During a press conference Nov. 8 the commander of the Iraqi air force said Iraq's purchase of 18 F-16C Fighting Falcons, for their future air defense, will encourage and strengthen the strategic partnership between the U.S. and Iraq.

In September, through the Foreign Military Sales program, the government of Iraq made its first payment for 18 F-16C Block 52 fighter aircraft. With this F-16 package, Iraq purchased logistical support as well as pilot and maintenance training. When the aircraft are delivered, most likely sometime in late 2014 or 2015, Iraq will have the most advanced multi-role fighter aircraft in the world.

Iraqi air force staff Lt. Gen. Anwer Amin addressed members of the Iraqi air force, Ministry of Defense and U.S. military during the press conference. He stood before an F-16 static display provided by the 125th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, an Oklahoma Air National Guard unit providing top cover in Iraq for U.S. service members. The static display was configured like the F-16s purchased by Iraq and included AIM-9 air-to-air missiles, GBU-12 laser-guided bombs and external fuel tanks.

Amin answered several questions from Iraqi and Pan-Arab media about the aircraft's capabilities and the role it will serve in the country's future defense.

"Our ability here is strong," Amin said. "I'm very happy because I see that our future is very good."

The F-16s, he said, will help provide air sovereignty for Iraq to protect its own territory and deter or counter regional threats.

During the past few years, the Iraqi air force, which celebrated its 80th anniversary this year, has steadily modernized its infrastructure and increased its number of personnel. At the end of 2006, the Iraqi air force had 748 airmen and 28 aircraft. Now, there are more than 6,000 airmen and 72 aircraft, including the T-6 Texan and C-130E Hercules.

During Operation New Dawn, the U.S. Air Force helped advance the Iraqi air force through mentorship, training and advising on everything from support functions to operations.

"Over the past 15 months, I've traveled Iraq visiting our Airmen and witnessed a part of this country's transformation," said Maj. Gen. Russ Handy, who is the most senior Airman on the U.S. Forces-Iraq staff as well the commander of the 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force-Iraq and director of the Air Component Coordination Element-Iraq. "I can tell you the Iraqi air force has a bright future. The young Iraqi airmen I've met, talked to and flown with are incredibly motivated. Not only are they talented, but they are fired up about their country in the future."

There are currently six Iraqi F-16 candidates in the U.S. for different phases of pilot training. These students will form the core of Iraq's future F-16 force.

The training is all inclusive and typically starts with English language training, which is the international language of aviation. At present, some are finishing an English language course while others are finishing their initial training in the T-6, a trainer aircraft. One of the pilots is scheduled to begin Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals, a preliminary course to the actual F-16 training program, as early as January.

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