Thursday 4 November 2021

Su-27 Fighters Deployed As Bombers In Tigray War

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

The Ethiopian Air Force (ETAF) has traditionally relied on its fleet of Soviet-era MiG-23BN fighter-bombers to carry out bombing missions and to provide close air support (CAS). These rugged aircraft have seen considerable use during the Tigray War that commenced in November 2020, so far leading to the loss of two airframes in November and December 2020. [1] Although appreciated by the ETAF for their ability to carry a hefty bomb load, the less than a dozen or so remaining MiG-23BNs lack the ability to deploy modern precision-guided munitions (PGMs), severely limiting their options to accurately strike enemy targets.

In an effort to mitigate the resulting gap in capabilities, Ethiopia is confirmed to have acquired at least three types of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) from Iran, China and the UAE while likely also deploying its sole remaining Su-25TK anti-tank hunter aircraft to take out any target that requires a precision hit. [2] [3] [4] It is thus all the more surprising that the Ethiopian Air Force remains committed to using its Su-27 fighter aircraft as bombers, as was recently witnessed during a number of air attacks on the the Tigray region's capital of Mekelle.
Ethiopia originally acquired eight Su-27s from Russia in the late 1990s, later supplementing these with more aircraft purchased from Russia and Ukraine for a total number of some seventeen aircraft. [45] Several crashes have meant that this fleet is now down to around twelve aircraft operated by No.5 Squadron based at Harar Meda airport. The Su-27S, Su-27P and Su-27UB variants were acquired, all of which are all incapable of deploying guided air-to-ground weaponry. Not that this was a problem for the ETAF, as it intended on using the Su-27s purely in the interceptor role, resulting in the successful shootdown of several Eritrean MiG-29s during the Badme War.

Owing to the aircraft's role as a pure interceptor, Ethiopian Su-27 pilots are not believed to have been trained for the deployment of iron bombs, which could explain the terrible accuracy associated with the airstrikes on a number of targets around Mekelle in October 2021. During a bombing run against the former headquarters of the ENDF's Northern Command in Mekelle (which is now used as a training site by Tigray forces), the bombs dropped by a Su-27 not only missed the building, but also the entire premise, landing in a field a kilometre away. [6] A UN flight that was supposed to land at Mekelle even had to abort its landing as a result of the attack. [7]

An Ethiopian Su-27 during a bombing sortie over Mekelle.

In an Ethiopian Air Force documentary aired in June 2021, one could catch a first glimpse of an Ethiopian Su-27 now used as a bomber in the air-to-ground role. [8] Unlikely by coincidence, the first reports of Ethiopian Su-27s being deployed at Bahir Dar air base closer to the contested Tigray Region surfaced at the same time. [9] [10] In the footage the Su-27UB is seen armed with four Soviet OFAB-250 dumb bombs. It can be assumed that Ethiopian Su-27 pilots received at least some training from MiG-23BN pilots on how to hit ground targets while flying well above the ceiling of Tigrayan anti-aircraft guns, further decreasing their already poor accuracy.

Although normally based out of Harar Media air base near the capital Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian Air Force has maintained regular detachments of two to four Su-27s at Bahir Dar air base, the home of the ETAF's MiG-23BN fleet, throughout the duration of the conflict. [9] [10] It remains unknown whether the Su-27s that are currently engaged in bombing missions over Tigray are flying out of Harar Media or Bahir Dar, although the latter seems most likely. In November 2020 Bahir Dar found itself on the receiving end of a Chinese-made M20 short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) fired by Tigray forces. It is unknown if the missile strike caused any materiel losses, but luckily for the ETAF the attack was never repeated. [11]

Ethiopian Su-27 pilots pose in front of their imposing mounts at Bahir Dar air base.

The continued usage of the Su-27 in the air-to-ground role is likely to achieve little but to attract increased international attention to the Tigray War, which is about to enter its second year. Judging by the use of Su-27s as bombers, the number of UCAVs acquired by Ethiopia so far appears insufficient for their needs. While the supply of UAVs to fuel a war could be construed as unethical, they are almost certain to hit their intended targets when equipped with precision-guided munitions, in turn preventing unnecessary civilian casualties. Until more UCAVs are acquired, the Su-27s might continue soldiering on in a conflict that has no real need for them, but that demands the use of any and all available resource to wrestle a victor from its deadlocked combatants.

[1] List Of Aircraft Losses Of The Tigray War (2020-2021)
[3] Wing Loong Is Over Ethiopia: Chinese UCAVs Join The Battle For Tigray
[5] Ethiopia - Sukhoi Su-27, Su-27UB, Su-27SK
[8] አስደሳች ግድቡን የሚጠብቁት አስፈሪ ጀቶች ጀነራሉን አስደመሙት
[11] Go Ballistic: Tigray’s Forgotten Missile War With Ethiopia and Eritrea