Tuesday, May 31

The Rise and Fall of the EAF

Potez 25 A2 Serial no. 3, Nesre Makonnen (Prince Makonnen), Addis Ababa, 1933.

the rise and fall ... and rise and fall ...

This post is part of a sporadic history of the Air Force beginning with a few personalities and their airplanes in the Air Force of 1933 and continuing with Tsehay and a Roundel History on the eve of the 1935 Italian invasion.

A later entry ,Condors and Eagles from Harlem, covered the vital African-American contribution during the war and the post war reconstruction period into the 1950s. Future posts will look at first, the developing force in the 1950s under Swedish training and second, how exemplary Ethiopian leadership turned it into a modern self sustaining force with American jets by the 1960s.

The histories of the Italian, South African, and British Air Forces in Ethiopia are also interesting as well. The former used chemical weapons against Ethiopian soldiers and civilians, turning the tide against the defenders who had initially prevented Italians from advancing into the highlands. The latter two air forces helped to liberate Ethiopia during the Second World War. The British later bombed parts of Tigray during the original Woyene revolt.

Throughout the modern Imperial, Dergue and TPLF eras air power has often been the sharp edge of central power for good and ill amid all too frequent wars and rumors or war. For a partial listing of recent conflicts see War Makes Folks Poor.

Image from WINGS Palette: Avia Camouflage Profiles Archive.
FireflyF.Mk.2 of the Royal [Imperial] Ethiopian Air Force. [circa mid 1950s]

For years after its independence in the early 1960s, Somalia’s designs on the Ogaden were deterred in large measure by the Air Force and the preceding years of careful investment. There was never more than one divison (the 3rd) with a single mechanized / armored brigade deployed in Harar facing the whole Somali army and its hundreds of tanks.

This was achieved despite massive Soviet aid that far exceeded anything Ethiopia could afford or expect from her American ally (then distracted by the Vietnam War). After the fall of Siad Barre, Somalis asserted that Bishoftu (Debre Ziet) Air Force HQ was to have been the target for a large one way commando raid that was cancelled when the Soviets, who had written up the plans, changed sides.

After the Dergue’s purges crippled the Air Force and national arms in general (the armed forces of military dictatorships are generally worse than civilian ones), the Somalis invaded and were met by a hurriedly assembled force (often paroled out of prison and torture chambers). They gained air superiority with Israeli help. Later, extensive Soviet, Cuban and even some Southern Yemeni involvement helped to attain continued dominance over the invading Somalis.

Mengistu terrorized and held in check rebellious populations initially in Afar, then for years of bitter warfare in Eritrea and Tigray. Air power weighed in with tactical and strategic influence far in excess of its small size relative to the ground forces.

Most recently the Air Force was instrumental in a costly military (but ultimately not political victory - Eritrea won an arbitration that Ethiopia inexplicably submitted to ahead of time) victory against an invading independent Eritrea. Again the force had to be rebuilt with great difficulty, this time with Russian help and that of newly trained and (released from prison or rather strenuously re-recruited) Dergue era personnel. They gave Ethiopia control of the air over the battlefield while carrying through attacks on Eritrea proper as well.

Image from ACIG: Air Combat Information Group. Somali Air Force MiG-21.
"226" (c/n 8708) was one of six MiG-21MFs found by UN-troops at Mogadishu AB, in 1992. Somali MiG-21MFs were from early production batches, built at Znamya Truda Works, and painted in a lighter version of the pattern standardized for this version in the early 1970s. It certainly saw combat service during the Ogaden War, and subsequent civil war in Somalia, during the 1980s.

One obvious and recurring factor in this history is how important aviation has been because of its natural potency and because of the country’s terrain. Just as important a factor is how time consuming and incredibly expensive it is to train personnel and acquire equipment.

Foreign help has always been necessary in each successive cycle of rebuilding dictated by history. This was partially because of political issues surrounding the retention and trust of trained personnel as well as the country’s limited technical base.

It is important to note that in each successive period of rebuilding that Ethiopians mastered their weapons and techniques quickly after a period of intense training. Albeit at great cost, foreigners could always be brought back to serve but it was the precious core of Ethiopians whose loss was always at issue and whose presence was repeatedly missed.

It is also important to note that there is no shame in seeking foreign help - a government that needed it and didn’t get it out of pride would be idiotic.

