The SAAF had to admit that – thanks to the superior armament of the Cuban-flown MiG-23MLs – Angola was now in possession of air superiority
Located in south-central Africa, the Republic of Angola is a former Portuguese colony. It remained a Portuguese overseas province from the 16th century until it gained independence on Nov. 1, 1975, following the end of a war fought against colonial rule. Immensely rich in mineral resources, Angola was the scene of several intense and bitter civil wars in the 15 years prior to its independence and for almost 25 years afterwards. In addition to civil wars, Angola was subject to several interventions by Cuba and South Africa.
Angola turned to the Soviets for aid and acquired a first batch of MiG fighters, which were delivered by mid-December 1975. Using the MiGs acquired from Soviets in 1975, plus transports left behind by the Portuguese, the locals and the Cuban cadre drafted a plan to create the Força Aérea popular de angola – Defesa Anti-Aviones (FAPA-DAA, – Angola People’s Air Force and Air Defence Force). This was officially established by decree of the first Angolan President, Dr Agustin Neto, on Jan. 21, 1976, as a branch of the Força Armadas Populares de Libertaceio de Angola (FAPLA – Angolan military).
During the following years Cuba reinforced its contingent in Angola with a squadron of MiG-21MFs.
As explained by Tom Cooper, Peter Weinert, Fabian Hin and Mark Lepko in their book African MiGs Volume 1 Angola to Ivory Coast, the FAPA-DAA underwent its first major reorganisation in 1983, when the decision was taken to re-equip the Cuban contingent with 12 MiG-23ML fighters and 2 MiG-23UB conversion trainers, which began arriving in 1984. Equipped with sophisticated radar and a weapons system including medium-range AAMs, the Cuban-flown MiG-23MLs foremost served as interceptors, but also as fighter-bombers.
This aircraft were used in anger during the campaign launched by FAPLA against UNITA (União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola, the second-largest political party in Angola and the last major armed opposition group, extensively supported by South Africa, the U.S. and even China) in July 1987, which led to a direct diplomatic and military confrontation between Cuba and South Africa, as well as the climax of the superpower involvement in what became the First Angolan Civil War.
Initially, four FAPLA mechanised and motorised infantry brigades, all supported by Cuban and Soviet advisors, advanced from Luena towards Cazombo, while five other brigades advanced from Cuito Cuanavale towards Mavinga. Nine other FAPLA brigades were held in reserve. Alarmed by the onslaught, UNITA requested assistance from South Africa, and the South African Defence Force (SADF) deployed a mechanised force into southern Angola, as well as a squadron of South African Air Force (SAAF) Mirage F.1s to Rundu AB, in northeast South-West Africa (SWA). The first aerial clash took place on Sep. 10, 1987, two days after a SADF task force decimated FAPLA’s 21 Brigade on the River Lomba. Approaching at very low level, SAAF Mirages first surprised and then outmanoeuvred two Cuban-flown MiG-23MLs. However, the first French-made R.550 Magic AAM exploded behind its target and the other missed, as both Cuban pilots out-accelerated their opponents.
In light of the considerable FAPA-DAA presence, the SAAF attempted to set up another trap. On Sep. 27, 1987, three pairs of Mirages were deployed at low level over southern Angola, inciting Cuban-flown MiG-23MLs into a series of engagements. The first pair of Mirages was then vectored towards a pair of MiG-23MLs that was protecting a formation of several helicopters. However, due to the long range from which their ground control was directing them, the SAAF fighters climbed into the wrong area and failed to take their opponents by surprise. As the two Mirages turned into their opponents, the MiGs responded with several R-6OMK missiles. One missile flashed over the canopy of one of the Mirages, but another detonated while passing to the left of the other South African fighter, spraying its tailpipe and rear fuselage with shrapnel. Both Mirages disengaged safely, returning to Rundu without further incident. However, the damaged aircraft overshot the runway on landing and crashed into a shallow ditch behind it, collapsing the nose gear and ejecting the pilot out of the cockpit in the process. Even although this aircraft was later salvaged and repaired using pieces of another Mirage F.1, the SAAF pilot was heavily injured and out of action.
