Wednesday 31 March 2021

Ivory Coast’s Su-25s - The Sharks Won’t Bite Again

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Saturday, the 6th of November 2004. Two Su-25UBs of the Force Aérienne de la Côte d'Ivoire (FACI) strafe a French peacekeeper camp in Bouaké. As sudden as the unprovoked attack had commenced its tragic results would become palpable: the deaths of nine French soldiers and another 31 wounded. This grave provocation would ultimately lead to the destruction of the FACI and have drastic repercussions for Côte d'Ivoire for years to come. Just hours after the attack, all that remained of its fledging air arm was a smoldering heap of junk.
The events leading up to this tragedy began to unfold on the 19th of September 2002, when the government of Laurent Gbagbo found itself in a precarious situation after the rebel umbrella organisation Mouvement Patriotique de Côte d'Ivoire (MPCI) took control over much of the northern part of the country, effectively splitting Ivory Coast into two. Also captured was Bouaké airbase, which was home to six inoperational Alpha Jet light attack aircraft. Its confidence bolstered significantly by the capture of the jets, the MPCI boldly threatened to reactivate the Alpha Jets to use them against their former owners which having no combat aircraft of its own could offer little to counter this threat. [1]
The speed with which the uprising spread throughout the country caught local security forces by complete surprise. Faced with an insurrection now spreading southwards to the capital Yamoussoukro and the country's largest city Abidjan, France intervened as part of Operation Licorne to evacuate all foreign citizens still present in the country. Making clever use of a ceasefire brokered by Paris, Gbagbo's government used the pause in fighting to launch an ambitious re-equipment programme that sought to transform the FACI into the strongest air force in the entire region.
Belarus and Bulgaria were quick to come to Gbagbo's aid, which resulted in the delivery of four Su-25s, one Mi-8 and at least two Mi-24s from Belarus as well as two MiG-23MLDs, two Mi-8s and two Mi-24s from Bulgaria. [1] Curiously, both MiG-23s were loaded back onto the An-124 that delivered them and flown to Lomé, Togo, where they were impounded by local authortities and stored outside. Côte d'Ivoire also acquired two BAC Strikemasters, which were flown by a French private military contractor who obtained them from Botswana (via Malta). Additionally, Romania delivered four IAR-330 helicopters, and Israel delivered two Aerostar UAVs for reconnaissance. For transport of equipment and manpower, the FACI could rely on an An-12 flown by a Ukrainian crew. [1]

The Su-25s, comprising two Su-25 single-seaters and two Su-25UB dual-seaters, were delivered in 2002 and came directly from Belarusian Air Force stocks. [1] The single seaters received the serial numbers '02' and '03' while the dual seaters were assigned serials '20' and '21'. Interestingly, '21' was equipped with what appear to be armour plates on the sides of the rear cockpit not unreminiscent of those seen on the MiG-23BN and MiG-27. To the authors' best knowledge, these are an unique feature of two Su-25UBs modernised by Belarus (the other example was supplied to Peru) and have never been seen on any other Su-25 worldwide. Another unique addition (at least in this particular arrangement) were chaff and flare dispensers, which again only equipped '21' and the Peruvian Su-25UB. 
Teething problems

While the two dual-seaters entered service in early 2003, the process of assembling the two single seaters appears to have run into a number of teething problems (pun intended) and work on them progressed slowly. It is entirely possible that both aircraft were deemed excess to requirements already before their delivery to Ivory Coast, a fact that might have also been the reason for returning the MiG-23MLDs right after their delivery. In any case, neither aircraft was operational at the time of France's intervention in late 2004.

All four Su-25s were adorned with the sharp-toothed sharkmouth markings applied to nearly every FACI combat aircraft and helicopter since the early 2000s (and even to some jeeps). The result is what can described as one of the most menacing liveries to have ever roamed the skies. While these particular sharkmouths are often thought to be an unique feature of aircraft and helicopters belonging to Ivory Coast, they actually originate from Belarus, which first began to apply them to some of its Mi-24 helicopters in the 1990s. As Ivory Coast began to receive Mi-24s from the same source in the early 2000s, the 'sharkmouth trend' was evidently well-received and thus continued.
During their nearly two years of active operations, the Su-25s primarily operated out Yamoussoukro while jointly flown and maintained by a mix of Belarusian and Ivorian pilots and technicians. Since some of the Ivorian pilots appeared to be quite old, it can presumed that they were former Alpha Jet pilots. The activities of the Belarusians and Su-25s at Yamoussoukro were closely monitored by the French Army, which shared the local airport with the mercenaries and their menacing mounts.

