Who’s backing who?
by ARNAUD DELALANDE
On May 16, 2016, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council expressed their readiness to lift the world body’s arms embargo on Libya in favor of the new Government of National Accord.
For one reason. The GNA’s deputy prime minister Musa Al Kony had requested planes and helicopters to equip his forces fighting the Islamic State. The GNA relies on the Libyan Dawn Air Force, or LDAF, for its air power. But the LDAF is really suffering.
The request highlighted Libya’s confusing politics. The GNA, based in Tripoli in western Libya, has many rivals. And arguably the strongest of these rivals is the House of Representatives in the eastern city of Tobruk.
The Tobruk authorities include Gen. Khalifah Haftar, an easterner whose Libyan National Army/Air Force, or LNA/AF, is currently Libya’s most powerful air arm.
The embargo Al Kony was trying to get lifted was imposed by the U.N. Security Council as part of Resolution 1970, adopted on Feb. 26, 2011. It covers arms exports, provision of weapons and ammunition, military vehicles and equipment and related spare parts.
Two additional resolutions — 2009 from Sept. 16, 2011 and 2095 from March 14, 2013 — granted permission for the provision of nonlethal equipment, technical assistance, training and financial support. The flow of spares, supplies and equipment has been increasing.
On Sept. 6, 2014 for example, a Sudanese transport plane was forced to land and refuel at Kufra airfield in southeastern Libya. The aircraft reportedly continued toward Tripoli with a cargo of ammunition.
Split of the Free Libyan Air Force
Truth is, nobody really cares anymore about the arms embargoes on Libya. Indeed, over the last two years the two competing Libyan air forces have received a significant quantity of new aircraft and helicopters from various supporters abroad.
However, because so many experienced pilots and ground personnel have scattered — and because maintenance and refurbishment of old equipment is a true headache, the Libyan air forces’ operations require plentiful support.
While the Libyan air forces have been able to source some additional spares through the cannibalization of aircraft the two regimes found abandoned around different air bases, they still lack experienced personnel. Numerous fatal accidents have exacerbated the manpower problem, as has the political schism that has divided the small pool of airmen and planes.
Most of the available pilots, aircraft and equipment were taken over by the LNA/AF, which also inherited the majority of the former Libyan regime’s MiG-21 and MiG-23 fighters. The LNA/AF also took over three Mi-35 and two Mi-8 helicopters donated by Sudan in 2013.
The LDAF was left in control of Misurata and Mitiga air bases and a miscellany of L-39 Albatrosses, G-2 Galebs, J-21 Jastrebs, and two Mirage F.1EDs.
Egypt and the United Arab Emirates to the rescue
In 2014, Egypt began providing support to the LNA/AF through donations of combat aircraft and helicopters withdrawn from service in its own air force. It was in this fashion that seven MiG-21MFs and eight Mi-8Ts, together with significant consignments of spares and ammunition, found their way to Tobruk.
In April 2015, the United Arab Emirates purchased four Mi-35Ps from Belarus and delivered them to the LNA/AF, too. In June of the same year, an AT-802 light attack plane belonging to the United Arab Emirates Air Force was spotted at an unidentified Libyan air base, albeit with its national markings hidden.
Meanwhile, the LNA/AF acquired additional aircraft through the capture of El Woutiya air base in western Libya in August 2014. A number of Mirage F.1ADs and Su-22s were stored inside hardened aircraft shelters at the base. In late 2015, ground crews began overhauling at least one of each type.
In early 2016 the LNA/AF suffered the back-to-back-to-back losses of three MiG-23s and one of their pilots, and was thus forced to start overhauling, as replacements, two MiG-23BNs and one MiG-23UB found at Al Abrak air base.
Such overhauls are time-consuming processes in which the aircraft are completely stripped down and most of their wiring, plumbing and many of their assemblies and sub-assemblies are completely replaced. Overhauls cost money, require not only qualified but experienced personnel and also consume a lot of equipment and spares.
Although one might expect that the complex work of overhauls would monopolize the LNA/AF’s limited resources and thus curb its other operations, this did not in fact happen.
On the contrary, operational MiG-21s and MiG-23s have flown in combat, as usual. Libyan pilots even found the time to train a few new pilots on MiG-21s. This in turn indicated that the service had begun receiving technical support from abroad — most likely from Egypt.
This was confirmed on July, 20, 2016, when it became known that the first two entirely new LNA/AF pilots graduated from training in Egypt.
The LDAF was not as lucky. It not only lacked significant numbers of aircraft, but also qualified pilots and ground personnel. Therefore in 2014, the LDAF contracted a group of Ukrainian technicians from Odessa Aviarem to overhaul and return to service two MiG-23MLDs.
The LDAF also found a number of intact and recoverable MiG-25s stored at different other air bases around the country. The LDAF disassembled several of them and loaded them on its sole Il-78 transport, probably piloted by a Sudanese crew, and brought the MiGs from Al Jufra/Hun to Misurata.
The LDAF then paid a group of Ukrainian technicians from Zaporozhie to return at least one of the MiG-25s to service. While their work was successful, tragically the aircraft in question crashed during its first operational sortie, in May 2015 — and this while attacking the LNA/AF’s base in Zintan.
By early 2015, the LDAF managed to make operational both of its Mirage F.1EDs, but their pilots then refused to fly and, in their own words, “bomb Libyan people.”
So LDAF authorities contracted the Ukrainian company Glissada — specializing in the provision of spare parts for Soviet-made aircraft and helicopters — as well as the Ukrainian Amber Tiger Company and Jordan-based Caravana Middle-East to find suitable pilots.
The first two foreign mercenaries appeared in Misurata in June 2015. One of them refused to bomb LNA troops and had to leave. The other carried out several air strikes. More mercenary pilots soon arrived.
Despite the for-hire reinforcements, a lack of spares, maintenance personnel and pilots resulted in the LDAF being reduced to just one operational Mirage F.1ED, two MiG-23MLDs, one J-21 and few G-2s and L-39s by April 2016. A second Mirage lacked an engine.
The LDAF’s loss of Woutiya air base to the LNA was a bitter pill, as this air base includes the main storage depot for Mirage F.1-related spares. Worse, in June this year the LDAF’s last F.1ED crashed. The fate of its mercenary pilot is still unclear.
Since then, the condition of the LDAF has improved by only a narrow margin. The United States and several other foreign powers have turned down the LDAF’s requests for help.
Washington refused to release even a bare minimum of spares necessary to return a number of aircraft and helicopters of U.S. and Italian origin to operational service. The only success was acquisition of a replacement engine for the last surviving Mirage F.1ED — apparently from sources in Greece.
It therefore comes as no surprise to hear Tripoli begin accusing France, Great Britain, the United States, Italy, the UAE and Egypt of backing Haftar and the authorities in Tobruk. Suspiciously, three French government agents died in the crash of a LNA/AF helicopter near Benghazi on July 17, 2016, seemingly confirming the foreign backing of Haftar’s LNA/AF.