Why did Libya add refueling probes to its swing-wing fighters?
by ARNAUD DELALANDE & TOM COOPER
On April 30, 2016, Capt. Adel Jihani of the Libyan National Army Air Force — the LNA/AF — made the first post-overhaul test flight in MiG-23BN serial number 8985.
The aircraft in question was acquired by the former Libyan Arab Air Force, or LAAF, from the former Soviet Union back in the late 1970s, and had been in storage at Al Abraq Air Base since the early 1990s along with MiG-23BN serial number 4136.
One of peculiarities of MiG-23BNs 4136 and 8985 is that both feature in-flight-refueling probes, which has surprised many foreign observers. The aerial-refuelling-capable MiG-23s are rare, weird birds with a compelling history.
Since the authorities in the House of Representatives in Tobruk moved to Tripoli and gained international recognition as the new government of Libya, the LNA/AF has remained loyal solely to Gen. Khalifa Haftar, still based in Tobruk.
Its technicians spent two months overhauling both MiGs, with some help from Egypt. Technicians from the Egyptian Air Force have supported the LNA/AF since October 2014, and Egypt has delivered to the LNA/AF up to two dozen of its old MiG-21MFs and at least a dozen Mil Mi-8T helicopters.
The service re-entry of the two MiG-23BN is of particular significance for the LNA/AF, because it lost its entire fleet of MiG-23s in earlier operations. Indeed, within a period of only a month and a half, the air force wrote off two MiG-23MLs — serial number 6472 on Jan. 4, 2016 and 6132 on Feb. 9 —plus one MiG-23UB, serial number 7834, on Feb. 12.
The two refueling-probe-equipped MiG-23s are the products of an LAAF project from the 1980s. In 1987, the Libyan government contracted with the West German company Intec Technical Trade and Logistics GmbH to develop and adapt IFR probes on different types of combat aircraft in Libyan service, and also to convert the LAAF’s Lockheed C-130H Hercules transports into tankers.
Initially modifying one MiG-23BN and one MiG-23UB from No. 1070 Squadron with French-made IFR probes, the German firm then went a step farther and developed its own IFR probe and installed it on another MiG-23BN.
Simultaneously, the West Germans converted one C-130H to serve as a tanker aircraft, installing the requisite refueling system in the cargo hold and indigenous IFR pods on underwing pylons. Flight testing of the resulting KC-130H tanker demonstrated that pilots flying Dassault Mirage F.1AD fighter-bombers — which were already equipped with IFR probes when Libya acquired them from France in 1978 — experienced no major problems keeping formation with the converted Hercules.
However, pilots flying the MiG-23s could barely control their aircraft at the rather slow cruising speed of the newly-converted tanker, which was around 215 knots.
Correspondingly, the decision was taken to install the same pods on one of the LAAF’s Ilyushin Il-76 transports. The conversion work and flight testing — which included one Il-76 and two Mirage F.1ADs — were barely complete when news broke of the West German-Libyan cooperation. Amid public uproar, Intec Technical Trade and Logistics canceled the aerial-refueling project.
Nevertheless, this experience — and the necessity of replacing old Tupolev Tu-22 bombers — compelled Libya to order Sukhoi Su-24MK fighter-bombers from the Soviet Union. Libya wanted 36 of the bombers along with six Ilyushin Il-78 tankers. However, only six Su-24s and one Il-78 — registration 5A-DLL — had arrived before the United Nations imposed an arms embargo on Libya in 1990.
The sole Libyan Il-78 is still operational. After flying for Jamhuriya Air Transport company from March 1990 until April 2005 and then going into storage, it’s now in hands of the forces loyal to the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord. However, it serves solely as a transport.
Meanwhile, the two overhauled MiG-23BNs joined No. 1070 Squadron of the LNA/AF, a unit that used to exist as a part of the LAAF back in 1970s and 1980s. Serial number 4136 flew its first combat sortie on May 4, 2016, followed by serial number 8985 — flown by Col. Idriss Al Obeidi — on May 24.
Ever since then, the two MiGs have been flying regular air strikes against Islamist militants in the Benghazi and Derna areas, and also against ISIS-affiliated militants in the Al Vakat area. Their availability has greatly eased the burden of the heavily-tasked pilots and ground crews of No. 1021 Squadron of the LNA/AF.
Update — one of the two refueling-capable MiG-23BNs crashed west of Benghazi on July 6, 2016, killing its pilot Col. Idriss Al Obeidi.