By:The Air Combat Information Group
On 28 November 1997, Eritrea introduced its new currency, Nakfa. The move resulted in a strong protest from Ethiopian government, which started a boycott of Eritrean ports. This, as well as Ethiopian pressure on Eritrean economy, caused a high inflation and problems with food supply in Eritrea, and increased tensions between the two countries. On 12 May 1998, Ethiopia accused Eritrea for occupying parts of its territory along the border in the Badme region and attacked couple of Eritrean positions with artillery. The Eritreans answered, that on 6 May their troops only took back some ground taken by Ethiopians six months before. Although only the begin of the new dispute, those first skirmishes were enough for the Ethiopian Airlines to cancel all its flights from Addis Ababa to Asmara. By 31 May 1998, further clashes between border patrols developed close to Dalgedo, not far from Alitena. The intensity of these first battles was actually low, but soon enough both sides started deploying their larger units, and a large battle developed in the area around 3 June, with both sides exchanging artillery, rocket and mortar fire.
Two days later, both the Eritrean and Ethiopian air forces went into action. At 09:45h in the morning, two MiG-23BNs of the EtAF (Lt. Mulugelta Wolde Raphael flew as #2 of this formation) appeared low over the airport of Asmara and opened fire. During their attack one Boeing 727 of Aero Zambia and two hangars were hit. Also, one person was killed and five others injured when one of the bombs hit the bus station outside of the airport. Ethiopians were confronted with a hail of Eritrean anti-aircraft fire and one of the MiGs was hit, crashing in the suburbs of Asmara. The pilot failed to eject. Only couple of hours later, the USA started an evacuation of foreign citizens from Eritrea and a US chartered Airbus A300 evacuated the first group of 190 civilians.
|Ethiopian AF MiG-23BN. The type saw extensive use – in the hands of Cuban pilots – 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)|
During the same afternoon, the Ethiopians reported two attacks of Eritrean MB.339FDs on the city of Mekelle, the capital of Ethiopian province Tigray. Supposedly, as many as 44 civilians were killed and 135 injured as cluster bombs were used. It remains unknown if this was the incident in relation to which the then Commander of the ERAF, Brig. Gen. Habte Zion Hadgu, in an interview to Reuters, published on 9 June of the same year, boasted “One to one-hundred – that’s an exchange rate!”.
For the EtAF it was clear that something had to be done in order to surpress the ERAF. Thus, on the morning of 6 June 1998, two Ethiopian MiG-21s repeated the attack on the airfield of Asmara and the air base of the ERAF close by. However, the Eritrean anti-aircraft fire was heavy again and one MiG (“1083″) was shot down. The pilot, Col. Bazbeh Petros, one of the most experienced Ethiopian pilots, ejected and was immediately captured (Col. Petros was shot down by Eritreans in the 1980s while flying a MiG-21 as well; he was released in 1991 and became one of the first pilots the new Ethiopian government recalled into the new Air Force – despite the fact that his brother, Dr. Beyene Petros, is one of the leaders of Ethiopian opposition). The MiG-21 of Petros’ wingman, Lt. Alemayehu Getachev, was also damaged, but returned safely to the base. Although Ethiopians actually wanted to destroy the small Eritrean Air Force on the ground by their air strikes, they were not successful and this was temporary the last Ethiopian air attack, as the government in Addis Ababa agreed to wait with further similar operations till 07:00 of the 7 June, in order to give 1.500 foreign citizens more time to left Asmara. During the evening, around 19:15h, an Airbus A310 of the German Luftwaffe started towards Jeddah, and around 01:00h of the next day a RAF Hercules C.1 managed to get away. The last foreign airplanes that took off were two US C-130s, two An-24 chartered by the UN, and one Italian airliner.
The First “March on Asmara”
In the meantime, Eritrean ground troops – supported by their MB.339FDs – repulsed couple of Ethiopian attacks in the Badme and Tsorona regions. However, on 6 June one of the Macchis was shot down due to the north of Mekelle. The pilot ejected and was rescued by an Mi-8 of the ERAF. At the same time, Ethiopians also attacked Zalambessa, a small but heavy fortified city on the central part of the border. On the 9 June, Addis Ababa claimed the capture of the Zalambessa, however, one Eritrean brigade, supported by MB.339s and BM-21 rocket-launchers, counterattacked and hit the Ethiopians very hard, throwing them several kilometers back in the process. The Eritrean Macchis were deployed again on the next day during the fighting around Erde Mattios. Ethiopians claimed that local hospital was hit during air attacks and 30 people killed there. Their tries to breach Eritrean positions and march toward Asmara were stopped however, and the ERAF became even more aggressive. On the morning of the 12 June 1998, two Eritrean Mi-8 appeared in low level over Addis Pharmaceutical works, in Adigrat, attempting to bomb it. Their weapons, however, fell few yard from the plant and caused only minor damage. Only couple of hours later, four MB.339s rocketed and cluster-bombed against several targets in the city as well. According to Ethiopian sources four people died and 30 other were injured during those attacks.
|New look of EtAF An-12Bs can be clearly seen on this photograph, showing one in front of a row of C-130s supplied from the USA, in 1999. (AFM)|
However heavy the fighting was, on 14 June the USA reported that a first small agreement between Addis Ababa and Asmara could be reached, in which both sides promised not to attack any population centres. An agreement about the pull-back of Eritrean troops from areas claimed by Ethiopia, negotiated by US and Russian envoys, was rejected by Eritrea and sporadic fighting continued on at least six different points along the border. Thus the Organization of African Unity (OAU) became active and on 3 August 1997 a new agreement about a cease-fire could be reached. What actually followed was a period of relative peace in which both sides tried to strengthen their forces. Very soon there were reports about large deals made with Russian companies.
