After the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 looking for nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons, American troops found a lot of bizarre things – toilets and guns made of gold, a Koran written in blood and Saddam’s romance novel. While they didn’t find any weapons of mass destruction, they did manage to find some weapons. Specifically, they found aircraft buried in the sand next to a perfectly good airfield.
One day in 2003, American forces near al-Taqqadum Air Base in Iraq began pulling scores of Mig-25 Foxbat fighters and SU-25 Frog Foot fighter-bombers out of the sand. The aircraft were missing wings but, for the most part, remained fairly well-kept despite being in the sand for who-knows-how-long. If Saddam wasn’t giving inoperable planes a good burial, one wonders why he would intentionally put his planes in the ground.
The answer starts with the fact that the Iraqi Air Force sucked at defending Iraqi airspace.
In the Iran-Iraq War that lasted until the late 1980s, the Iraqi Air Force could reasonably hold its own against the superior U.S.- bought aircraft flown by the Islamic Republic of Iran at the time. But Iranian fighter pilots were very, very good and Iraqi pilots usually had to flee the skies before the onslaught of Iranian F-14 Tomcats. Against other Middle Eastern powers, however, Saddam Hussein’s air power could actually make a difference in the fighting – but that’s just against Middle Eastern countries. The United States was another matter.
Iraqi pilots were ready to go defend their homeland from the U.S.-led invasion, but the Iraqi dictator would have none of it. He knew what American technology could do to his aircraft, especially now that the U.S. was flying the F-22. They would get torn to shreds. He also remembered what his pilots did in the first Gulf War when sent to defend the homeland. They flew their fighters to the relative safety of Iran rather than face annihilation, and Iran never gave them back.
Saddam wanted his air force. So he decided to keep them all safe.
At al-Taqqadum and al-Asad air bases, the dictator ordered that his most advanced fighters be stripped and buried in the sand near the airfields. In retrospect, this was probably a good decision for the aircraft. Whatever was left unburied was quickly and forcibly dismantled by the U.S. Air Force on the ground during the invasion. In trying to fight off the Coalition of the Willing, Iraq’s air forces all but disappeared.
Saddam hoped that by saving the aircraft in the sand, he could prevent their destruction and when he was ready (because he assumed he would still be in power after all was said and done), he could unbury them and use their advanced status to terrify his enemies and neighbors.
That, of course, didn’t happen.