Aviation History

Iraqi Air Force fighter jets were buried in the desert by Saddam Hussein before Operation Iraqi Freedom started. Here’s why.

No Iraqi Air Force opposition during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

On Mar. 20, 2003, Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) began with preemptive airstrikes on former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s presidential palace and selected military targets. The initial assault was followed by approximately 67,700 “boots on the ground” with 15,000 Navy personnel on ships in the region. OIF was authorized when Iraq was found to be in breach of UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1441, which “prohibits stockpiling and importing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).”

Iraqi forces were overwhelmed quickly and Baghdad fell a mere five weeks after the invasion began.

During the invasion of Iraq, the US and coalition forces faced no Iraqi Air Force (IrAF) opposition.

Several MiG-25 interceptors and Su-25 ground attack jets have been found buried at Al-Taqqadum air field west of Baghdad.


When Iran and Iraq ended a brutal 8-year war in 1988, IrAF had fought well.

As Daniel L. Haulman, PhD Air Force Historical Research Agency explained in his document What Happened to the Iraqi Air Force? “By 1991, it was one of the largest air forces in southwestern Asia, with well over 700 fixed-wing combat aircraft. Iraq had purchased new and very capable fighter aircraft, including MiG-29s from the Soviet Union and Mirage F-1s from France. The country had also improved its air bases, increasing the size and number of their runways and taxiways, and constructing hundreds of hardened aircraft shelters to protect aircraft on the ground. Yet twelve years later, when United States and coalition forces invaded Iraq in 2003 [during Operation Iraqi Freedom], they faced no Iraqi Air Force opposition. Not one Iraqi warplane attacked the invaders as they proceeded toward Baghdad.

37 Iraqi Air Force airplanes shot down during Operation Desert Storm

“Iraqi FOD” is a 34-by-48 inch oil painting. It depicts the wreckage of an Iraqi MiG 23 and engine at Tallil Air Base, Iraq, in April 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The artwork is among 200 pieces being donated to the Air Force. (U.S. Air Force painting by Harley Copic)

“During the Gulf War, or Operation DESERT STORM, between January and March 1991, USAF pilots shot down 37 Iraqi airplanes, including 32 fixed-wing airplanes and 5 helicopters. The lost Iraqi airplanes included eight MiG-23s, six F-1s jets, five MiG-29s, four SU-22s, two SU-25s, two MiG-25s, two MiG-21s, one PC-9, one IL-76, one SU-7, and five helicopters, including two MI-8s, one MI-24, and two that were not identified. In December 1992 and January 1993, two USAF F-16 pilots each shot down two additional Iraqi aircraft, including a MiG-23 and a MiG-25.”

Haulman continues;

“When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the Iraqi Air Force did not show up. It did not generate a single sortie. Allied air and ground forces operated without any aerial opposition. The absence of Iraqi Air Force opposition allowed the United States Air Force to use aircraft more vulnerable than fighters and bombers, such as helicopters, transports, and drones, with less fear of having them shot down over enemy territory. Of course, the failure of Iraq to launch any aircraft to oppose the invasion was partly deliberate. The Iraqi leadership realized that challenging the United States and coalition air forces would be futile, in light of the 1991 campaign.”

Thus, as the photos in this post show, Saddam Hussein buried Iraq’s air force in the desert.

Iraqi Air Force Russian fighter jets buried in the Iraqi desert

As Kathleen T. Rhem, American Forces Press Service, told in the article American forces unearth hidden aircraft in Iraq, then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in an Aug- 5, 2003 press briefing, American forces found IrAF Russian fighter jets buried in the Iraqi desert.

“We’d heard a great many things had been buried, but we had not known where they were, and we’d been operating in that immediate vicinity for weeks and weeks and weeks … 12, 13 weeks, and didn’t know they were (there),” Rumsfeld said.

The secretary said he wasn’t sure how many such aircraft had been found, but noted, “It wasn’t one or two.”

“Something as big as an airplane that’s within … a stone’s throw of where you’re functioning, and you don’t know it’s there because you don’t run around digging into everything on a discovery process,” Rumsfeld explained. “So until you find somebody who tells you where to look, or until nature clears some sand away and exposes something over time, we’re simply not going to know.

“But, as we all know,” he added, “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

A search team discovers a MiG-25 Foxbat buried beneath the sands in Iraq.

Photo credit: Master Sgt. T. Collins / U.S. Air Force

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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