Iraq Is Shopping Around For Air Defenses. South Korea Might Have Exactly What Baghdad Is Looking For

SEONGNAM, SOUTH KOREA – 2023/09/26: South Korea’s Cheongung medium range surface-to-air missile … [+] system displayed during a ceremony marking the 75th founding anniversary of the country’s armed forces day at Seoul Air Base. South Korea’s military showcased “high-power” missiles and other key weapons systems on 26 September to mark the 75th founding anniversary of its armed forces in an apparent warning against North Korea’s nuclear and military threats. (Photo by Kim Jae-Hwan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Iraq has announced it is again shopping around for new air defense systems, sending committees to several countries to negotiate contracts. While it’s unclear where Baghdad will ultimately acquire these systems, South Korea may prove preferable for several reasons.

Iraq is “contracting for weapons and advanced systems,” and “there are technical and military committees that visited a number of countries and made offers to them with access to anti-aircraft weapons,” Iraq’s military spokesperson announced on Mar. 18.

Iraqi Defense Minister Thabet Al-Abbasi met with his South Korean counterpart on Mar. 21 to discuss military cooperation.

Of course, none of these recent developments confirms that Baghdad will ultimately opt for a South Korean air defense system.

But if it did, it would be preferable to other options.

The most significant post-2003 air defense acquisition Iraq made was its 2014 acquisition of medium-range Pantsir-S1 systems from Russia. In the late 2010s and early 2020s, Iraqi officials repeatedly indicated that Baghdad was interested in potentially acquiring advanced S-300 or S-400 long-range missile systems from Moscow.

Acquiring Russian systems today would carry many more risks and headaches than just a few years ago. Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the supply of Russian weaponry and parts has become much less reliable. Furthermore, Baghdad would risk incurring American sanctions under the CAATSA law if it makes such a sizable order from Moscow, as Turkey did for its order of S-400s.

Iraq directly experienced this when it had difficulty sustaining its Russian military helicopters, especially its Mi-17s, which are essential for army operations against the Islamic State. Baghdad has since turned to the United States for alternatives. Systems like the S-400s are far more complex than utility helicopters, so Iraq could not afford to risk spending billions on such an order.

The United States is also an option but may not prove optimal. There is a provision in the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act passed by Congress “to equip and train Iraqi security forces and Kurdish Peshmerga forces to defend against attack by missiles, rockets, and unmanned systems.”

However, the U.S. may prove reluctant to provide advanced air defenses to Iraq if Baghdad insists U.S.-led coalition troops leave the country. Furthermore, powerful Iran-backed elements in Baghdad may even oppose the acquisition since it stipulates the provision of air defenses to the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region.

Incidentally, Iraq turned to the United States for air defense systems in 2013. Baghdad requested 40 AN/TWQ-1 Avenger short-range air defense systems and three Hawk-21 batteries, a modernized version of the venerable medium-range MIM-23 Hawk. Ultimately, Iraq, facing other priorities like the subsequent war against the Islamic State, only received eight Avengers, and it’s unclear if it wishes to revive that deal.

Iran has previously shown an interest in helping Iraq build up its air defense capabilities and recently expressed interest in holding joint air defense drills with allied states. Iran has also developed some formidable long-range air defenses in recent years that it could offer Baghdad, such as the Bavar-373, which Tehran boasts is more powerful than the S-300 and in the same league as the S-400.

The U.S. would likely oppose Iraq obtaining such high-end capabilities from Iran, especially if Iranian personnel operate these advanced systems since they could endanger coalition air operations if there is another round of hostilities between the U.S. military and Iran’s militia proxies.

Iraq has received long-range Thales Ground Master 403 (GM403) air surveillance radars from France. Paris would undoubtedly also be willing to sell air defenses to Baghdad. Incidentally, Iraq’s air defenses in the 1980s consisted of Soviet-made missiles integrated under the French-built KARI command, control, and communications system.

Baghdad may buy French Mistral or Crotale short-range missiles to supplement its existing Pantsir-S1s, Avengers, and its overall defenses against drones. It could also choose the longer-range SAMP/T, which is more capable against ballistic and cruise missiles.

South Korea would undoubtedly be willing to sell its new medium-range Cheongung II KM-SAM to Iraq. After all, it has expressed its hope to sell its upcoming KF-21 Boramae fighter to Iraq, which previously bought 24 T-50 Golden Eagle supersonic jet trainers. Seoul even built a specific variant of the aircraft for Iraq, the T-50IQ.

Furthermore, as previously noted, the KM-SAM is based on the 9M96 missile used by the S-400 and S-350E systems. Consequently, Iraq could acquire a high-end air defense system comparable to the S-400 without any of the political and procurement headaches that comes with buying from Russia.

In recent years, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have already ordered KM-SAMs as part of multi-billion dollar contracts.

For these reasons, South Korea is certainly a strong contender to sell Iraq the most consequential air defense system it has acquired in decades.

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