Egypt Has Joined the Air War in Libya
The skies are getting crowded
On May 26, 2017, armed men traveling in pickup trucks gunned down 28 Coptic Christians and wounded 26 as the Christians were on their way to visit a monastery in Egypt’s Minya province.
Islamic State has claimed its responsibility for the attack.
That same evening, Egypt announced that its air force had carried out six air raids on ISIS camps near the Libyan city of Derna. Cairo suspects that the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council, an Al-Qaeda-affiliated coalition of Islamist militias that formed in December 2014, supported the murders.
The strikes involved F-16C/D Block 52s covered by at least two Rafales. Weirdly, the Egyptian government posted a video supposed illustrating the operation, but the footage actually depicts a later strike on the city of Hun.
The same day as the killings, the Libyan National Amy Air Force — the air arm of one of the two major regimes competing for control of Libya — stated that it had assisted the Egyptians. “Our fighter jets performed a joint operation with the Egyptian air force in Derna,” the LNA claimed.
An Egyptian air force F-16. Photo via the author
“The Egyptian side used modern fighters Rafale aircraft to target sites that need special munitions identified prior to the strike, as well as two targets that were identified during the operation. The operation comes within the framework of a series of operations in preparation for the entry of the ground forces of the Libyan army to the city of Derna and free it from the terrorists.”
This was not the Egyptian air force first air raid in Libya. On Feb. 16, 2015, six Egyptian F-16s hit ISIS training centers and ammunition stores in Derna in retaliation for the killing of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians migrant workers whom ISIS had kidnapped in the city of Sirte in December 2014 and January 2015.
But the Derna raid raises questions. For one, the Derna council that Egypt claimed supported the ISIS murders in fact has bitterly fought the terror group. Furthermore, the day of the retaliatory strikes, the LNA conducted four other air raids targeting ammunition depots and DMSC sites near the western entrance of Derna.
That suggests that Egypt uses the murders as pretext to fly air cover for the LNA’s unrelated operations in eastern Libya. The Egyptian air force flew additional air raids on May 27, 2017 — this time targeting Hun, where the Saraya Defend Benghazi, an Islamist militia group, formed in June 2016.
A third wave of bombing mission on May 28 and 29 struck DMSC positions in western Derna. This aerial support of Egypt in favor of the Libyan National Army confirms what War Is Boring asserted in April 2017 — that the LNA is running out of air power … and needs help.
An Egyptian air force E-2 radar plane. Photo via the author
The destruction of the LNA’s Brak Al Shati air base by fighters of the Misrata’s Third Force on May 18, 2017, as well as the loss of a reconnaissance aircraft — a SIAI Marchetti SF.260 loaded with rocket launchers – in the vicinity of Kufra on May 23 both dealt blows to the LNA’s air arm.
It might seem surprising that the Egyptian F-16Cs needed high-tech Rafales to escort them, as the only Libyan planes in the area are the LNA’s own dwindling MiG-21s and MiG-23s. Besides that, F -16s have the ability to defend themselves.
It’s possible Egypt sent the Rafales purely as a wider show of force. It’s also possible Cairo feared the Misrata militants might send Mirage F1s to challenge the F-16s. The air force of the Misrata militia — formerly the Libya Dawn Air Force — has been reinforced by the arrival of mercenary pilots and mechanics who are working hard to refurbish several aircraft including the Mirages.
These pilots are very experienced in combat and know the Libyan theater well. Several of them participated to the battle over Sirte between April and July 2016, notably in the Abu Grein area, 120 kilometers south of Misrata.
A pair of old Mirage F1EDs couldn’t do much against modern and well-equipped F-16Cs, but Cairo perhaps wasn’t willing to risk losing a plane and a pilot as the Libyan war draws in more and more regional powers.