The significance of MiG-29s entering the Libyan conflict

by Paul Iddon

In a potentially significant development, Russian-built MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter jets are reportedly being deployed in Libya amid the ongoing civil war. The jets are either being supplied to or will be flown in support of the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) commanded by General Khalifa Haftar. The arrival of the MiGs comes shortly after Haftar suffered a significant strategic setback at the hands of his opponent, the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. 

A May 19 satellite photo showed at least one MiG-29 on the tarmac of the LNA-held Al Jufra airbase in central Libya. According to Fathi Bashagha, the Minister of Interior of the GNA, at least six MiG-29s along with two Su-24 Fencer bombers were flown from Russia’s Hmeimim Airbase in western Syria, escorted by two Su-35 Flanker-E Russian air force jets.

Almost a week earlier, a Russian Tu-154 Careless reportedly landed in Iran’s Hamedan Airbase. Six MiG-29s escorted the plane — possibly repaired, probably modernized, Syrian Air Force fighters — leading to speculation that they were the same aircraft now in Libya. As of writing, it is unclear if the jets were supplied directly from the Russian arsenal or the Syrian one. Syria’s MiG-29s, however, are visibly in poor shape, and an overhaul would have been costly. 

It is also not clear if this is the beginning of direct Russian military intervention in the Libyan Civil War of the kind it made in the Syrian Civil War back in September 2015. If so, there are some parallels between the situation in Libya today and in Syria then. For one, the LNA is increasingly on the defensive in Libya as a result of the GNA’s Turkish-backed “Operation Peace Storm”, which was launched in late March and won the GNA some notable battlefield victories. Back in 2015, Assad was on the defensive against various ragtag rebel groups seeking to topple his regime. They could well have done so had Russia not intervened as quickly and decisively as it did. 

Direct Russian intervention in the Libyan conflict wouldn’t be all that surprising. Moscow has already deployed Wagner Group’s paramilitary fighters on the side of the LNA. The US also recently accused Russia of secretly helping Assad move militiamen from Syria to Libya to fight with the LNA. 

Haftar has been trying to capture Tripoli since April 2019. Despite receiving backing from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, France and Russia, he has failed to do so. Since the launch of “Operation Peace Storm” in late March, Turkey’s support of the GNA has helped the group launch an increasing number of counterattacks, reducing the likelihood that Haftar can ever achieve his goal of conquering the Libyan capital. 

In a warehouse of long retired Mi-24A Hind A uncovered at Al-Watiya  (32°28'56.36"N 11°53'34.19"E).
In a warehouse of long-retired Mi-24A Hind A uncovered at
Al-Watiya (32°28’56.36″N 11°53’34.19″E).

Turkish Bayraktar drones, struck the western LNA-held al-Watiya airbase with 57 airstrikes and then captured it on May 18. GNA fighters at the base jubilantly posed for photographs beside captured military hardware. Equipment included aged fighter jets like Dassault Mirage F1s, Su-22 Fitters, and Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships, leftovers from the Gaddafi-era Libya military that have long been rendered inoperable. However, in a major propaganda coup, the GNA militiamen also captured a Pantsir-S1 (NATO reporting name SA-22 Greyhound) air defence missile system, which appeared intact. Subsequent GNA airstrikes also destroyed other Pantsir-S1s in the LNA’s possession. The formidable Russian medium-range air defence systems were probably, at least partly, supplied by the UAE, given their German-built Man-SX 45 eight-wheeled trucks, which are a distinct characteristic of Emirati Pantsir batteries. This version can be seen in some photos in addition to the standard ones, mounted on the KAMAZ-6560 8×8 chassis, which are probably employed by Wagner.

In light of these setbacks, Russia may well be intervening more decisively to bolster Haftar as well as send a clear message to Turkey not to cross certain lines in the Libyan conflict. 

The arrival of the MiG-29s has emboldened the LNA despite these recent setbacks. The jets’ purported arrival coincided with a threat by the group’s Air Force chief, Saqr al-Jaroushi, to unleash the “largest aerial campaign in Libyan history in the coming hours”. He also warned that Turkish positions are now “legitimate targets” for the LNA’s air force.

Turkey responded in kind, with presidential spokesperson İbrahim Kalın warning that “[w]e will respond to any attacks on our missions and interests in the strongest way and stress once again that we will consider Haftar elements as legitimate targets”.

Russian Wagner mercenaries were sighted on the streets of Bani Walid when they withdrew from the front in Tripoli on 23 May.
Russian Wagner mercenaries were sighted on the streets
of Bani Walid when they withdrew from the front in Tripoli
on 23 May.

