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.
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”.
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.”