The beginning of the end

Strengthened by his new arsenal of combat aircraft, Gbagbo first acted against the rebels on the 4th of November 2004, when the Su-25UBs began bombing rebel positions in the north in spite of the ceasefire in place. Apart from targeting ammunition depots and hideouts of key rebel leaders, the air attacks reportedly left a high number of civilian casualties. [2] These sorties continued until two days later, when on the 6th of November the two Su-25UBs bombed and rocketed a clearly marked French peacekeeper camp in Bouaké. The resulting tragedy claimed the lives of nine French soldiers and one American missionary, with dozens more soldiers injured.
Then, in what can only be described as an act of sheer lunacy, the mixed Belarusian-Ivorian crew of the Sukhois returned to Yamoussoukro airport, which they now happened to share with a very angry bunch of French paratroopers. Apparently deciding it was best to act as if nothing had happened, both aircraft taxied to the ramp for refuelling and rearming. Around the same time in Paris, the French High Command had just received the news of the attack and ordered the entire FACI neutralised in response, beginning with the two Su-25s at Yamoussoukro. [1]
The paratroopers in Yamoussoukro immediately sprung into action, firing two MILAN anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) against the aircraft while they were still in the progress of being refuelled and rearmed. The resulting damage was severe: Su-25UB '20' had its canopy blown off while the missile that hit '21' ripped off a part of the nose section. In Abidjan, the two non-operational single seaters were captured by French forces and disabled for future use along with the two Aerostar UAVs, which had their wings broken. The culmination of these events left Ivory Coast and France on a war footing, resulting in a number of clashes with a death toll ranging from 20 to 60. [3] The location of the base was later found to be marked on the map of the pilots, putting the blame solely with the FACI and its poor choice of mercenaries. [1]

French bureaucracy
Already on the same day as the attack on the peacekeeper camp, French soldiers arrested fifteen Belarusian, Russian and Ukrainian mercenaries working for the FACI in Abidjan, before unexplainedly releasing them four days later. [4] [5] Ten days later, on the 16th November, eight Belarusians claiming to be "agricultural engineers" were arrested by Togolese authorities after entering the country from Ivory Coast. Local authorities quickly figured out the link between the men and the attack on the peacekeeper's camp and notified France it had the likely perpetrators in custody. For reasons that remain unknown to this day, France then passed the chance to attain justice and Togo could do little but to allow the group to return to Belarus.
However, in what can only be described as a textbook example of French bureaucracy, France ultimately decided it was going to prosecute the pilots in March 2021 after all of seventeen years (!) after the attack occurred. Though its opportunity to properly persecute the perpetrators seems to have passed, the three surviving pilots, comprising two Ivorians pilots and one Belarusian pilot, will now face trial in absentia in France (two other pilots implicated in the attack have since passed away). The fact that a only a maximum of four pilots could have flown the Su-25UBs during the attack means that one of the five pilots believed to be the perpetrators by France is actually completely innocent. Nonetheless, tried for murder, the surviving three may be sentenced life imprisonment in absentia. [4] [5]

In late 2004, the two damaged Su-25UBs were brought to Abidjan Houphouët-Boigny IAP, where they joined the two Su-25 single-seaters that had sustained minor damage as a result of French reprisals. It appears that Ivory Coast was interested in bringing the aircraft back into service, but any attempt at doing so would have required parts or entire subsections to be brought in from abroad, something the arms embargo imposed on Ivory Coast obviously prevented. As a result, the Su-25s continued to languish in the air force hangar. [1]

The associated weaponry and munitions that were left at Yamoussoukro airbase were subsequently taken to the former palace of the late first president of Côte d'Ivoire, Félix Houphouët-Boigny in Yamoussoukro. Here they remained forgotten until discovered by forces loyal to the current President Alassane Ouattara in April 2011 during the Second Ivorian Civil War.

An endangered species
Presumably in an effort to free up space inside the hangar, the four Su-25s along with the two BAC Strikemasters, three Mi-24s and support equipment for the Su-25s were moved outdoors in 2015. This was perhaps indicative of their eventual fate, as the badly damaged airframes were now completely exposed to weather elements, with rain freely entering the open cockpits and damaged fuselages of the Su-25s. Their later whereabouts remain unknown, but it may be presumed that all were moved to a local scrapyard and disposed of.

While the FACI has recently reintroduced several Mi-24s adorned with the distinctive sharkmouths into active service, the four Su-25s appear to have ended their unglamorous career in the claws of an excavator to be dismantled for scrap metal. Whether the Côte d'Ivoire will ever attempt to field a small fleet of jet aircraft again will undoubtedly be tied to the country's operational requirements and finances. Rest assured though they will surely feature sharkmouths. 
[1] African MiGs Volume 1: Angola to Ivory Coast 
[4] Bombardement de Bouaké: trois pilotes jugés par défaut et une énigme intacte
[5] Côte d’Ivoire : le bombardement des soldats français à Bouaké devant les assises de Paris