The LNA claimed that they shot down seven Turkish drones south of Bani Walid and Tarhuna as well as destroying 20 GNA armoured vehicles in an airstrike against Gharyan city shortly after Ankara warned against any attacks on its interests in Libya. LNA spokesperson Ahmed al-Mismari also claimed that the group has successfully refurbished four Libyan warplanes without specifying what types. Although judging from remnants of the old Libyan Air Force, they are probably nothing more advanced than antiquated Soviet-era MiG-21 Fishbeds and MiG-23 Floggers. “The time has come for them to be used at their maximum fire power,” he said, echoing Jaroushi’s aforementioned declaration. However, it is unclear if any of these claims are true or if they are mere posturing on the LNA’s part to boost morale in light of the loss of al-Watiya and Turkey’s stepped-up military involvement in the conflict.

Aside from supplying its ally the GNA with several Bayraktar TB2 drones, armoured vehicles, and even thousands of Syrian militiamen, Turkey also flexed its military muscles more directly in the Libyan conflict in recent months. It sent two of its modernized ex-US Navy Hazard Perry-class guided-missile frigates to the Libyan coast. On April 1, one of those frigates even fired an SM-1 surface-to-air missile at an LNA drone. Turkish Air Force F-16s, along with aerial refuelling tankers, also appeared off the Libyan coast, demonstrating the potential capability of the Turkish Air Force to strike LNA targets. 

It is against this backdrop that MiG-29s have purportedly entered the Libyan fray. Their use in the coming days and weeks could play a significant role — especially if openly flown by Russian Air Force pilots that Turkey would not dare engage — in shaping the outcome of this increasingly violent conflict.

Update from June 1st, 2020
Last Friday, the U.S. Africa Command (USAFRICOM) issued a statement that Moscow has indeed deployed military fighter aircraft to Libya. The goal is to support Russian state-sponsored private military contractors (PMCs) operating on the ground there. According to USAFRICOM “Russian military aircraft are likely to provide close air support and offensive fires for the Wagner Group PMC that is supporting the Libyan National Army’s fight against the internationally recognized Government of National Accord.” USAFRICOM beliefes that the Russian-supplied aircraft are flown by Russian mercenary pilots. USAFRICOM commander General Stephen Townsend said that “Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favor in Libya. Just like I saw them doing in Syria, they are expanding their military footprint in Africa using government-supported mercenary groups like Wagner.” U.S. Air Force General Jeff Harrigian warns that “[i]f Russia seizes basing on Libya’s coast, the next logical step is they deploy permanent long-range anti-access area denial capabilities. If that day comes, it will create very real security concerns on Europe’s southern flank.”

This entry was posted in Armed Forces, English, International, Libya, Paul Iddon, Proliferation, Security Policy.

15 Responses to The significance of MiG-29s entering the Libyan conflict

  1. SA says:

    For some reason you seem to have forgotten to mention France among the sponsors of warlord Haftar in Libya. France not only hesitated to use European Union to help the warlord Haftar via the shameful “operation irini”, but also supplied the rockets that Haftar used to kill the scores of Tripoli residents:
    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/10/missiles-found-at-base-of-libyan-warlord-are-ours-france-admits

  2. SA says:

    It will be more difficult for Russia to justify a Syria-like engagement in Libya. In Syria, Russia helped the Syrian government whereas in Libya, we are talking about helping a warlord fighting against the UN-recognized Libyan government.
    Besides, a dominant Russian engagement in Libya will make US and Europe uneasy. Having said this, France may again prostitute European Union for their own interests in Libya, steering EU towards France’s International-Criminal-Court-material alliance with Russia in support of warlord Haftar. Hopefully, US would prevent it.

  3. Goddy Roy says:

    Dear Paul, in the conclusion to your wtite up. You mentioned that if Russia Pilots openly flies MiG29s for Haftha to attack Turkey backed GNA, Turkey pilots would not wish to dare to engage. It would be stupid assumption that Russian pilots would fly these MiGs as they have claimed repeatedly they don’t have Moscow Army in Libya but privately contracted Wagner Group, who Moscow said do not directly represents Russia government. It would be seen then that the same way GNA backed by Turkey has been destroying Wagna Group/ UAE – Russia Supplied Panstair S1, will also dare and engage Russian MiG29s to protect their interest in Libya. That would not mean they confronts Russian in a direct war, only that Russian using their Pilots to fly the Migs will further lead to Russia disgrace as they got in easy Target of their Pantsir-S1. Time will tell if Wagna Group will lay their life’s fir Hafter in the long run.

