North African Air Power

Morocco to upgrade of its existing fleet of 23 F-16C/Ds operated by 3 Squadron of the Altas Wing at Ben Gurir to F-16V configuration.

Following the turmoil of the Arab Spring, the cohesion and strengths of North African Air Forces varies significantly.

The Arab Spring

The Arab Spring, a series of anti-government protests, uprisings, and armed rebellions that spread across North Africa in late 2010 began in response to oppressive regimes and low standards of living.

A decade later the region is still coming to terms with the aftermath of the Arab Spring that promised democracy and stability for many.

Royal Moroccan Air Force (RMAF)

Morocco was the least affected North African country with King Mohammed VI retaining his position as Head of State and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, although civil unrest has never been far from the surface.

Morocco plans to increase its defence budget from $3.7 billion in 2019 to $4.7 billion by 2024. In recent years, Morocco has been determined to upgrade its military by acquiring new equipment from its biggest supplier, the United States. The government is seeking to reinforce its ability to protect national sovereignty and to defend the territorial integrity and stability of the country.

At the forefront of its self defence capabilities is the Royal Moroccan Air Force (RMAF) which has a fleet of 284 aircraft, including 56 fighter/ground attack aircraft, 56 light attack/training aircraft and 130 helicopters.

RMAF acquisitions in the last decade include four Alenia C-27J Spartan tactical transports and three Boeing CH-47D Chinook helicopters. In March 2019 the US Department of State approved a possible Foreign Military Sale (FMS) to Morocco to upgrade of its existing fleet of 23 Lockheed Martin F-16C/Ds operated by 3 Squadron of the Altas Wing at Ben Gurir to F-16V configuration for an estimated cost $1 billion.

One of the Royal Moroccan Air Force’s four Leonardo C-27J Spartan tactical transports. (David Oliver).

Related equipment will include APG-83 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) Radars, Modular Mission Computers, Link-16 Multifunctional Information Distribution Systems – JTRS (MIDS-JTRS) with TACAN and ESHI Terminals, LN260 Embedded Global Navigation Systems (EGI), Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing Systems II, LAU-129 Multi-Purpose Launchers; AN/AAQ-33 Sniper Pods, DB-110 Advanced Reconnaissance Systems, as well as additional items, support and spares and personnel training.

During November 2019, the US State Department also approved another possible FMS to Morocco of 36 Boeing AH-64E Apache attack helicopters and related equipment for an estimated cost of $4.25 billion to replace its current fleet of 22 HOT-armed Aérospatiale SA.342K Gazelles based at Rabat-Sale.

Algerian Air Force (AAF)

The Arab Spring brought turmoil and regime change in its wake but these winds of change barely touched Algeria and it was not until April 2019 that the longtime president Abdelaziz Bouteflika stood down. The armed forces, seen as the most powerful player in Algerian politics, maintains a presidential election is the only way to quell ongoing protests and end the constitutional limbo prevailing since Bouteflika stood down.

The Algerian Air Force (AAF) has 528 aircraft, including 97 fighters, 107 attack planes, 280 helicopters, and 46 attack helicopters. The majority of is inventory comprise Russian fighter, transport and training aircraft, and helicopters. The latter includes 24 Mil Mi-24 MkIIIs upgraded by the South African Paramount Group, 42 Mi-28NE and 12 Kamov Ka-52 combat helicopters, and 14 Mi-26T2 heavy lift helicopters.

The Algerian Air Force operates a fleet of Mil Mi-24 Mk.III combat helicopters upgraded by the South African Paramount Group. (David Oliver).

In September 2019 Algeria ordered an additional 16 Sukhoi Su-30MKAs, joining the 58 already in service, and 14 Mikoyan MiG-29M/M2s from Russia. Both purchases are worth some $1.8 billion, but the value could exceed $2 billion if weapons and equipment are added. The MiG-29M is an improved version of the MiG-29 featuring longer range due to increased internal fuel, a lighter airframe, more powerful and improved Klimov RD-33MK engines, an in-flight refuelling probe, multi-function cockpit displays and improved avionics. These will replace some of its 36 obsolete MiG-29s bought from Belarus and the Ukraine in the early 2000s and which are planned to be retired around 2020.

Algeria had ordered more Sukhoi Su-30MKA fighter aircraft from Russia.

