Monday 26 September 2016

Back From The Dead: Sudan Overhauls MiG-23s

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans


The Sudanese Air Force has operated several types of combat aircraft acquired from multiple sources since its founding in 1956. While current types such as the MiG-29SEh, Su-25 and Su-24 are well known for their involvement in the Sudanese Civil War and Operation Decisive Storm, older types such as the F-5E and MiG-23MS have been poorly documented while in the Sudanese Air Force ever since their inception in the 1980s.

Although the Sudanese Air Force (SuAF) is no stranger to Soviet-manufactured combat aircraft, Sudan actually never ordered any MiG-23s from the Soviet Union. Instead, the SuAF received its MiG-23s from Libya, which deployed up to twelve Libyan Arab Air Force (LAAF) examples to Sudan in the late eighties. This deployment was accompanied by a large number of Libyan pilots and technicians responsible for operating the aircraft while in Sudanese service.
When the Libyan contingent departed Sudan about two years later, the Sudanese Air Force was left with aircraft it couldn't really fly nor maintain. And thus, after just several years of operations, the survivors were placed in storage at Sudan's largest airbase, Wadi Sayyidna. Here they joined an increasing number of MiG-21Ms, J-6s and F-5Es also placed in storage due to a lack of spare parts. It wasn't until two decades later when the MiG-23s resurfaced again.

Starting from the end of 2010, up to four MiG-23s could be seen parked on the tarmac outside one of Safat Maintenance Center's hangers on satellite imagery. All four aircraft were previously moved here to clear space in the hangars used by the Sudanese Air Force. But with an increasing number of projects on its hands, SAFAT soon found itself in lack of space too, forcing the technicians to move the MiG-23s outside when other aircraft had to be serviced in the hangar housing the MiG-23s.

These movements allowed one of the many Belarusian or Russian pilots and technicians present at Wadi Sayyidna to aid the SuAF with operating its fleet of MiG-29s, Su-25s and Su-24s, to pose with one of the three remaining MiG-23MS's. The aircraft shows clear traces of long-time storage, with the aircraft's roundel and flag slowly fading away to reveal the original Libyan markings. The serial number '09055' was originally assigned to this aircraft by the Libyan Arab Air Force and simply left in place by the Sudanese.

While Libya was in a state of war with the Sudan during the early eighties, mainly related to Sudan's support for Chadian rebels fighting against the Libyan Army operating in Northern Chad, it was quick to establish a close relationship with its former foe after the ousting of President Nimeiry in 1985. Having bombed Sudan's largest city Omdurman with a Tu-22 and having provided both financial and materiel support to rebels fighting the Sudanese Army in Northern Sudan and Southern Sudan, it now held talks for a possible merger between the two countries. While this merger never occured, the newly forged relationship between the Sudan and Libya would prove extremely beneficial for the Sudan, and the Sudanese Air Force in particular.

Starting from 1987, Libya began donating large amounts of military equipment to the Sudan. This mainly included desperately needed reinforcements for Sudanese Air Force, which by then was on its last breath due to a sharp decline of its operational capabilities. Within a year, the SuAF was strengthened by the addition of up to twelve MiG-23MS', as well as at least one MiG-23UB, several Mi-25s and two MiG-25R(B)s flown and maintained by Libyan pilots and technicians. This contingent was to form the core of Sudanese Air Force, and was quickly put to the test when the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) launched a series of offensives in 1987 and 1988.

In response, the Sudanese Air Force retaliated with airstrikes based on intelligence gathered by the MiG-25R(B)s, which flew reconnaissance sorties over Southern Sudan. These sorties were followed by airstrikes conducted by MiG-23MS' and Mi-25s against SPLA-held villages and camps. The skies above Southern Sudan proved particularly unhealthy for the MiG-23MS' however, with only six airframes still believed to be operational after a year of operations. After the Libyan contingent withdrew in 1989 or 1990, the four remaining MiG-23MS' were soon stored, likely to never fly again. The two MiG-25R(B)s remained Libyan possession throughout their stay in Sudan and both returned to Libya. The remaining Mi-25s continued operations until replaced by newer Mi-24s and Mi-35s sourced from Eastern Europe in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with their career ending at the military side of Khartoum International Airport (IAP). For more information on Libya's involvement in the Sudanese Civil War, click here.

Although the Libyan contingent did not prove to be particularly successful in increasing the operational capabilities of the SuAF in the long term, it set a precedent for further donations made by Libya to several air forces across Africa, which are to be covered in a future article. The partial remains of an ex-Libyan MiG-23MS '06918' that made a crash landing in Jonglei State, (what is nowadays known as) South Sudan can be seen below. The poorly applied Sudanese markings quickly washed out under the Sudanese sun, thus revealing the original Libyan markings.