Pains of the Ethiopian Air Force
At the time of the first battles, in late Spring 1998 – both the EtAF and ERAF had immense problems. Ethiopian Air Force had an advantage of 10:1 in aircraft (and her MiG-21s and MiG-23s were certainly more suitable for air-to-air and air-to-ground operations than small Eritrean MB.339s), but, there were not enough pilots for all the available planes to go around. Actually, the EtAF was – for all purposes – non-existent between 1991 and 1995. The reason for this was the complete destruction of communist regime, including the air force, during the fighting in 1991. All the officers and pilots down to the rank of a major were imprisoned, either by the new regime (which imprisoned 26 pilots), or by the Eritreans. According to Ethiopian oppositional sources, the following officers captured during the fighting in 1990-1991 were still held imprisoned by the new government as of 1999, almost all of them on charges for attacking civilian targets during the war with Eritrea and the civil war in Ethiopia, in the 1980s:
- Maj.Gen. Alemayehu Agonafer, a mechanical engineer and former head of the ERAF;
– Brig.Gen. Mesfin Haile, former CO of Asmara AB;
– Brig.Gen. Teshale Zewdie, a F-5- and MiG-23-pilot, former CO of the 2nd Squadron, stationed at Asmara AB;
– Brig.Gen. Haile Michael Birru, a F-5- and MiG-21-pilot, former Operations Commander and Inspector General of the EtAF;
– Col. Berhane Meskel, a Mi-24- and C-130-pilot, which worked with the Ethiopian Airlines (EAL) at the time of his capture;
– Col. Teka Makonnen, an An-12B- and C-130-pilot with the EAL;
– Col. Tigneh Woldegiorgis, a highly experienced former F-5-pilot, and lately working for EAL;
– Col. Birhanu Wubneh, F-5-pilot and MiG-21-instructor while with the EtAF, working as C-130-pilot with the EAL;
– Col. Brihane Kebede, F-5-pilot, An-12B-instructor, and also C-130-pilot with the EAL;
– Col. Gizaw Deriba, foremr CO of Asmara AB, MiG-23- and C-130-pilot;
– Col. Asmare Getahun, former F-86-, MiG-23, and An-12B-pilot, equipment commander of the EtAF, and lately C-130-pilot with the EAL;
– Col. Kassaye Kifle, a Mi-24- and An-12-pilot and instructor;
– Col. Tilahun Nebro, F-86- and MiG-21-pilot and instructor;
– Col. Admikew Mammo, Mi-24- and An-12B-pilot;
– Lt.Col. Dessalegn Mebratu, MiG-23-pilot;
– Capt. Salomon Kifle, Mi-24-pilot;
– Capt. Getachew Maru, MiG-21-pilot;
– Capt. Tarekegen (Gashu) Mekonen, a helicopter- and fighter-pilot, squadron leader and instructor;
– Lt. Kifle Wube, MiG-21-pilot.
Such claims were not entirely truth, however: at least six of the people on this list died in captivity by 1998, and two others – including Maj. Bekele Zegeye (former Mi-24- and DHC Twin Otter-pilot) and another officer the name of which we were not permitted to reveal – were released before the war with Eritrea. All the others were released by the mid-2000.
In the following years, the new government was foremost busy with the famine and recovery from the long war. The EtAF was re-established already in 1991, under command of Gen. Abebe Tekle-Haimanot (who remained in this position until 2001), but was not very active until 1995, when – according to unconfirmed reports of the Ethiopian opposition – an unknown Sudanese Colonel was put in charge of a project for complete reorganisation of the air force.
The EtAF was by the time foremost in need of new pilots. Already since the failed coup staged by air force officers against the Derga regime, in 1988, all of its future fliers would usually receive their basic flying training at the Ethiopian Airlines Flying School, based at Addis Ababa International Airfield, before re-qualifying on jets (L-39s). New students – mainly former TPLF-fighters and ethnic Tigreans – were now 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. Such reports come mainly from Ethiopian oppositional sources. The matter of fact is that during the civil war in Ethiopia, in the 1980s, the Derg government was mainly from central and southern parts of the country, while the armed opposition and the party ruling the country since 1991, the TPLF, was from the Tigray, the northern-most Ethiopian state. For this reason, when the Derg-junta was removed, there was a new kind of tensions between different people in northern and southern Ethiopia. The TPLF had no air force; the EtAF as it was during the Derg times was mainly manned by officers from southern Ethiopia. Consequently, the new government distrusted the EtAF a lot in the early 1990s, and only a very small number of Derg officers – all bellow the rank of colonel – were permitted to return to service. Once they re-joined the service there was a new kind of resentment: the Derg-officers disliked the idea of serving under TPLF officers who had little understanding and knowledge about air power. In their opinion, officers and other personnel that did not come through the ranks and could not fly could not run an air force.