Sixteen Yakovlev Yak-130 advanced training aircraft have been delivered out of a reported requirement for 36 of the type. A considerable number of medium altitude long endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are operated by the AAF. These include South African Denel Seeker IIs, Chinese CASC CH-3 and CH-4s, and UAE developed armed Yabhon United 40s, operated by 545 Squadron based at Ain Oussera.

Algeria has also established a naval air arm equipped with six Leonardo AW101s and 10 AW Super Lynx 300 series.

Tunisian Air Force (TAF)

Following the Arab Spring, Tunisia had a revolution in 2011 that forced President Ben Ali from power ending his 23-year rule. Since then the country has been wracked by political assassinations and gathering political unrest. Tunisia’s Prime Minister Youssef Chahed sacked the country’s defence minister after consultation with the newly elected President Kais Saied in October 2019. The minister was seen as being close to former President Beji Caid Essebsi, who died in July.

Although the Tunisian military has played a lesser role than neighbouring Morocco and Algeria in domestic politics, it plays a professional role in defending the country from external threats, terrorism and smuggling, despite having to manage with a decreasing defence budget that fell to $856 million in 2018.

Although the Tunisian Air Force (TAF) has only one combat squadron equipped with Northrop F-5E/Fs based at Bizerte-Sidi Amed which are approaching obsolescence, and a small fleet of Aero L-59Ts in the counter insurgency (COIN) and reconnaissance roles, it is investing heavily in helicopters and training aircraft.

The TAF operates a small fleet of HOT-armed SA.342L1 Gazelle helicopters, five of which were upgraded by Aerotec Group in France in 2012 which included the installation of night sights also provided NVG flight training for the TAF pilots.

In 2017 it received a total of 24 surplus US Army Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warrior light attack helicopters. In September 2018 three Bell 429 GlobalRangers were officially inducted into service with the Unité Spéciale de la Garde Nationale (USGN), Tunisia’s elite paramilitary counter-terrorism unit. Delivery of 16 Sikorsky UH-60M Blackhawk helicopters began in 2019 which are being modified for a combat role with Battlehawk kits.

In October 2019 the US State Department approved a possible FMS of 12 Beechcraft T-6C Texan II training aircraft plus spare engines, flight trainer, spares, ground handling equipment, and other support worth an estimated $234 million. The T-6Cs will replace Tunisia’s ageing SIAI-Marchetti SF260 and Aermacchi MB326 trainer fleet.

As part of the bilateral relationship between the United States and Tunisia. African Lion is an annually scheduled, multilateral sponsored exercise, with the US Army Africa (USARAF), Morocco, and Tunisia playing leading roles. Exercise African Lion involves various types of training, including command post, live-fire and manoeuvring, peace keeping operations, an intelligence capacity building seminar, aerial refuelling/low-level flight training, as well as other medical projects.

A Tunisian Air Force C-130H taking part in the annual US-led exercise African Lion. (USAF).

Libya’s National Air Force

The Arab Spring led to a civil war in Libya, and the NATO-backed uprising resulted in the overthrow and death of its dictator, Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011. Libya’s National Army and Air Force were disbanded at the end of the civil war but re-established in 2012. However, by 2015 the military had split into two factions, the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) and the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).

The Libyan Air Force had been decimated during the civil war with a large number of pro-Gaddafi fighter aircraft and helicopters being shot down by rebel forces with MANPADs or destroyed on the ground by NATO’s misnamed Operation Unified Protector aircraft. Several MiG-21 and Mirage F1 pilots defected to the rebels with their aircraft.

However, by 2015 the country was sliding into a second civil war with the two factions operating their own emasculated air forces with no more than 30 serviceable aircraft, mainly Su-22s, MiG-23BNs, Mirage F1EDs, Mi-8s and Mi-24s, between them that are largely flown and maintained by mercenaries.

The Egyptian Air Force (EAF)

Fighter aircraft of the LNA’s Libya Dawn Air Force are reported to be flown by Egyptian pilots. The so called Arab Dawn was born in Egypt. In January 2011 widespread protests began against President Hosni Mubarak’s government. On 11 February 2011, Mubarak resigned and fled Cairo after which the Egyptian military assumed power. Mubarak, a former career officer in the Egyptian Air Force, was replaced in 2014 by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces. The country continues to face challenges, from political unrest, to terrorism and economic underdevelopment.

