You’re a Libyan Military Pilot Trainee — Now Who Do You Fight For?

WIB air September 19, 2016 War Is Boring 0

The 110 cadets who graduated from the Egypt Air Force Academy on July 20, 2016. Insignia visible on left shoulders confirms the presence of...
The 110 cadets who graduated from the Egypt Air Force Academy on July 20, 2016. Insignia visible on left shoulders confirms the presence of at least six Libyans. Photo via the author

Two options, one more realistic than the other

by ARNAUD DELALANDE

In the last three years, perhaps more than 100 Libyan air force cadets have trained at foreign air force academies.

Most of them began their training in 2012 and 2013 before the Libyan government split into two — and the two factions divided up Libya’s air force between them.

So now here’s the problem. You’re a Libyan military pilot and you’ve just graduated from training abroad. Which air force do you join? The Government of National Accord’s Libya Dawn Air Force in Tripoli, or the Libyan National Army Air Force, which answers to Gen. Khalifa Haftar in Tobruk?

It seems most are siding with Tobruk.

On July 20, 2016, 110 cadets graduated from the Egyptian air force academy after three years of study. Thirty-five are Libyan, according to Libyan sources.

Egyptian president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi awarded medals to the first graduates from Egypt and the State of Palestine, Kuwait, Libya, Sudan and South Sudan. And on July 29, 2016, the Libyan military attaché in Egypt honored the top Libyan officers graduating from the Egyptian army, navy and air force academies.

Egypt supports Haftar’s Tobruk government and even provided that regime eight former Egyptian air force MiG-21MF fighter jets and at least 10 Mi-8T helicopters, as well as spare parts and technicians and engineers.

Thus it seems logical that the 35 new pilots will probably join the LNA/AF, which as of September 2016 had three MiG-21UMs in service with Squadron 1021. These dual-seat aircraft function as both trainers and bombers.

On May 18, 2016, a fourth LNA/AF MiG-21UM crashed due to a technical failure during takeoff for a training mission from Gamal Abdel Nasser Air Base, killing the pilot, Col. Mohamed Rabie Al Shawa and injuring the co-pilot, Capt. Abdul Qader Mohammed.

Al Shawa was Syrian. He joined the Libyan air force in 1981 as a pilot instructor on the MiG-21 and trained a large number of pilots for Squadron 1021.

Libyan cadets with the Transport Conversion School at Chaklala in Pakistan in August 2016. A Pakistani air force CASA CN-235–220 can be seen behind them. Photo via the author

Training on heavies in Pakistan

In 2014, before Libya’s government schism, 99 Libyan military cadets traveled to Pakistan for training. With the split between Tobruk and Tripoli, a lack of payment compelled 44 cadets to return home, leaving just 55 in Pakistan as of December 2015.

Payment continued to be a problem. But as of August 2016, at least nine Libyan cadets remained in the Pakistani air force academy’s Transport Conversion School based at Chaklala.

The TCS, part of №3 Squadron, provides qualified aircrew for the C-130 Hercules, borrowing aircraft from №6 Air Transport Support Squadron. The fact that Libyan cadets are still studying in Pakistan indicates that someone at least partially solved the payment problem, but it’s hard to say exactly who paid.

Once again, the Tobruk government is the likely sponsor. Indeed, by the end of July 2016 the Libya Dawn Air force had run out of money and wasn’t even able to pay its mercenary pilots and engineers — many of whom promptly left Libya.

But here’s the catch. The comparatively resource-rich Libyan National Army Air Force actually has no significant fleet of transport aircraft, while the broke Libya Dawn Air Force still possesses at least one C-130H — serial number 118 — plus one An-32P and one Il-78. Veteran pilots fly these transports alongside a few Sudanese mercenaries.

It would make more sense for Tripoli to sponsor transport pilot trainees, as it has planes for them to fly. But the planes don’t matter if the Government of National Accord can’t play for cadets to learn to fly them.

Col. Ali Arbaty ready to take off in a French Mirage F.1B in April 2014. Photo via the author

Stragglers in Greece and France

In 2012 and 2013, some Libyan cadets enrolled in the Greek air force academy located at Dekelia Air Base. The first two pilots graduated on July 23, 2015 after three years of study and training on Cessna T-41D Mescaleros with 360th Air Training Squadron and on Beechcraft T-6A Texan IIs with the 361st Air Basic Training Squadron at Kalamata Air Force Base.

It seems that new cadets arrived at the academy from September 2014, after the split of the two Libyan air forces. One of them made his first flight on a T-41D in April 2016. It’s unclear which air force these trainees will ultimately join, but the LNAAF is the safe bet.

The same applies to the cadets training in France. In April 2014, a few experienced Libyan pilots carried out training flights on the Mirage F.1B with EC 2/33 based at Mont-de-Marsan in France. Many of the Libyan pilots hadn’t flown since the Libyan uprising of 2011.

Col. Ali Arbaty, one of the two Libyan pilots who had defected to Malta in February 2011, had made his last flight in February 2012 when he convoyed his Mirage F.1ED to Mitiga air base near Tripoli.

Returning to Mitiga following their flights in France, Arbaty and his fellow pilots refused to fly for the Libya Dawn Air Force and strike other Libyans. That, and Libya Dawn’s inability to sustain overseas training, helps to explain why the LDAF has tried to recruit mercenaries to fly the Mirage F1ED.

Of course, paying the mercenaries could prove challenging, too.

The recent seize of Libyan oil terminal headquarters by LNA forces, the arrival of newly-trained pilots and the continued support of Egypt all will strengthen Haftar’s position and make it difficult for the international community to deny him a role in governing Libya in the future.

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