It was not before 1998 that the first nine new pilots qualified sufficiently on SF.260s, to be considered ready for training on L-39s: a group of Bulgarian pilots was then contracted to continue their training. Although Ethiopia acquired 25 L-39Cs in the 1980s, and five more in 1997 and 1998, only few of these were operational when Bulgarians arrived, being based at Gambela AB. Heavy maintenance at Debre Zeit was needed to bring them back into satisfactory condition, but then the hot and humid weather conditions proved such a problem that the training was moved to Arba Minch. It could be said that in the EtAF service the L-39C proved to be an exceptionally rugged and survivable aircraft, especially after equipped with Taiwanese-made GPS systems. While some reports indicate that during the following six months one of the students defected, while another had to be removed from the course after showing reluctance to fly, it appears that actually the Bulgarians were quite successful, then by 20 April 1999 their first group of students was ready for their solos. Two of these, however, crashed in similar circumstances on two different occasions, on that day, however, both being killed. The survivors of this group were eventually rushed to crash conversion course on MiG-23s, undertaken by Russian instructors.
|One of few EtAF L-39Cs that remained serviceable until the late 1990s was the example serialled “1712”. This Albatros was used by a group of Bulgarian instructors to train nine new fast-jet pilots for EtAF. Two Ethiopians did not survive their first solo flight. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)|
By the time the tensions with Eritrea reached a point at which it was clear to Commander-in-Chief EtAF, Gen. Ababe, that the combat capability of his force might soon be required. The government in Addis Ababa came to a similar conclusion and a decision was taken to reinforce the EtAF with new aircraft. As one of first measures, an additional number of former Derg-EtAF pilots and officers were “accepted” (some of them forcibly) to service again, together with more candidates from other Ethiopian provinces (simultaneously also up to 5.000 ex-Derg officers were returned to Army service). One of ex-Derg-pilots returned at the time was Gen. Techane Mesfin, a former F-5 and MiG-21-pilot: he became EtAF Chief of Operations in 1998, and was to serve until pensioned off, in 2002.
Consequently, by 1998, the situation was so that the EtAF had some 20 combat pilots – including, reportedly, at least one women – most of which were still inexperienced. The condition of the available support bases, spare parts, and ground personnel was grievous 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, via its 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 (the later were supplied free of charge, but Ethiopia had to pay for their refurbishment by an US company).
|MiG-21 was the main fighter-bomber of the Ethiopian Air Force between late 1977 and early 1999. The example shown here, “1127”, survived the first war against Eritrea and the capture by the Eritrean forces while at Asmara, in May 1991, was returned to Ethiopia and probably refurbished in order to fight another war against the Eritreans, 1998-2000. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)|
|MiG-21bis “1087” is one of the examples sent to Israel for general overhaul and an upgrade to MiG-21-2000 standard. Due to the lack of funds, the aircraft was “only” completely overhauled before being returned to Ethiopia and then used during the war with Eritrea. Another MiG-21 from the same batch overhauled in Israel was “1083”, flown by Col. Petros, when this was shot down and captured during an attack against Asmara AB, on 6 June 1998. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)|
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). Another deal with the Hungarian “Danubian Aircraft Company”, saw a delivery of four Mi-8Ts (c/ns 10451, 10452, 10453, 10454, formerly owned by the Iraqi Air Force, and impounded at Tokol airfield near Budapest since 1991) with the help of an Antonov An-124, in October 1997 (how urgent such deliveries were expected by the EtAF, shows the fact that during the first days after their arrival in Ethiopia, one of the Mi-8s logged no less but 30 flight hours!). Also, additional Mi-24 helicopters, more ammunition and ground navigation equipment were purchased. Most of the new items were flown to Addis Ababa between 10 and 23 December 1998 with Il-76s and An-124s of different smaller Russian companies.
The first Su-27 – dismantled at Krasnodar Air Base – departed for Ethiopia aboard an Antonov An-22 on 15 December. Due to the new Russian engagement in Ethiopia, the EtAF – now actually under command of retired Russian Gen. Yanakow Yoakim Ivanovich – was about to became a viable air force again: this was achieved foremost with help of a considerable number of Russian pilots, instructors and technicians, most of which were only recently retired from the Russian Air Force. How good the cooperation between Ethiopia and Russia functioned was shown at its best on 6 January 1999, when one Su-27US, flown by Russian Col. (ret.) Vyacheslaw Myzin, crashed during a post-assembly test-flight (almost two weeks after the delivery of the aircraft). Myzin ejected safely. Within only a few days the Russian company Promexport replaced the lost plane by dispatching a new one (also an ex-Russian Air Force example) to Ethiopia.
The initial group of EtAF Su-27-pilots were trained at Debre-Zeit by Russian instructors. It was not before 1999 that a second group of Ethiopians was sent to Russia for training on the type. Interestingly, it was also not before this group returned to Ethiopia that a unit was formed officially: the Su-27s equipped the re-established No.5 Fighter-Interceptor Squadron EtAF.
It should be mentioned here that the EtAF’s Su-27-force was depleted already before Myzin’s crash: in December 1998 the Su-27 flown by Flt.Lt. Abaniyeh crashed during a night-flying exercise, killing the pilot. This was already a second fatal accident in the EtAF within two months, as in November 1998 an EtAF L-39 was shot down in error by air defence of Mekelle, with both Ethiopian pilots – including the student, Flt.Lt. Endegena Tadesse – being killed; Tadesse was buried at Debre Zeit, on 14 November 1998. In yet another incident, a Mi-35 crashed during a night training exercise near Sendafa, after hitting a power-line or pole, killing the crew and one Russian instructor.