  4. Martins Offor says:

    When 2 elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.Pls let’s apply wisdom and finally stop the war.Libya was a rich and nice country, I lived and worked there till 2011 .

    • tolga says:

      For that to happen, the west should support the democracy not just in words, but on the field. Hafter is a criminal warlord who uses the imperialist ambitions of Russia, France, Saudi Arabia and UAE to finance its war on civilians of Libya. I understand Russia, UAE and Saudi Arabia, they don’t care about democracy obviously since they are corrupt monarchies. But France? France already killed millions of people in North Africa for 200 years. And still give lectures about democracy, human rights. Isn’t that funny?

  5. Marwan says:

    For those who refer to Hifter as a war lord, they haven’t a scooby of the issues on the ground.

    The Tripoli government failed to respond to ISIS running riot in the East and south of the country.

    In fact it was discovered that some of these Isis members were on government payroll. That’s when the discovery was made that the government consisted of Muslim Brotherhood who had wider ambitions of establishing an Islamic Caliphate.

    Now Libya is a conservative Muslims country but the natives don’t subscribe to the brand of Islam Isis represent.

    Thats when the locals requested the assistance of Hifter; someone with a military background and ties to rid the East and surrounding areas of this plague.

    The Tripoli government simply did not respond to it. It was completely quiet about it. Nobody knows why. Now that they’ve allied with Turkey it’s apparent that the Tripoli government is Muslim Brotherhood and shares Turkish ambitions to re-establish a Caliphate all but in name headed by the Turks.

    So to refer to Hifter as a war lord is a grave misunderstanding of issues on the ground.

    • Goddy Roy says:

      It is a fallacy and story meant for fools to think that Hafter’s fight in Libya is to rid off islamusts and ISIS elements. He’s fighting a selfish power grab war to become a dictator. Most African leaders in history like Hafter’s deceives people to come to power only to become dictators. Hafter a currently not fighting ISIS and Islamust only. He’s if fighting and killing those he purports to be their leaders in hospitals and residential homes and civilian airports. He will end up worst than Gadaffi if he become head of Libyan as he has already declared himself as a head of Libyan unilaterally to the surprise of his backers of UAE, Egypt, Russia and France. Now that Hafter has withdrawn the Wagner from Western Libyan in preparation of air attack having fail to conquer Tripoli on land war, the world is waiting for him to start using the MiG29s to kill the people he intend to rule in Libyan

  6. For those interested in the historical background of General Khalifa Haftar: Austin Michael Bodetti wrote an article about him for offiziere.ch in April 2018 (“The controversial Strongman behind Libya’s Descent into Chaos“), which is worth reading.

  7. Statement says:

    Turkey has had no problem engaging and downing Russian piloted aircraft as in the 2015 Su24. Turks have experience with Russian pilots, don’t think they are concerned.

  8. Dear Marwan. Haftar is a Warloard and a Criminal. Most news outlets have contributed that the majority of the civilian deaths are due to the indiscrimante shelling of Haftars forces. Also who is supporting Haftar? France and their criminal history in Africa. Egypt led by Sisi and coming to power by hailing and killing the first democratically elected president. Saudi and Dubai leaders (do I really need to say more). This pitiful excuse that is used by people like you and the West (fighting Islamists) is getting old and weak. Turkey the last time I checked is supporting the internationally recognized government. Very weak point you made my friend (Marwan)

  9. peter says:

    Brian Castner sollte beim Romane schreiben verbleiben. Welchen Sinn machen 6 Flieger in Libyen ?
    Libyen hat die mehr als 3 fache Grösse von Frankreich und 5x grösser als Deutschland. Welchen Sinn machen 6 Flieger bei dieser Grösse ? Antwort überhaupt keine. Abgesehen davon, dass Libyen noch eine offene Bestellung in Russland hat von 24 Mig-29.
    General Haftar ist klar der CIA zugeordnet warum sollten die Russen den gross stützen ? Die aktuelle Regierung in Libyen bringt es auf keinen grünen Zweig. Sie muss schnellstens abgelöst oder gestürzt werden.

  10. Martins [email protected] says:

    The world need peace in Llbya, a very rich oil producer.The more fight goes on there, the more the world.I lived and worked there for 12years and left during the war in 2011 .When two or more elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.Stppndestabilizing Africa because of greed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *