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Adapt or Fail: The USAF's Role in Reconstituting the Iraqi Air Force, 2004-2007

Adapt or Fail: The USAF’s Role in Reconstituting the Iraqi Air Force (2004-07) by George W. Cully. Air University Press, 168 pp. 

As the Global War on Terrorism rounds out its 16th year, the USAF continues to play a significant role, especially in Iraq and Syria. Indeed, the Islamic State’s demise in Mosul will likely be one of the USAF’s crowning moments over the past two decades. Although the Iraqi Army played the leading role, its success would not be possible without American air support. In fact, Operation Inherent Resolve and the opening salvos of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom will likely be the focal points for airpower historians for decades to come. However, the air advisors’ role in standing up the Iraqi Air Force (IqAF) and the Afghan Air Force have not received nearly enough attention or praise as their conventionally tasked brethren. George W. Cully’s Adapt or Fail: The USAF’s Role in Reconstituting the Iraqi Air Force, 2004-2007 seeks to focus some overdue light on the early struggles of these dedicated yet often underresourced airmen.

Cully does an admirable job in highlighting the Air Force’s negligence in supporting the fledgling IqAF and is correct in his summation that the USAF turned a blind eye on the program until the death of four Airmen. However, Cully wrote his short book done in a vacuum of the wider war that raged around this mission. A uniformed reader would hardly know that the IqAF earned its wings in the midst of some of Iraq’s worst sectarian violence. Regardless, Cully’s book is an important first entry in chronicling the Air Force’s herculean attempt to rebuild the IqAF. For that reason alone, it is an important book that should be read throughout the service.

Cully, who retired from active duty in 1991 after serving in both the Air Force and the Navy, does solid work in highlighting the USAF’s lack of foresight in properly staffing and resourcing the colossal task of rebuilding the IqAF from scratch. This will not be too shocking to students of the Iraq War, who have read about similar missteps in rebuilding the IA. However, it will be shocking to many that the 6th Special Operations Squadron (SOS) was not the first unit called to rebuild the IqAF, considering it is the only unit with a dedicated foreign internal defense (FID) mission. Instead, only a handful of lieutenant colonels made up the initial air cell inside the coalition military assistance team. As one would expect, standing up the IqAF was not a top priority as the IA failed in its early fights against both Muqtada al-Sadr and Abu Musa al-Zarqawi. Indeed, the IqAF would not be operational until October 2004—a full year and a half after the invasion. During that time, the IqAF suffered from ill-suited airframes, advisors who rotated every three months, and from a lack of recruits. In fact, as Cully chronicles, it took a fatal accident and the death of four Airmen in Diyala Province to finally awaken the USAF into fully resourcing the FID mission in Iraq.

Cully spends the latter half of the book chronicling the USAF’s reaction to the loss of its Airmen in Diyala. Through this tale, the USAF finally finds its footing as it establishes training sites for its Airmen, secures adequate airframes for its Iraqi comrades, and recruits enough Iraqi pilots to support some combined operations. Cully, who was the director of the Office of History at Air University until 2010, does yeoman-like work taking the reader behind the scenes as generals and colonels work mightily to staff such a heavy lift. Cully also lays bare just how little coordination was taking place in the USAF during this time. For example, it wasn’t until 2007 when air advisors from Iraq and Afghanistan met to compare notes and best practices! Cully ends his analysis in 2007 with an IqAF that is finally performing combat sorties, although it still suffers from foundational issues.

The problem with Cully’s important book is that the wider war is largely missing. He never mentions the sectarian violence engulfing Iraq. In fact, sectarian issues are never mentioned. Did the multiple elections in the early years of the conflict have any effect on the IqAF? Who made up the majority of the Iraqi Air Force—Sunnis or Shias? Which political party controlled the Ministry of Defense at the time? These important questions go unanswered. The answers will likely provide further context to some of the issues all Airmen repeatedly faced. Further, Cully is right to point out that the USAF lacked any doctrine to help its Airmen. And while AFDD 2-3, Irregular Warfare, and AFDD 2-3.1, Foreign Internal Defense, are steps in the right direction, the USAF is still missing an overarching counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine, despite spending nearly two decades fighting against numerous insurgents.

That underscores another point largely missing from Cully’s important book. While the Airmen in Cully’s book had to “adapt or fail” to succeed, it is still unclear if the USAF will adapt or fail in embracing its important role in COIN. Indeed, despite spilling blood and treasure in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the USAF remains almost singularly focused on its conventional mission. For example, The 6th SOS remains the only unit dedicated to FID in the entire Air Force—a unit with only approximately 100 Airmen. Further, the USAF currently fields thousands of Airmen who served on provincial reconstruction teams, as Afghan Hands, and in other nontraditional COIN roles, yet it has done precious little to harness this experience. In fact, as of now, it is likely that many of these important lessons will have to be relearned.

Although Cully misses some opportunities to provide context and make larger points about the current trajectory of the USAF, his book is the first step in highlighting a largely underreported story. However, it is an important story that will need more historians and more research until it is fully flushed out. Hopefully, further research will prevent future Airmen from facing the same hurdles.

Maj Will Selber, USAF
Osan AB, Republic of Korea

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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