By the time, there were already 300 Russian officers and instructors in Ethiopia (all of which were contracted via the Russian Ministry of Defense, although a number of Mi-24/35-crews was contracted from a private Russian company), and EtAF Russian Gen. Yanakow was instructing its high command. According to Eritrean authorities, the other most important Russian officers in Ethiopia of the time were:
– Belabrov N. P., Skorodimov S., Petrov Vladimir, Kiyaev Sergeiy, Sherstynov Alexander, Saigarev Farid, Ivanov Vitaliy, Magarnedov Andreiy, Kokhanovskiy V., Valeev N., Gudyma Oleg, Golev Nikolaiy, Lavrovsky S. I., Krychkov Vladislav, Bashlykov Genady Petrovich, Nikolaevich Shnary Alexander, Kozlov Yuri, Garbachev Vladimir Georgeyevich, Bzhdanenko Alekh, Kuziashev Genadiy, and Lisenko Viktor Mikhailovich. Additionally, Gen. (ret.) Nikolay Romanovich was in control of the Ethiopian air defence system, centred around several S-75/SA-2 and S-125/SA-3 batteries.
The Eritreans had completely different problems. Financially they could barely follow the Ethiopian pace in this arms race, despite some support from several Arab and Islamic countries. But, they couldn’t afford to stay behind – and now a twist of fate was to help them acquire modern fighter jets, in turn starting an “arms race” of special sort in this part of Africa.
Namely, concerned by the possibility that Ethiopians might sent their MiG-21s and MiG-23s to Israel for refurbishment, the Russians decided to grant permission for export of MiG-29s to Eritrea. Thus, in the summer of 1998, eight refurbished MiG-29s and two MiG-29UBs were purchased for ErAF at a cost of approximately $25 million each! First of new Eritrean fighters has been seen on 14 December 1998 in the flight near Asmara. Even better friends the Eritreans found in the Ukraine and during the summer of 1998 a kind of a small air bridge was also organized between Kiev and Asmara. One of the involved transports, an Il-76MD (UR-UCI), crashed close to Asmara on 17 July 1998.
This new relationship was to a large degree possible because of a quarrel between the Russians and Ukrainians working for the Rosvoorouzhenie, which resulted with the Russians working for Ethiopia, and the Ukrainians doing their best for the Eritreans. Nefedow, for example, changed the sides and started working for Eritreans. He was not only instrumental in brokering the purchase of MiG-29s, but also of four armed Mi-17s from Kazan helicopters. At the same time, a group of Eritrean pilots went through a kind of crash course in the Ukraine, in order to learn how to fly and use new MiGs and Mils.
|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. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)|
Reinforcements that both air forces acquired came just in the last moment before the next round of heavy clashes broke out, in early February 1999. This time, Ethiopians tried again to break through Eritrean positions at Zalambessa without success. Nevertheless, the EtAF – and its Russian mercenaries – could now finally show the worth of all the money spent for them.
In order to find a reason for its counteroffensive with aim of capturing Badme, on 5 February 1999 the Ethiopian government claimed that two Eritrean MB.339FDs attacked a fuel depot in Adigrat, some 48 kilometres inside the Ethiopian border, important for the supply of Ethiopian army with fuel. Already on the next day, the Ethiopian attack was in the full swing, causing a series of fierce battles in the Badme area, where Ethiopian ground forces were supported by EtAF helicopter gunships. On the morning of the 8 February, Ethiopian army launched another offensive against Eritrean positions at Alitena, Tsorona and Zalambessa, claiming some smaller successes, but again without any break through. Both sides paid a very heavy price, however, as many soldiers died in artillery exchanges and air attacks. After further operations of Ethiopian helicopter gunships, Eritreans started to build up their air defences over the front, and on the morning of 14 February 1999 claimed one of two Ethiopian Mi-24 that attacked the front line close to Burre, some 72km south of Aseb. Both crew members were killed. Ethiopia confirmed the loss but denied the Eritrean claim for a shooting down of a second Mi-24 on 24 February 1999. Ethiopians, whose Russian mercenaries and own fighter pilots were still in training for the forthcoming operation, pressed their old An-12Bs in service as bombers, and couple of night attacks, undertaken by those planes, were reported as flown against the Eritrean positions in the hills around Badme.
Two days later, on 26 February 1999, Ethiopian fighters finally started their operations again. That morning two weaves of two MiG-23BNs each bombed the Eritrean logistical support centre at Harsele, while other planes bombed the water supply installations in the port of Assab and the airfield nearby. All those attacks were repeated on 21 and 23 February as well, even during the negotiations to establish a peaceful settlement that took place in both capitals, with the support of Organization for African Unity (OAU) and the EU. It became clear, that Eritrean Air Force had to deploy its new fighters in order to stop the newest offensive of the EtAF. The air warfare between Ethiopia and Eritrea was thus short of its highest point.