The MiG-23MS is a prime example of the so-called 'monkey models'; downgraded equipment sold by the Soviet Union to friendly nations in the Middle East and Africa. These 'monkey models' included everything from tanks to naval ships and aircraft, which had sensitive equipment removed, lacked modern weaponry or had inferior armour compared to their Soviet counterparts. In order to create an export derivative of the MiG-23M, the Soviets went to entire new lengths to create what many deem the worst combat aircraft ever to have been made, basically resulting in a powerful engine with an aircraft built around it. Equipped with electronics already deemed useless after years of conflict in the Middle East and armed with the infamously incapable R-3S air-to-air missile, the aircraft proved both a nightmare to fly and maintain.

While the air forces of Egypt, Iraq and Syria, left without an answer to the Israeli F-4E Phantom II, were eager to get their hands on new aircraft matching the F-4E's performance, they were less than impressed with their new mount. When Libya began its search for large quantities of weapons during the 1970s, the Soviet Union soon offered the MiG-23MS to Libya. But contrary to the delivery and training of Iraqi pilots on the MiG-23MS, which spend most of their time on the ground instead of flying the aircraft to its extremes, the Soviet Union not only marketed the aircraft as an adversary to the F-4 Phantom, but also to the F-14 Tomcat. The LAAF was angered by the gap between promised capabilities and reality, and invested considerable time and resources into increasing the combat capabilities of the squadrons operating the MiG-23MS. The delivery of MiG-23MS was amongst the reasons for the break of relations with the Soviet Union.

Despite its abysmal records, there is still some argument to make for the MiG-23MS' reintroduction into the Sudanese Air Force. Having enjoyed the fruits of the large oil reserves present in Southern Sudan, the Sudan lost its primary means of income after the separation of South Sudan in 2011. This not only meant the Sudan had less to spend on its military, it also meant the Sudan was now unable to buy weaponry in exchange for oil. With no significant financial boost in sight, the SuAF is unlikely to amass sufficient funds to acquire more modern combat aircraft in the near future, and has to soldier on with what its got.

Furthermore, the establishment of the Safat Maintenance Center (more commonly known as the Safat Aviaton Complex, part of the larger Safat Aviation Group) allowed the Sudan to overhaul an increasing number of aircraft and helicopters locally. Although most of these projects are undertaken with foreign technicians and help, it is considerably cheaper than transporting these aircraft to the Ukraine, Belarus or Russia for overhaul there. This means the Sudan can overhaul aircraft that would otherwise be deemed not worth the effort due to the costs involved in transporting these aircraft back and forth from maintenance centers abroad.

With this in mind, the SuAF began looking to overhaul several types of aircraft previously in storage. Once thought to have been grounded for the rest of their days, the MiG-23s were to receive an extensive overhaul after decades of storage. As the Sudan never truly operated nor maintained the MiG-23MS, SAFAT lacked the technical expertise to overhaul the MiG-23 all by itself, which forced it to look for assistance abroad. A partner was found in neighbouring Ethiopia, whose Dejen Aviation Industry proved capable of performing the required maintenance.

Dejen (formerly known as DAVEC, Dejen Aviation Engineering Complex) is responsible for the overhaul of a wide range of aircraft in service with the Ethiopian Air Force, and is one of the few maintenance centers to be fully qualified in overhauling the complex Su-27. Dejen, then still called DAVEC, was originally founded to allow Ethiopia to maintain its fleet of Soviet aircraft (mainly MiG-23BNs, MLs and UBs) locally, and thus has plenty of experience in overhauling this type of aircraft. The Tumansky R-29 engine of one of the four MiG-23s after undergoing revision at SAFAT can be seen below.

 For the purpose of overhauling the aircraft at least ten Ethiopians from Dejen were present at Sudan's SAFAT, and Ethiopia also provided the pilots for the flight testing of the newly refurbished airframes, stressing the large role it played in bringing the MiG-23MS back to operational status. Additionally, as no Sudanese are currently believed to be trained in flying the MiG-23, it is likely Ethiopia will also provide training and spare parts (such as the new cockpit canopies already installed) for the aircraft.

The choice of armament for Sudan's MiG-23MS' is limited, consisting of several types of unguided bombs and UB-16 and UB-32 rocket pods for 57mm rockets. Although the SuAF once possessed stocks of R-3S air-to-air missiles for its MiG-21Ms, it is unlikely that any of these missiles still survive. Although theoretically Libya's donation of the aircraft to Sudan could have been accompanied by R-3S air-to-air missiles from Libyan stocks, the shelf-life of these missiles ran out decades ago. Thus, the MiG-23MS's role is restricted to fighter-bomber in Sudanese service.

Unfortunately for the SuAF, one of the four overhauled MiG-23s made a crash-landing at Wadi Sayyidna shortly after a test-flight. The aircraft caught fire and was subsequently dumped into a corner of the airbase. While not even back in operational service, the SuAF was already one MiG-23 down. It remains unknown if the airframe was a UB or a MS, but the loss of their only MiG-23UB would force the SuAF to purchase another airframe from abroad, making this project significantly more expensive.

While the overhaul of the MiG-23s provided the SuAF with four airframes at only marginal costs, the complicated nature of the MiG-23MS raises the question if it was really worth the effort. Already one aircraft down due to a crash-landing, and with more airframes sure to be lost in flying this highly complex aircraft, the MiG-23MS's second career in Sudan could turn out to be a short one.


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