One problem with foreign help is the political influence that comes with it. As long as Ethiopia had no aggressive intentions towards her neighbors Sweden and the US were content to foster an independent force. Internal struggles were different, it is hard to imagine either hanging on through the ugly civil wars the way the Soviets did.

Actually, without the native circumstances that dictated the Soviet alliance, the civil wars may not have happened. Anyway, Moscow exacted the greatest price of all for arms and assistance by demanding absolute subservience. Mengistu mortgaged the economy years into the future to pay for all the weapons he imported.

Unlike the Americans who trained technicians to service planes comprehensively, the Soviets routinely had parts like jet engines sent back home for repair to foster dependence. The American F-5 fighters acquired in the 1960s and 70s remained the favorite of the air force despite the number and variety of MiGs available because it could be used independently and becasue it was a superior machine. Soviet pressure forced Ethiopoia to sell them off to Iran during the mid-1980s.

Image from ACIG: Air Combat Information Group. F-5A above and F-86F below.
Between autumn 1961 and October 1962 the Imperial Ethiopian Air Force operated a flight of F-86Fs, drawn either from the 3rd Fighter Intercept Squadron (FIS) or 5th Fighter Bomber Squadron (FBS)as a part of the UN Air Force in Congo. Together with Swedish Saab J-29 Tunnans and Indian Canberras, the Ethiopian fighters operated against Katangese forces, flying several attacks against the airfields in Jadotville and Kolwesi.

When the Iranians started acquiring more advanced F-5E/Fs instead, a number of their F-5A/Bs was "cascaded" to third parties, including Jordan (which later supplied some of these aircraft to Greece) and South Vietnam. Interestingly, the survivors of ex-Iranian F-5As were sold back by Ethiopia to Iran - in 1985! (all artworks by Tom Cooper)

the mathematics of war

Ground forces are much simpler to deal with. Besides a relatively small elite who are given technical and other special training such as armor, intelligence, communications, artillery or logistics, many third world armies have a bleak ‘unit cost’ approach to soldiers and warfare. It is based on how much it costs to outfit one soldier with the basics such as an AK-47 and uniform while giving him basic training, token pay, and feeding him until battle. That figure is then multiplied by how many soldiers will be needed.

Not much thought is given to the wounded or adequate pensions (that is all considered far too expensive and many governments just don‘t give a damn). Survivors go back in line waiting for battle again while they pray for early victory and / or peace. Thus, there is a definite price tags of say $10 million (probably less) for a division's worth of infantry (about 10,000 men) - dead or alive.

In contrast just one fighter plane like a Russian built Ethiopian Air Force Su-27 costs tens of millions of dollars all by itself. In addition to the potential fiscal nightmare of every takeoff and landing, the pilot must be trusted absolutely or terrified into behaving properly.

Dictators are generally far more comfortable with a division based somewhere far away from the capital than with a single fighter pilot. A rebellious pilot can alone decide to pay a visit to the seat of power and stand a reasonable chance of doing in an instant what tens of thousands of secret police, bodyguards, spies and cadres live to prevent. Or the pilot could just defect - at great cost and embarrassment if he takes his plane with him.

Generally, pilots are intelligent and tend to 'think too much' for the tastes of most dictatorships and because their profession requires individual initiative they are constantly suspect. Often skills suffer because independent thought and action become punishable offenses. In any country, pilot selection is a serious business but while Brazilians or South Africans are concerned with physical and psychological rigor, unrepresentative governments have to worry about political intrigue and even tribal issues.

Throughout the Cold War, Middle East Wars and afterwards, American and /or European armed air forces have always been victorious against Soviet arms because they were more technically advanced but principally because of superior trust and personnel quality. For example, a Syrian pilot facing an Israeli or a Vietnamese facing an American came from a limited pool because of the required mastery of Ba’ath or Communist ideology and the preference for Alawite or 'revolutionary' family origins.

It can cost millions of dollars to take a French or Canadian and convert him into a combat pilot. Costs in a place like Ethiopia may be less but then training is also not as demanding because resources are lacking. In the end, given the relative sizes of the economies in question, each pilot is far more valuable to Ethiopia than she would be to a richer country.

Beyond easily imagined pilot qualities, the same factors are equally crucial for all important professionals such as mechanics or radar technicians and all of the other bearers of technical skills needed for the simplest operation. Those people don't just grow on trees either.

Thus an air force is to its country and its government an incredibly potent but intensely fragile creature requiring the very best of care and feeding.