|This EtAF Mi-35 was damaged by Eritrean ground fire, forced to land and finally captured by Eritreans, on 18 March 1999. It was subsequently seen wearing ERAF markings, but it remains unknown if it ever flew again. “2108” was camouflaged in pattern and colours that were in widespread use on all Ethiopian “Hinds” at the time. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)|
Sukhoi Contra MiG
With the re-appearance of the EtAF fighters over the battlefield, it became clear to the Eritreans and their Ukrainian instructors, that they would have to fight down the newly-arrived Ethiopian Su-27s, or the ERAF would not be able to effectively support the war effort. Therefore, on the morning of 25 February four MiG-29s were sent to intercept two Su-27s which were patrolling along the front-lines at Badme. Both Sukhois, flown by Ethiopian pilots, detected the appearance of their opponents in time and attempted to disengage, when – all of a sudden – they came under an attack by several R-27/AA-10 missiles. None of the weapons fired by the Eritreans – which were meanwhile inside the Ethiopian airspace – hit, but after evading them, the Ethiopians decided to turn back and fight. The lead, Maj. Workneh, acquired the enemy and fired what was reported as a “salvo” of R-27s, targeting one MiG-29 after the other. However, all the missiles missed and the only result was that the Eritreans were forced to break their attack – only to be pounced by the faster Su-27s. The result of following dog-fight was one Eritrean MiG-29 shot down, probably by an R-73/AA-11 IR-homing, short range air-to-air missile (fired again by Maj. Workneh). The ERAF fighter came down near Ethiopian Army positions. The fate of the pilot, rumoured to have been the commander of the Eritrean Air Force, Brig. Gen. Habte Zion Hadgu, was not reported by either side. Like his deputy, Col. Abraham Oqbaselassie, Hadgu used to be a EtAF MiG-23-pilot during the Derg regime. He was never again mentioned in the public, but was apparently replaced by Maj.Gen. Teklay Habteselassie, who remains Commander-in-Chief ERAF until today.
Only 24 hours later, a new – but highly interesting – engagement developed over the Badme area. This time, a lonesome Su-27S, reportedly 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 manoeuvring, 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.
The authenticity of this version remains disputed by different sources. For example, some Ethiopian sources stress that there was no and still is no Capt. Asther Tolossa, flying Su-27s with EtAF at the time, and that the first female EtAF pilot graduated only in June 2004. Equally, the reported version of this engagement is contradictive because of airfields mentioned: Capt. Tolossa should have ordered the ERAF MiG-29UB-pilot to land in Debre-Zeit, which is an hour flight away from the northern front, while there were two other EtAF airfields much closer to Eritrea, namely Mekele – the HQ of the Northern Command – and Bahir-Dar.
Whatever happened, upon obviously losing one more of their precious MiG-29s in effort to deny the air superiority to the EtAF, the Eritreans stopped challenging the Sukhois. On the other side, the Ethiopians would not let them give it another try: the Ethiopian Army already concentrated enough armour and artillery in order to achieve a small breakthrough near Badme. Eritreans managed to stop the enemy short behind their former lines, but their government immediately agreed to accept international peace proposal. Nevertheless, Ethiopians continued with probing attacks, preparing their forces for a „final“ offensive.
|Above and bellow: Series of stills from a video showing the final moments of a dogfight between EtAF Su-27s and ErAF MiG-29, on 26 February 1999. On the first still, a badly damaged and burning MiG-29 is seen plunging towards the ground…. and exploding upon impact… Moments later: the victorious Su-27 seeing while returning back to the place where the downed MiG-29 crashed…. and passing by….the silhouette of the Su-27 is easy to distinguish, despite the lavel at which it operated at the moment. (all via Tom Cooper)|
There were many skirmishes during the next months and on 18 March 1999 the Eritreans claimed their first large success. On that day two EtAF Mi-35s were to attack Eritrean positions after approaching from the rear. While attacking one of them was hit in the fin area, on the right side, and forced to land behind the Eritrean positions. The other helicopter swiftly landed near the stricken bird, and managed to evacuate the crew, but the helicopter fell into Eritrean hands. Subsequently, the Eritreans proudly presented the captured Mi-35s at the Asmara IAP.
Couple of days later, a further clash between Ethiopian Su-27S’ and Eritrean MiG-29s was reported, in which supposedly two MiGs were shot down. Again no better details are known about this air battle, except that quite a number of air-to-air missiles were fired without any hits.
|In December 1998 and January 1999 Ethiopia received six ex-Russian Air Force Su-27S and two Su-27US’. The aircraft were disassembled at the Krasnodar AB before transport to Debre Zelt, where they entered the service with either the No. 5 Fighter-Interceptor Squadron EtAF, and were initially mainly flown by Russian mercenaries. One of these, Col. Vyacheslaw Myzin, crashed during a demonstration flight for VIPs over Debre Zelt, on 6 January 1999. Myzin ejected safely, but his Ethiopian pupil – Flt.Lt. Abaniyeh – was killed. A replacement aircraft was rushed to Ethiopia and the EtAF Su-27s became operational within only one month, so that by February of the same year they could already fly CAPs along the embattled border to Eritrea. The battle for air superiority over Ethiopian and Eritrean frontlines could finally begin: it was eventually to be decided by the appearance of Su-27s in Ethiopia. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)|
After another period of relative inactivity, almost two months later, on 21 May 1999, Eritrean forces claimed an Ethiopian MiG-23BN as shot down over Badme, however, Ethiopia denied the claim, which couldn’t be independently confirmed. The losses of the EtAF were certainly pretty bad by this time: there were rumours of up eight fighter aircraft and three helicopters shot down so far during the engagements with Eritreans. Some reports indicated that most of Ethiopian aircraft claimed shot down by the Eritreans were actually lost to technical problems, or were flown by the poorly trained Tigreans. Indeed, there are indications that at the time the EtAF was engaged with intensive training of its pilots and personnel, flying many training sorties from Bahir Dar and Mekelle, before moving most of its combat aircraft to Gambela. For example, on 20 April 1999, two L-39s were lost during non-related accidents near the Arba Minch airport. Apparently, both were flown by new EtAF pilots, who were underway on their first solo flights. The remnants of at least one of the planes came down in the residential areas, killing 14.
