ROME — During Libya’s proxy war this year, the skies over the North African country have filled with Turkish and Chinese drones as well as Russian MiG 29s and Sukhoi 24s, and Emirati Mirage 2000s — reportedly — with Turkish F-16s and Egyptian Rafales waiting in the wings.
Russian air defense systems have taken down drones while fighters, civilians and air bases have been bombed by jets as C-130s and Turkish A400M aircraft keep up deliveries of new weaponry and fighters into the country.
In short, Libya has been transformed this year into something of an air warfare laboratory, begging the question: What exactly is going on, who is winning and what has this conflict taught generals about modern air combat?
“On one level, Libya yet again simply underscores the value of air power — you do not want to get in a fight without it,” said Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
The conflict in lawless Libya began to escalate in April 2019 as local strongman Gen. Khalifa Haftar launched his campaign to take the capital Tripoli. Backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and France, he felt confident going up against the U.N.-recognized government in Tripoli backed by Turkey, Italy and Qatar.
In April last year, Chinese Wing Loong II drones operated by the UAE bombed civilian targets in the city, reflecting the recent and rapid procurement of Chinese drones around the Middle East.
“The Chinese have been adept at selling drones in the Middle East, including to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Iraq. With the U.S. previously constrained in selling systems, the Chinese saw a gap in the market,” Barrie said.
Turkey has proved the exception. Around May 2019, it introduced its own TB2 drone into the fray, attacking Haftar’s forces, knocking out Russian Pantsir air defense systems supporting him and helping end his ambitions to take Tripoli.
“Turkey has majored in UAV design and manufacture and likely used Libya in part as a test-and-adjust battle lab, and its systems are now ‘combat proven’. Its industry, like Roketsan, has also developed small, precision-guided munitions for UAVs,” Barrie said.
A second analyst said Turkey’s use of its TB2 in Libya had been a game changer. “Turkey decided it was OK to lose them from time to time, that they were semi-disposable, and that novel approach caught their enemy off guard,” said Jalel Harchaoui of the Clingendael Institute in Holland.
The reason? Cost. “They used to cost the Turks $1-1.5 million apiece to build, but thanks to economies of scale as production volumes rose, the cost has dropped to below $500,000, excluding the control station,” Harchaoui explained.
He added that software and other technical changes boosted the TB2′s efficiency and reconnaissance capabilities, which allowed them to find the right altitude to avoid the Russian Pantsir systems.
“The performance of the Wing Loong IIs in the hands of the UAE has meanwhile been largely static. They didn’t evolve, so they have been much less impressive,” he said.
Barrie said Libya is also an example of the normalization of drone use in modern warfare.
“UAVs are a capability now pursued by state and nonstate actors alike. Obviously states can afford more capable, larger systems, while nonstate actors may have to make do with home-built systems akin to being made with Radio Shack-like components, or acquiring systems from state sponsors,” he said. “In Libya, UAVs have suited this kind of ugly, attritional warfare against small, lightly armed units.”
Last July, a missile strike on a migrant center near Tripoli, which killed 53 people, was likely the work of the UAE, the BBC reported, quoting a confidential U.N. investigation.
Analyst Harchaoui alleged that Emirati Mirage 2000-9 aircraft flying out of an Egyptian base had been supporting Haftar periodically since June 2019.
“Misrata airbase, which has hosted Turkish TB2 drones, was bombed multiple times last year by Emirati drones and jets until the Turks brought in Korkut and MIM-23 Hawk air defense systems. The raids over Misrata stopped in 2020 — probably because the UAE did not want to see a captured pilot show up tortured on Facebook,” he said.
On July 4, fighter jets attacked Al-Watiya air base, just after Turkey had brought in its MIM-23 Hawk air defense missiles there.
“Sonic booms heard over Sebha, in southwest Libya, suggest the aircraft took off from Egypt, then flew to Libya via the Sahara to avoid being spotted by Turkish frigates off the Libyan coast,” Harchaoui said. “Could it have been Egyptian Rafales? They are good but don’t have enough experience for an ultra-precise mission like this. French pilots flying Egyptian Rafales is unlikely in case one was captured, leaving the UAE Mirages as most likely.”
Added Barrie: “Of all the Gulf states, the UAE is the most capable of this kind of mission — they have the combat experience and could do this.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. military command in Africa reported in late May that satellite imagery showed Russian aircraft arriving in Libya to support Haftar.
“At least 14 MiG-29s and several Su-24s were flown from Russia to Syria, where their Russian markings were painted over to camouflage their Russian origin,” U.S. Africa Command said.
The aircraft are reportedly being used to support the Wagner Group, a mercenary operation on the ground in Libya that is said to have Russia’s backing, though Moscow denies a link to the organization.
The American command warned the aircraft might be flown by “inexperienced” mercenaries who “will not adhere to international law.”
According to Harchaoui, eye witnesses in Libya reported a number of misses notched up during bombing raids by the aircraft. “That suggests they were not Russian Air Force pilots,” he said.
This summer, the conflict has slowed, as Haftar’s forces retreated from Tripoli and took up position to fight for the coastal city of Sirte, which is key to controlling Libya’s oil trade. With Al-Watiya air base now repaired and back in business after the July air raid, Turkey may be considering basing its F-16s there, finally giving it a beach head for fighters in Libya.
Bringing in American-built aircraft could, however, rely on the say-so of the U.S.
“Is the U.S. so concerned about Russia’s intervention in Libya it would support the deployment of Turkish F-16s to stop it?” Harchaoui wondered. “Or will it come down on the side of Egypt, which is a U.S. ally? The ball is in its court.”
Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.