Iraqi MiGs pass torch to Marines' fighter aircraft

16 Sep 2004 | Cpl. Paul Leicht

The second largest airbase in Iraq, Al Asad is located approximately 115 miles northwest of Baghdad and slightly west of the Euphrates River. Some might say that it is a vast and featureless relic of Saddam Hussein's Iraqi militarism.

The base was at one time the home to several fighter squadrons, the bulk of the Iraqi Air Force. After coalition forces captured the base in April 2003, scores of Soviet-made Iraqi Air Force MiG aircraft were discovered.

Abandoned, hidden under camouflage and in some cases, in flight condition, the Iraqi MiGs remain a unique feature of the airbase here.

"Most of the MiGs (aboard Al Asad) the Iraqis acquired from the (former) Soviet Union," said Gunnery Sgt. Creston P. Bailey, air analysis chief, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. "The Iraqi Air Force played a major role during the Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s.

"At one time, Iraq had the largest air force in the Middle East," continued the Houston native. "By the time of the first Gulf War, Iraq had almost 1,000 combat aircraft."

Al Asad, like other military airbases across Iraq, has numerous hardened shelters and hangars with multiple runways and taxiways, patterned after their Russian counterparts.

"The Iraqis basically patterned their airbases and fighter tactics on the Soviet model," explained the 32-year-old Bailey. "Most of the (installation) construction was done by Yugoslavian contractors.

"By Iraqi standards, Al Asad is a pretty advanced base and when coalition forces captured the base (during Operation Iraqi Freedom), most of the MiGs were scattered all over the base to better protect them from allied air strikes," he added.

It is unclear however, why the MiGs-mostly MiG-21 'Fishbeds' and MiG-25 'Foxbats'-were moved, buried in the sand, or disassembled somewhat haphazardly.

Lying discarded like scraps of garbage at the side of the road, the lifeless vestiges of the Iraqi Air Force break up the barren landscape of Al Asad. Occasionally, one can find an engine of a MiG-25 Foxbat-considered to be the fastest fighter aircraft ever produced-being used as a roadblock.

Swept aside, the trashed MiGs serve in harsh contrast to the Marines' F/A-18 Hornets and AV-8B Harriers flying above them, who have now taken up the role of protector for the Iraqi people.

"It is definitely a unique opportunity to operate out of a captured Iraqi airbase, especially the one that was the equivalent of their Top Gun Fighter Weapons School," said Lt. Col. Kevin M. Iiams, commanding officer, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (All Weather) 242. "Seeing the MiGs is a stark reminder of where we are and what has happened to get us here."