Nevertheless, the operations over the Mereb-Setit front were continued, and on 24 March – as well as on 11 June 1999 – the Eritreans claimed to have shot down more Mi-35s. According to Ethiopian oppositional sources, the situation surrounding one of these two losses was quite chaotic: a Mi-35 flown by two Russian mercenaries and transporting a group of Tigrean militiamen was underway along the Mereb-Setit front, near Badme, when the pilot became disoriented because the Tigreans could not properly read their maps. After some time the pilot decided to land and ask the troops nearby for the way. This was a very dangerous mistake, as he landed behind the Eritrean lines. The Eritreans immediately captured the helicopter, the crew and eight militiamen. It remains unknown what happened to the two Russians subsequently; as mentioned, the Eritrean President promised to behead any captured Russian mercenary.
On 13 and 14 June, the Eritreans also claimed two EtAF MiG-23BNs as shot down, but such reports were never confirmed by independent sources.
|Two stills from a video showing T-55s of an Ethiopian armored unit on the front near Badme. (via Tom Cooper)|
On the Eritrean side, Nefedow was underway to Moscow with a pledge for help – and more MiG-29s! However, as Russians were already too deep involved in Ethiopia and Eritrean request was rejected. Thus, Nefedow had to search for new equipment in Georgia and Moldova, where supposed deals for Su-25s combat aircraft and Mi-8 helicopters were made. Contrary to Eritreans, Ethiopians could acquire further planes, like some eight Su-25s, and prepare them for the forthcoming onslaught on Eritrea. Namely, even after experiencing extreme casualties during the fighting around Badme, in early 1999, Ethiopians never stopped announcing their “final” great offensive, which should bring them back territories right to the coast of the Red Sea. Even as a new round of Algerian-brokered peace talks was underway, Ethiopians continued their preparations by purchasing more heavy weapons and concentrating their ground troops, tanks and artillery on the front between Badme and Adigrat. The Eritreans did their best to prepare for defence, and were right in doing so: when on the 4 of May 2000 the peace talks failed because of technicalities of implementing a peace accord, Ethiopian army started its latest attacks.
The Ethiopian offensive came after lengthy preparations. On an unknown site in Tigray, the Ethiopians reconstructed the most important parts of Eritrean positions in the Badme area and studied them carefully. After running several simulations it became clear that a frontal assault would result in a massacre. Therefore, a decision was taken the Ethiopian Army to attack on the western end of Eritrean lines, near Shambukko, and exploit the fact that the enemy was expecting an offensive on the central part of the border. Two brigades of crack Ethiopian troops were trained for months in mountain warfare in order to prepare for this attack.
Upon crossing the Eritrean border unobserved, they reached Shambukko within two hours and then moved south-east, attacking Eritreans from the rear and flank while supported by artillery. Their penetration eventually allowed Ethiopian tank units to breach the main Eritrean position in the area and penetrate deep behind the border. After the initial attack, the EtAF support was crucial: a large number of sorties was flown by helicopter gunships and strike aircraft in order to keep the Eritreans down and preventing their counterattacks against exposed flanks of advancing Ethiopian units. Not only MiG-21s, MiG-23s and Mi-35s were used, but also newly acquired Su-25, one of which was claimed as shot down by an ERAF MiG-29, on 15 May 2000. The pilot. Flt.Lt. Wondu Ghenda was killed. The Russians originally delivered four Su-25UBKs to Ethiopia, all of which had advanced avionics and night-fighting as well as capability to deploy precision-guided ammunition (PGM).
On the same day the EtAF lost also another Mi-35 (reported as “2110”), which was flown by pilot called Eshetu and underway to attack a water tank the EtAF was trying to hit for quite some time without success, when it stumbled over a newly-positioned Eritrean ZSU-23. The helicopter was several times hit in the engine area while attacking the target for second times with 250kg bombs. Usually, the Eritreans did not consider Ethiopian pilots as very bold, but in this case it was reported the pilot Eshetu, frustrated by previous own and failures of his comrades to hit this target, came very low in order to put two 250kg bombs at the tower, which was then indeed destroyed. Eritrean reports about this engagement indicate that they used their old tactics from the 1980s: they would monitor the operations of Ethiopian helicopters and aircraft very carefully, and then move their flaks somewhere along the usual routes. This allowed them to fire at the first aircraft or helicopter which appeared in the morning. This tactics caused several losses to the EtAF already before, and was now to prove once again the importance of pilots constantly changing their ingress-, egress- and patrol-routes.
Highly interesting were also reports which appeared at this time that during the fighting in those days, Ethiopians deployed two Ka-50 helicopter gunships, supposedly recently delivered to them by Russia and also flown by Russian mercenaries. According to some unconfirmed reports, both Ka-50s used only unguided rockets and their guns so far. Indeed, there were some traces – including photographs published in the African press – that the Ethiopian helicopter attacks were highly successful in these days, and that some guided anti-tank missiles were used by EtAF in at least one instance against one Eritrean supply column close behind the front. However, all the reports about the delivery of Ka-50s proved completely wrong: the EtAF flew no other combat helicopters but Mi-35s. Attacks by PGMs stood actually in relation to newly-delivered EtAF Su-25s.
