forces developments since 2006. His Iraqi Security Forces Order of Battle, featured on DID, is an open-source compilation that attempts to map and detail Iraqi units and equipment, as their military branches and internal security forces grow and mature.

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