Iraq’s request to purchase Dassault Rafale fighter jets from France will raise some eyebrows in Washington. Paris is eyeing the Middle Eastern weapons market and has signed significant agreements with Egypt and the UAE—and now Iraq. In a time of growing competition in the 4.5th / 5th generation aircraft segment , a French deal with Iraq would significantly increase the former’s share and leverage in a burgeoning fighter jet sales market.
Besides the geopolitical risks of a potential sale for the delicate regional power balances between Iraq and its nearby rivals, Baghdad’s quest for the Rafales will have consequences more broadly to regional security from a technical standpoint. If the jets’ weapon systems configuration includes the Meteors instead of the Mica missiles, the regional power balance may rapidly shift in favor of one of Iran’s biggest allies—Iraq. A Baghdad-Paris agreement would, therefore, cause a paradigm shift in the counter-terrorism policy of a key NATO country—Türkiye. With the Rafales, Iraq could deny Turkish manned aircraft into its airspace and block Türkiye’s ongoing counter-terrorism operations in the north of Iraq (Terrorism Monitor, August 12).
Turkish Counter-Terrorism in Iraq
For decades, its fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its offshoots has been Türkiye’s primary national security agenda. In essence, the Turkish counter-terrorism campaign centers around two main pillars. The first is enforcing border security by eliminating PKK havens concentrated in northern Syria and Iraq to prevent renewed series of attacks in Türkiye. The second is to render PKK and affiliated organizations ineffective. This relies on heavy intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) activities and targeting the leaders in the PKK as well as the transmission routes for arms transfers to the People’s Defense Units (YPG), which is a PKK offshoot.
Drones have become an integral part of the Turkish intelligence efforts in these respects. For both pillars, Turkish intelligence expertise and precise deep-strike capabilities are key. In times of conflict, especially in asymmetrical situations, unmanned platforms can improve endurance and reduce risks to human life. Reliance on unmanned systems also provides additional risk minimization for the Turkish Air Force, as the capture of pilots in hostile territory beyond Türkiye’s borders remains highly dangerous.
After the start of the Syrian civil war, Turkish counter-terrorism operations in the area shifted to a Concept of Operations (CONOPS) that was heavily unmanned, with the aim to minimize risks and reduce loss of personnel. The Syrian airspace remains an especially dangerous zone, and Türkiye even lost a F-4 Phantom to the Syrian Arab Air defense forces back in 2012. Currently, the Iraqi Air Force cannot stop Turkish air raids against the PKK. However, a scenario where the Iraqi Air Force flies the Rafales with advanced air-to-air missiles might be a disruptive factor in Ankara’s counter-terrorism strategy in northern Iraq.
Why Iraq Can’t Resist Rafales
Given the Rafales’ versatility and combat-proven performance, Iraq’s preference for them is sensible (Dassault Aviation, August 8). The Rafale is indeed a sophisticated aircraft, with high demand in the Middle East, as illustrated by the Egyptian and Emirati cases, where both countries opted for the Rafales instead of the F-35s. In Baghdad’s case, the main factor that pushed Baghdad into the arms of Paris was, however, the denial by Washington to provide Baghdad with the necessary munitions to operationalize its F-16s at full potential.
Currently, the Iraqi Air Force has 34 F-16s. However, Western intelligence claims that at least 10 of those jets are permanently grounded due to a lack of maintenance and equipment (Forbes, May 11, 2021). This creates a vulnerability in the Iraqi air capabilities, which prevents Baghdad from being able to fully operationalize its F-16s. Following the attack on the Balad Airbase, which hosts U.S troops, in April 2020, Lockheed Martin and other large defense companies withdrew their staff from Iraq. This disrupted maintenance support and training to the Iraqis (Rudaw, May 11, 2021).
Therefore, while its rivals were rapidly transitioning to 4.5th generation solutions, Iraq urgently needed to find alternatives to its aging fleet. This need was mainly driven by the fear of lagging behind, but another major factor was the lack of certified munitions provided by Washington to Baghdad. All in all, what makes a weapons system truly effective is not only the platform itself, but also the weapons and sensor configuration with which it comes, which France might be willing to provide to Iraq.