On 16 May 2000 Eritrean Air Force flew couple of counterattacks against the Ethiopian “left hook”, advancing against the western flank of Eritrean positions. Even MiG-29s were deployed in air-to-ground sorties, and seen harassing Ethiopian ground forces several times: one of two incoming MiG-29s were intercepted by EtAF’s Su-27s, however, and it seems that another air battle occurred. This was a situation which the Eritreans and the Ukrainians wanted to prevent when they started the fight for battlefield air superiority a year earlier, by challenging Ethiopian Su-27s: they wanted to prevent a situation in which ERAF aircraft would not be able to attack Ethiopian troops on the ground because of the presence of Ethiopian interceptors in the air. Such concerns proved right as during this battle at least one MiG-29 was damaged sufficiently to crash-landed at Asmara, obviously after being damaged by R-27. The ERAF remained stubborn: only two days later, two MiG-29s were scrambled to intercept an incoming formation of EtAF MiG-21s. The leading Eritrean pilot missed with his R-27s, but then shot down at least one of Ethiopian fighters, using the 30mm gun during a short dogfight. Nevertheless, only minutes later, the same MiG-29 was in turn intercepted by a pair of EtAF Su-27s. As the Sukhois engaged, one of them collided with an Africa Buzzard (a very large bird), and had to return to base after sustaining heavy damage. The other Sukhoi – flown by one of former Derg-pilots – continued, engaging the MiG and shooting it down by a single R-73.
|Map showing Eritrean-Ethiopian battlefields from the war in 1998-2000. Note the Ethiopian “Left Hook” manoeuvre from the Operation “Westwind”, undertaken in May 2000, when Ethiopian Army troops first breached Eritrean defences on Setit-front faking an advance on Barentu, but then turned SE towards Areza: this advance almost broke the back of the Eritrean Army and it remains unknown how did the Eritreans manage to stop it. (Map by Tom Cooper, based on Encarta 2003)|
In response to renewed activity of the ERAF, on 19 May Ethiopian MiG-23BNs bombed the Sawa military training centre and airfield. This operation stunned observers, because the installations at Sawa were considered as very good defended and fortified. However, all Ethiopian aircraft returned safely to their bases. In fact, instead of being shot down by Eritrean SA-6 SAMs, Ethiopian aircraft reportedly destroyed one site of those missiles, close to Mendefera, on 20 May 2000. Nevertheless, Eritrea – whose forces were now under heavy pressure along the whole central part of the front – claimed downing of no less than four Ethiopian MiG-23s on 24 of May. Two additional EtAF jets were also claimed as shot down during a bombing of Adi Keyib. Some reports indicate that the Ethiopians indeed lost many pilots and aircraft in these days, but mainly because of pilot mistakes and technical failures. In fact, a private contractor who used to work with EtAF at the time indicated the Ethiopians were losing pilots, “like flies”, especially after several of their pilots got lost due to poor navigational skills, and run their MiGs out of fuel.
At least on the ground, the Eritreans were in no better position, but on the verge of becoming victims to their own stiff and stubborn, but static, defence. Ethiopian Army attacked along a very broad front, without revealing its actual target: cutting off of all Eritrean forces at Zalambessa. Thus heavy fighting was reported near Senafe, down to Mereb river valley, south of Tserona and toward Adi Quala, where Eritreans managed to recover a tactically important hill in hand-to-hand fighting. Both sides intensively used armour, artillery and rocket launchers during those battles causing a considerable surprise for the observers in the West. However, the EtAF stopped any operations over the front and operated with its fighters only over Asmara.
On 28 May 2000, Ethiopians escalated the war further by an attack of two MiG-23BNs against the newly built power-plant close to Hirgigo, near Massawa, sponsored by Mid-East donors and Italy. On the same day, during decisive battles in the mountains, Ethiopians broke Eritrean lines and captured Zalambessa. The city was completely destroyed during the fighting. Retreating in the face of the advancing Ethiopian columns, the Eritreans also abandoned Adi Keyih, south of Deke’mhare and just 96km from Asmara. The Ethiopians, however, concerned of fuelling Eritrean claims that Addis Ababa wants to re-annex whole country, stopped their advance short of this city, instead turning south and marching on Areza: their left hook brought the Eritrean front to collapse and the Ethiopians hoped the message was delivered.
|Eritrean MiG-29 on alert at the Asmara AB, in 1999. Note the R-73 air-to-air missiles underneath the outside underwing pylons. (via Tom Cooper)|
Drive towards Aseb
The next escalation was achieved by Ethiopian strike against Asmara on 29 May 2000. At midday, four MiG-23BNs appeared over the Asmara’s international airport and attacked with rockets. The small control tower was hit and burned out. In their second turn, MiGs split their formation in two pairs: the first two attacked the military side of the airfield and tried to hit parked Eritrean aircraft and helicopters with bombs. However, they missed and at least one Eritrean MiG-29UB as well as one Mi-35 were not damaged even by bombs that fell relatively close. Two other MiG-23BNs bombed military buildings and set couple of them on fire. At least one Eritrean MiG-29A started immediately after the attack and gave Ethiopians a chase, but couldn’t reach them any more. During the evening fighters of the ERAF continued their patrols over Asmara but, after this attack, the remaining commercial airlines flying to the capital of Eritrea have suspended their service as a precaution.
