After signing a contract with Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) in 2013, Iraq became the first client for South Korea’s KAI T-50 Golden Eagle fourth generation light fighter outside the Asia-Pacific region. With most of Iraq’s vast defence budget invested in its ground warfare capabilities, primarily for its counterinsurgency operations, the country has made minimal investments in its aerial warfare capabilities. A reliance on light fighters, namely the Korean T-50 and U.S. F-16, and on Soviet made Su-25 attack fighters delivered by Iran, have thus been sufficient to provide air support for the country’s ground forces. Baghdad is also actively considering purchasing the Russian S-400 surface to air missile system, which would provide it with a cost effective means of protecting its airspace from potential external adversaries compared to the immense expense associated with building a modern Air Force of heavier and more elite fighters to shoulder such as role.
The KAI T-50 serves a dual role as a trainer and light fighter, and Iraq is set to receive 24 of the platforms making it the Golden Eagle’s largest foreign operator. Deliveries of the fighters occurred during the country’s ongoing war with Islamic State insurgent forces, and the Golden Eagles are highly capable in an air to ground role. Travelling at speeds of Mach 1.5 and altitudes of 14,700m, very high and fast for a light trainer, (the F-35 can only reach Mach 1.6 and 15,300m), the platform can deploy almost 6000kg of munitions including Hydra 70 and LOGIR rockets, CBU-97 cluster bombs, spice equipped bombs, and a number of U.S. made guided bombs, as well as AGM-65 Maverick anti armour air to ground missiles. The T-50 also retains limited defensive air to air capabilities, and can deploy AIM-9 anti aircraft missiles. The platform’s reliance on U.S. made munitions makes its weapons highly interoperable with those of the Iraqi F-16 fleet.
The Iraqi Foreign Ministry stated in mid April 2018 that the country expected to receive a new batch of six T-50 fighters by the end of the year. According to the defence ministry, Iraqi ambassador to South Korea Haider Shayya Al Barak visited the Korea Aerospace Industries headquarters to follow up on the execution of the contract. Iraq has already received two batches of the fighters. The KAI T-50 could well prove invaluable in its role as a trainer, particularly if Iraq seeks to build a larger Air Force in the near future once its internal conflicts are resolved. With Iraqi pilots having suffered from extremely poor training standards during both the Iran-Iraq War and the Gulf War, which seriously undermined the Air Force's effectiveness despite fielding excellent combat aircraft, Baghdad’s new military leadership may well be putting a greater emphasis on combat training based on the lessons of the past - for which the T-50 could prove invaluable.