Repeatedly, events in Ethiopian history have erased advancements made and building has had to start all over again at great cost and effort.

The first cycle surrounded Mussolini’s invasion, the second the overthrow of Haile Selassie, the third the overthrow of the Dergue, and the fourth came AFTER the recent Eritrean war.

Image from ACIG: Air Combat Information Group.
Ethiopian AF MiG-23BN. The type saw extensive use - in the hands of Cuban pilots [at first until Ethiopians were trained] - right since its arrival in Ethiopia, in 1977, and - operated by the 2nd and 3rd Sqn EtAF (which were previously a part of the 3rd Air Wing), remained the main fighter-bomber also during the war with Eritrea, in 1998-2000. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)

AFTER the Eritrean war!?

The TPLF government has destroyed the Ethiopian Air Force TWICE. That it did so in 1991 is quite understandable (although shortsighted in retrospect) given the mistrust felt for the Dergue’s most powerful weapon. However, the harm done to its own force after 2000 is revealing of government priorities and modes of governance. According to the Military Balance, a publication of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, these are the 2003-4 Ethiopian Air Force holdings.

FGA*: 25 MiG-21MF, 15 MiG-23BN, 4 Su-25F, 6 Su-27
Transport: 4 C-130B, 10 An-12, 6 DHC-6, 1 Yak-40 (VIP), 2 Y-12
Training: 12 L-39, 4 SF-260
Attack Helicopter: 25 Mi-24
Transport Helicopter: 20 Mi-8 and Mi-17

Personnel number about 2,500 from mechanics and cooks onto pilots and logisticians. There are about 130 aircraft, the most important of which are 50 combat aircraft also known as *FGA (fighter / ground attack) planes. They are generally capable of shooting cannon or missiles and dropping bombs on aerial or ground targets. None of these numbers reveal what an air force can really do because a listing says nothing of its readiness.

All of the combat aircraft above were made in the Soviet Union and most were inherited from the Dergue. They are generally obsolete or obsolescent types despite the refurbishment of some examples. The notable exception to this are the relatively modern Sukhoi made Su-25 ground attack and Su-27 air superiority (actually multi-role) models which performed well in the Ethio-Eritrean war of 1998-2000.

Before we go on we should make a comment about the crude traps set by tribalism in any Ethiopian discussion. The author of the article quoted below stumbles into one when he notes that an early problem in getting the first batch of fighter pilots up in the 1990s was recruitment of TPLF fighters, all Tigrayans. The problem was decidedly NOT their ethnicity. The issue was that selection was from an exceedingly small pool of ‘political reliables' to the exclusion of countless other TPLF fighters, Tigrayans in general and Ethiopians of every stripe.

The real tribalists set these traps to isolate Ethiopians from each other and particularly to isolate Tigrayans. Tigrayans have far more in common with all other Ethiopians than their self designated ethnic elite that oppresses everyone together regardless of ethnicity.

Image from WINGS Palette: Avia Camouflage Profiles Archive.
The small fleet of Eritrean MiG-29s was to be used in a very serious effort to establish the air superiority over the battlefield, obviously initiated by the Ukrainian instructors in Eritrea. The Russian - and later Ethiopian - pilots would not left themselves be surprised by the aggressive appearance of Eritrean MiG-29s, and in the following air battles through 1999 and 2000 Eritrean MiG-29s suffered considerable losses. Four replacements were purchased ever since.

That unpleasantness out of the way let us look at the latest cycle of rebuilding and destruction according to ACIG, the Air Combat Information Group. Mengistu was overthrown in 1991 and
In the following years, the new government was foremost busy with the famine and recovery from the long war, and the new EtAF [Ethiopian Air Force] was only re-established in 1995, when an unknown Sudanese Colonel was put in charge of a project for a creation of a new service. New cadets - all of them former TPLF-fighters and Tigreans - were recruited to be trained as pilots. There are reports, however, that most of these cadets did not go through the rigorous physical exams, and that these were a nightmare to train. Nevertheless, at some stage the first five pilots have qualified, and were then trained by the Russians on faster jets. Supposedly, one of these five defected, while another had to be removed from the course after showing reluctance to fly.