|A scene moments after the Ethiopian strike by four EtAF MiG-23BNs against the Asmara AB, on 29 May 2000. Neither the MiG-29UB nor the Mi-35 (the example captured a year before) were damaged despite a number of bombs falling around them, but several other buildings on the airfield – including the control tower – were heavily hit and left afire. (AFP)|
Fierce battles raged along the front in the following days, with Eritrean hit and run counterattacks near Barentu and Zalambess, staged in order to bolster the morale of their battered military, and bombing of the port of Assab by two Ethiopian MiG-23s, on 2 June 2000. However, in a flagrant violation of their own claims about a pull-back from all territories captured so far, on the morning of the 3 June 2000, Ethiopian troops started a new offensive at the front close to Burre, broke through and started operations against the second Eritrean defence line – only some 37 kilometres form Assab. This offensive was initiated under considerable constraints: the Ethiopian General Command wanted to employ the same tactics of deep outflanking of enemy positions, like previously in the Badme area. This, however, would result in capture of Assab – which was politically unacceptable. Consequently, a much more shallow attack profile was chosen instead, which resulted in no new deep penetration.
At the same time mediators from the OAU, the EU and Libya went to the region and tried to arrange a ceasefire. Their efforts became successful only two weeks later, after a new small Eritrean offensive, in which the city of Tessena could be liberated. On Saturday, 18 June 2000, under heavy pressure from outside, Ethiopia and Eritrea agreed immediate ceasefire. However, a comprehensive peace is still very far from being achieved, as this agreement falls far short of a full settlement and depends heavily of the arrival of some 5.000 UN Peacekeepers, which should arrive in the are during the nest two or three months. While new clashes on the ground and in the air could easily break out before the Peacekeepers arrive, the UN should have a considerably easier task in separating Ethiopian and Eritrean ground forces from each other, because both sides deployed good organized and trained armies during the fighting, which so far claimed lives of some 100.000 soldiers and displaced almost a third of Eritrean population.
Couple of events that happened in this two years long bloodshed are very interesting for all observers. Firstly, while there are still many observers in the West, which refuse to believe that two of the poorest African countries could “put up such a war” – and use such „high-tech“ equipment like Su-27s, MiG-29s, Mi-35s, tanks, artillery and rocket launchers in large numbers and in tactically and strategically feasible manners – the fact remains that under a closer look the operations of both sides made very much sense. Consequently, both the Ethiopians and the Eritreans have carefully planned and executed their moves, even if not everything functioned.
As second, even if both sides suffered grievous losses during the fighting (according to some reports, possibly as many as 150.000 people already lost their lives during the fighting), some tactical decisions (supposedly “produced” by foreign “instructors”), like the Ethiopian „left-hook“ at Barentu, with the closely-following push towards Aseb – were very interesting
Very interesting were also 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. Interesting is also, that most – if not all – Eritrean MiG-29s were shot down in close-quarters turning dogfights, where MiGs were supposed to have some advantages over larger and heavier Sukhois. Finally – except one – all the air-to-air kills were reportedly scored by R-73, even if quite a few (up to 24) R-27s were fired, pointing to some possible problems with R-27s, which is otherwise highly praised by quite a few air forces around the world! Supposedly, there should be no significant differences between early and new – or domestic and export – versions of R-27s, however, it seems, that this type so far has a worst combat record than even US Vietnam-era AIM-7Es or AIM-7Fs! This was certainly no good news for the Russians, which were keen to try out their new mounts and weapons under conditions of conventional warfare, and against a well organized enemy.
Finally, already in 2000, there was a question about the capability of both air forces to keep their aircraft up and flyable once their Russian and Ukrainian instructors would leave, while also the actual reasons behind the massive Russian support for Ethiopia were completely unclear.
By now, it is clear that the 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. Newest reports indicate that hardly four Su-27s are operational on average. The efforts to improve the situation with the help of the newly established “Ethiopian Aircraft industries” (DAMEC) works, built by the Russians at Debre Zeit in 1999, and now supposedly supported even by the Israelis, should not have brought any useful results so far. Nevertheless, at least theoretically, the Ethiopians are left in a slightly better situation than Angolans or the government of Sierra Leone, where the regular forces almost broke down after their foreign instructors have left. After all, a number of former officers and technicians of the Derg-times EtAF, who used to work as mercenaries in Angola, Sierra-Leone, Uganda and some other African countries as technicians and pilots in the 1990s, were allowed to return back to Ethiopian Air Force during the war with Eritrea.
Indeed, while the Eritreans are still not especially interested in revealing more about their experiences from this war, the Ethiopians are very proud about the achievements of their deadly Su-27s. Nevertheless, the Eritreans have continued their relations to the Ukraine, but also established better connection to Moscow. While only a small cadre of the Ukrainians remained there after the war, in summer 2001 the EtAF purchased four new MiG-29s from Russia, in order to replace the losses from the war with Ethiopia and bring their fighter squadron back to strength.
Meanwhile, in Mekelle, thare is a bar owned by a woman who named it “Bar SU”, as a remembrance on planes that “beat the Eritreans”. A security guard at the airport in the same city boasts with a key-ring from which an odd metal shape dangles: supposedly a part of an Eritrean MiG-29 wreck, that was shot down by Ethiopian Su-27.