The military is influential in the political and economic life of Egypt and enjoys considerable power, prestige and independence within the state. Its 2018/2019 defence budget was $3.11 billion. Egypt receives more than $1 billion every year as military assistance from the United States plus aid from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

With more than 1,000 aircraft, the Egyptian Air Force (EAF) is ranked as the ninth largest in the world. Its large and diverse fleet includes aircraft from China, France, Russia and the United States. Five Tactical Fighter Regiments are equipped with a total of more than 150 upgraded Lockheed Martin F-16C/Ds, one Fighter/Ground Attack Regiment with 50 plus Dassault Mirage 5E2/SDRs and 15 Mirage 2000EMs, and a Fighter Regiment with 40 Chengdu F-7Bs.

The EAF is taking delivery of 24 Dassault Rafale Cs and 8 Rafale Ds from France, to become the first export customer for the type. Egypt has also ordered 46 MiG-29M/M2s from Russia and in late 2018 it was announced that it had placed $2 billion order for Su-35SK fighters for delivery in 2020-2021.

A total of 16 single-set Rafale Cs and 8 two-seat Rafale Cs have been delivered to the Egyptian Air Force. (Dassault).

Egypt has also ordered 46 Kamov Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopters from Russia and in November 2018 the US Department of Defense (DoD) notified Congress of a major $1 billion sale of defence equipment to Egypt, including 10 Boeing AH-64E Apache attack helicopters to supplement the EAF’s fleet of 35 AH-64Ds.

The new Apache’s will replace the EAF’s armed Gazelle fleet which is the largest in the Middle East. Egypt acquired at total of 108 SA.342L/K Gazelles during the 1970s, the majority of which were locally assembled by the Arab British Helicopter Company (ABHCO) at Helwan.

More than 60 remain is service, mainly HOT anti-tank missile-armed SA.342Ks, with the EAF’s Tactical Helicopter Wing based at Kom Awshim and the Helicopter Training Brigade at El Minya.

The backbone of the EAF’s transport/assault helicopter fleet are some 40 Mi-8Ts with 21 Westland Commando Mk.2s which are being supplemented by Sikorsky UH-60M Blackhawks. The heavy lift capacity is provided by 25 Boeing CH-47D Chinooks.

The EAF’s transport fleet is modest by comparison, equipped with 19 Lockheed Martin C-130Hs and 20 Airbus C-295s. These are supplemented by two Ilyushin Il-76MF military transports recently acquired from Jordan.

The EAF has made a significant investment in its training fleet with the acquisition of 120 Chinese K8 basic jet trainers to supplement some 50 Embraer EMB-312 Tucano turboprop basic trainers. A similar number of Aero L-59Es and Alpha Jets serve as advanced jet trainers with two-seat F-16 Ds, MiG-29s, Mirage 5SDDs and 2000BMs.

The Egyptian Air Force has a small fleet of unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) that includes the Chinese CASC Rainbow CH-4B and a number of recently delivered armed Chengdu Wing Loongs that have entered service with Task Force 777, Egypt’s military counter-terrorism and special operations unit.

Air Defence Exercises

The US-led biennial Bright Star exercise was first held in 1980 as a result of the Camp David Accords signed in September 1978. Exercise Bright Star is designed to strengthen ties between the Egyptian Armed Forces and the United States Central Command (USCENTCOM) and demonstrate and enhance the ability of the US to reinforce their allies in the Middle East in the event of war.

Two Egyptian Air Force HOT-armed SA-342K Gazelle helicopters participating in a live fire exercise during Bright Star. (USAF).

In October 2019 Egypt and Russia held the first Arrow of Friendship air defence exercise that focussed on air defence training and involved more than 100 Russian anti-aircraft troops from the Southern Military District. The purpose of the exercise was the exchange of experience between Russian and Egyptian military personnel in improving the practical skills of military personnel with the maximum combat capabilities of anti-aircraft missile systems with joint actions to repel conventional enemy strikes in various conditions.

The exercise involved Russian-made military equipment including the Tor-M2E, Buk-M2E and S-125 Pechora anti-aircraft missile systems, as well as Igla-S portable anti-aircraft missile systems, and Shilka-M4 self-propelled anti-aircraft guns.

Although long term stability is still not established in the majority of North African countries, most, with the exception of Libya, are continuing to expand their military air power with the assistance and encouragement of both the United States and Russia.

by David Oliver