The new EtAF therefore needed much more investment and support in order to be rebuilt and operational again. Therefore, some pilots of the former EtAF were "accepted" (some of them forced to return on duty) again, together with more candidates from other Ethiopian provinces. By 1998, the situation was so that the EtAF had some 20 combat pilots - including at least one women - most of which were still inexperienced. The condition of the available support bases, spare parts, and ground personnel was grevious [sic] too. Thus, the Ethiopians started to look for mercenaries around the world. Within months, they could find some very good ones.

The Russian company Rosvoorouzhenie was already active in Ethiopia, over her representative, Col. Vladimir Nefedow and several other "instructors", most of which moved to Addis Ababa after the fall of Southern Yemen, in 1994. Thus the Russians and Ethiopians were fast to agree several large arms deals, and from the summer of 1998, not only deliveries of new hardware, but also a group of capable former officers of the Russian Air Force arrived in Ethiopia. First news about this reached Asmara very soon and - in a vain try to prevent any such "reinforcements" for the EtAF - Eritrean president Afewerki announced, that every foreign mercenary whose airplane might go down over Eritrea will be shot immediately upon his capture by the Eritrean forces.

The warning of Afewerki was not to change the minds of some 80 Russians arrived now in Addis Ababa on board several chartered Il-76s together with crates containing new radars, weapons, communication- and supply equipment. Not only the Russians were to help: at around this time ten refurbished MiG-23BNs were purchased from Romania as well. Thus, by late autumn 1998, the EtAF boasted some 18 MiG-23BNs, perhaps ten refurbished MiG-21 (some 30 other - non-refurbished - examples were held in reserve, and used as sources of spares), six An-12s, two DH-6s, 24 Mi-24/35s and 22 Mi-8s. A further deal with the USA, worth some $11 million, brought also four refurbished C-130Bs to Ethiopia.

But, this was still considered as not enough, especially as the availability of Russian mercenaries now made it possible for Ethiopia to acquire more modern aircraft. Thus a deal valued approximately $150 million was agreed with Moscow for sale of eight surplus Su-27S’ (including two two-seat Su-27UBs.
Due to the new Russian engagement in Ethiopia, the EtAF - now under command of former Russian Gen. Yanakow - was underway to became a force to be recknocked with again.
The Eritreans were not able to keep up financially and Al Ahram notes that while
Ethiopia's money seeems to have been wiser spent. Ethiopia's policy of purchasing relatively sophisticated weaponry seems to have paid off, while Eritrea has paid dearly for investing in small arms, more suited to guerrilla warfare -- a policy leftover from the days of the national liberation war against successive Ethiopian regimes.
In that vein, Eritrea was able to recruit Ukranians and spent $250 million on the next best thing to the Sukhois in the form of 10 MiG-29s that were very capable but inferior to the SU-27s across the border. The details of the war and of the air war are well beyond the scope of this essay but suffice it to say that the Ethiopian side maintained air superiority throughout.

Image from WINGS Palette: Avia Camouflage Profiles Archive.
Debre Zelt, Ethiopia, January 1999. In December 1998 and January 1999 Ethiopia received six ex-Russian Air Force Su-27S and two Su-27US' [that] entered service with either the No. 5 Fighter-Interceptor Squadron EtAF, and were initially mainly flown by Russian mercenaries.

How quickly Ethiopians mastered their new planes was shown in a 1999 aerial
engagement developed over the Badme area. This time, a lonesome Su-27S, flown by female pilot Capt. Aster Tolossa, was escorting several MiG-21s on a strike mission, when a single aircraft was detected, closing from the direction of Asmara. Capt. Tolossa turned to intercept and identified the target as an - apparently unarmed - Eritrean MiG-29UB. After some maneuvering, during which there was some kind of communications exchange between the crew of the MiG and the Sukhoi, the Ethiopian was high at enemy's 6 o'clock, when she realized that the pilot of the aircraft in front of her was her former instructor.

Capt. Tolossa immediately warned him that she was about to shot him down, and requested the Eritrean to land at Debre Zeit. He disobeyed, and Tolossa pulled the trigger. Exactly which weapon was used this time remains unknown, but it is highly likely that the Ethiopian used at least two air-to-air missiles, both of which were evaded, and then finished the target with 30mm gunfire.