Paris already made a successful entry into the Middle Eastern defense market before the rumors of Iraq’s potential Rafale procurement. In the past year, France sold the Rafales to the Egyptians and the Emiratis, with the latter purchasing a record total of 80 jets (Disclose, May 3, 2021; France 24, December 3, 2021). Thus, the potential French-Iraqi deal would deepen France’s already prominent footprint in the Middle Eastern defense industry. Bolstered by burgeoning demand and increasing threat perceptions, the regional arms market has no shortage of countries that are turning to alternative Western technologies amid the void created by the U.S.
Another aspect that makes Iraq a particularly appealing client for France is its alleged proposal to pay for its fighter jets with oil (Al Ain, July 22). Crippled by a looming oil crisis that resembles the shock in 1973, Paris now urgently needs to find an alternative to Russian energy (France Bleu, March 9). Its new customer, Iraq, might provide the solution.
However, acquiring the Rafales is not a magic solution to air superiority. In fact, the game-changing factor will be the munitions that accompany the Rafales. While a deal including the medium-range Mica missile will not have a drastic effect on regional power balances, a scenario where Paris provides Baghdad with the Meteor missiles would be the real turning point. Acquiring the Meteor beyond-visual-range (BVR) missiles would mean Iraq obtains improved strike capabilities that can engage with a wide set of targets ranging from unmanned armed vehicles (UAVs) to cruise missiles. This would empower Baghdad with flexible military capabilities, as well as an advantage in the regional airspace. Indeed, certain advantages in some technical aspects, such as the effectiveness of its propulsion system, means the Meteor remains equivalent, if not better, than its American counterpart, the AMRAAM. While the deals signed thus far have only included the Mica missiles, a new configuration cannot be ruled out (Eurasian Times, July 25). However, doing so would sour France’s relations with its regional allies, such as Egypt, which recognizes Israel, and would lead to criticism of Paris’ decision to provide critical weapon systems to a nation that does not recognize Israel.
Implications of Meteor Missiles
A scenario where Iraq’s Rafales come with the Meteor missiles will have two drastic implications. First, such a procurement would change the power balance between Israel and regional countries. Providing Tel Aviv’s adversary, Iraq, with Meteor missiles would directly undermine Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME) in the region.
Second, equipping the Iraqi Air Force with the Rafale fighter jets and Meteor missiles would have implications for Turkish counter-terrorism policy. At present, the Iraqi Air Force has no advantage over the Turkish Air Force. This will still hold true if Türkiye procures the F-16 modernization from Washington or opts for a stopgap alternative. However, a scenario where Ankara fails to transition into 4.5th generation air combat or a configuration that would include the Meteor missiles will then provide Baghdad with a clear advantage over Ankara. Superior Iraqi aerial capabilities would allow Iraq to deny Türkiye its national airspace and block Turkish operations in northern Iraq.
Additionally, an Iraqi Air Force equipped with the Rafales and the Meteor’s BVR missiles would pose a great risk to Türkiye’s manned aircraft. This would demand a revision to Türkiye’s counter-insurgency strategy involving a transition from manned solutions to unmanned technologies to conduct counter-terrorism operations in northern Iraq. In the past, Türkiye has successfully carried out aerial operations in an ‘unmanned’ manner, and its activities in Syria loom large as a prime example. With sophisticated deep strike capabilities, a combat payload of 1,350 tons, and advanced radars, the Turkish Baykar’s Akıncı UCAV would become a highly suitable asset for Türkiye’s unmanned counter-terrorism activities (Baykar, August 8). Because Akıncı’s weapons configuration may soon include high-precision missiles such as the TRG-230, the UCAV would be able to penetrate high-value targets in northern Iraq with a minimal margin of error. This new strategy would constitute a potentially higher rate of attrition for Türkiye’s drones, but it also would greatly minimize human casualties in one of the world’s most hostile terrains.
Exploiting the void created by Washington, Paris is rapidly filling the Middle Eastern arms market with sophisticated systems and generous technical assistance. Moreover, Paris is determined to meet the region’s growing demands, even if this comes at the expense of changing the regional power balance and rewriting the rules of counter-terrorism for a key NATO ally like Türkiye, if not also Israel. In short, Iraq’s quest for Rafales might soon transform regional dynamics, and the U.S reluctance to share its technology will be a factor behind this development.
 The former refers to fourth-generation jets upgraded with AESA radars, high capacity data-link and enhanced avionics, while the latter refers to jets with stealth capabilities, high maneuverability, advanced avionics, super cruise characteristics and networked data fusion.