The Eritrean pilot was certainly experienced enough to evade two missiles, and he also knew who and where was the enemy. While it remains unknown if anybody ejected from that MiG-29UB, it is certain that Capt. Tolossa was given a hero's wellcome back at her base; with right, then she was the first female fighter-pilot to show down an enemy fighter-jet in the history of air warfare.
It is hard to imagine what an unarmed MiG was doing in the air during a war where Asmara was minutes flying time from the border. However, the intercept, engagement and victory by a pilot with scant months flying one of the most sophisticated planes in the world is a remarkable achievement - this was not the only one of the
clashes between Ethiopian Su-27S' and Eritrean MiG-29s. Besides taking out four Eritrean MiG-29s - plus writing another off due to damage received from an air-to-air missile - Ethiopian Su-27s flew many strike missions against the Eritrean ground forces, using unguided rockets and "dumb" bombs, and also escorted almost all MiG-23 deep strikes into Eritrea.
Russian interests were foremost of commercial nature. The subsequent commercial successes of the Su-27s and other Russian-built equipment on international markets, as well as the pull-back of almost all instructors after approximately 12 months in Ethiopia, seem to confirm this. Once most of the Russians have left, however, the situation of the EtAF detoriated again.
That deterioration was not solely due to the Russian exit. Ingrained ideological and atavistic tribal thinking led the Ethiopian government to act against its own valuable force. According to a later ACIG report on events through 2004
The high spirits within the EtAF in the aftermath of success during the war against Eritrea, in 1998-2000 - were soon past.

In February and March 2003 no less but 15 senior Ethiopian officers – including fighter pilots, flight engineers, instructors, and technicians – have gone into exile in the face of worsening political repression and human rights violations in the country.
The report goes on to detail the defections of over a dozen key personnel that
created panic within the EtAF: all the remaining members of the air force – especially those who have closer friends or relatives living outside Ethiopia – are under close surveillance ever since.
[... one key figure who ...]
was highly respected as capable officer and pilot, which proved his capabilities during and after the war with Eritrea, as well as in subsequent anti-terror operations in Somalia beyond any doubt. Nevertheless, he was jailed afterwards because being a member of the legally-registered oppostion party All-Amhara People’s Organization (today All Ethiopian Unity Party). After spending two years and four months in prison, he was released and immediately went into exile.
With the war against Eritrea over, the government of President Miles Zenawi obviously turned against the EtAF and is about to completely demolish it because of inner-plitical issues.
Oromo personnel were also charged for alleged OLF (Oromo Liberation Front) espionage activities on behalf or Eritrea. The OLF had this to say
The Ethiopian Air Force, which is lately in jeopardy is said to be reorganized, according to sources close to the force.

Major General Alamishet Dagife, the Ethiopian Air force Commander said Ethiopian Air Force should be reorganized because many senior officials with so much of invaluable military information have defected to the neighbouring Eritrea and elsewhere. He explained his concerns about the future of the Ethiopian air force in a meeting of senior air force officials held recently in Dire Dhawa, Eastern Oromia.

The source elaborated that many of the important staffs of the air force are either dismissed from their jobs or indefinitely suspended following a series of the so-called `Gimgema` or evaluation , which is aimed at replacing key, posts by ethnic Tigrayans close to and loyal to Meles Zenawi.
Gimgemas are communist style 'criticism - self criticism' sessions which are quite unlike the company Christmas pary but are in fact predetermined group interrogation sessions designed to intimidate, punish and enforce party discipline. It is safe to assume that efficient militaries and bureaucracies in non revolutionary democratic countries do not have this nonsense.

The OLF goes on to note the vital role played by Oromos in the Ethiopian Air Force through history but that is only part of the truth. Tigrayans, Amharas, Gurages, and folks from Sidamo to mention only a few, were just as important. Indeed the Air Force was a melting pot of sorts because it gathered in so much highly motivated talent and nationalism from so many quarters.

If positions are now filled by Tigrayans it is because Tigrayans were the first victims of the TPLF. The government will never feel that it has sufficiently alienated Tigrayans from their fellow Ethiopians but knows them best so controlling them is considered easiest.

The only tribe that the government cares about numbers a few dozen or at the most a few hundred of the revolutionary aristocracy. Everyone else is a pawn in their tribal game.

So there you have it - the TPLF has managed to destroy the Ethiopian Air Force twice.

Image from WINGS Palette: Avia Camouflage Profiles Archive.
Early in 2003, ERAF acquired an unknown number of Su-27s and Su-27UBs, including Su-27s serialled 608 and 609 (shown here), and at least one Su-27UB, indicating that probably up to ten aircraft were acquired. The first examples are already sighted at Asmara AB.

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