The clash of Sep. 27, 1987 changed the situation in the air war over Angola. The SAAF had to admit that – thanks to the superior armament of the Cuban-flown MiG-23MLs – the FAPA-DAA was now in possession of air superiority. South Africa immediately introduced emergency measures, foremost in terms of avoiding air combats and flying at extremely low levels (15m AGL or lower) in order to avoid detection and minimise exposure to radar detection and enemy interceptors.
At the same time South African ground forces limited their activity during daylight hours. In addition, the SAAF began a crash programme to obtain advanced Python III AAMs from Israel in order to counter the MiG-23MLs, which were now escorting most of the MiG-21 and Su-22 formations under way on ground-attack sorties.
Although under heavy pressure from the FAPA-DAA, the SADF and UNITA eventually halted the FAPLA advance on Mavinga, and then forced the FAPLA into a withdrawal towards Cuito Cuanavale. As the SADF was ordered to harass the retreating enemy, the battlefield rapidly moved ever further away from South African bases in SWA and ever closer to MiG bases in Cuito and Menongue. With the SAAF unable to gain air superiority and its fighter-bombers operating without any radar coverage and at the limits of their endurance, the FAPA-DAA was free to strike SADF and UNITA units on the battlefield. The SADF was limited to manoeuvres by night, while spending the days hidden in the bush. For the first time in the war, the Angolan Air Force enjoyed unlimited control of the skies.
This supremacy had its limits. Due to the large-scale deployment of improved air defences, the SADF and UNITA inflicted heavy losses on the FAPA-DAA, claiming more than 25 kills against MiGs and Sukhois alone, at least a third of which were con-firmed. Intense ground fire often forced Angolan and Cuban pilots to fly high, in turn reducing the precision of their attacks. The SAAF continued flights into the combat zone, deploying pairs of Mirages to strike FAPLA ground units from very low level and forcing the FAPA-DAA to suspend its air-to-ground operations and instead arm its MiGs with air-to-air missiles. Indeed, on Nov. 25, South African fighter-bombers raided the airfield at Menongue: they successfully penetrated the defensive perimeter, but their Kentron H-2 Raptor 1 guided bombs failed to launch. As a result, the entire formation passed directly over the target. The Angolans scrambled a number of MiGs to intercept, but these didn’t manage to catch the intruders.
On other occasions, demonstrative flights were undertaken into the area around Cuito, in order to lure the MiGs into the engagement envelope of other weapons. On Nov. 29 1987, Mirages enticed the FAPA-DAA to scramble several MiGs from Cuito Cuanavale. As the jets rolled along the runway the airfield was hit by long-range artillery and three MiGs were claimed as destroyed on the ground. Two MiG-23MLs that managed to get airborne were then claimed shot down during take-off by a UNITA MANPADS team that had been clandestinely deployed next to the airfield.
By early 1988, Cuito Cuanavale was under siege by UNITA, supported by SADF forces. The fall of the city appeared imminent, when the Cuban government decided to send yet more troops to Angola — not only in order to help the FAPLA on the battlefield, but also to force South African forces out of the country, once and for all. By February, Cuban Gen Citras Frias had taken over command of the garrison and the front lines stabilised as the SADF advance grinded to a halt in the face of stubborn resistance. The fighting intensified again, aircraft on both sides flying up to three sorties each day. However, due to the MANPADS threat, the majority of FAPA-DAA ordnance was delivered from medium level and precision suffered accordingly.
For its part, the SAAF adapted its tactics and began flying nocturnal strikes at very low level — something neither the Cubans nor Angolans were doing. Attacking by night, Mirages delivered a series of heavy blows, but on 20 Feb. 20 an F.1AZ was shot down by FAPLA SA-13s shortly after releasing its bombs; the pilot was killed. In reaction to this loss, and in order to demonstrate its presence over the battlefield and bolster the morale of ground troops, SAAF Mirages were ordered into the skies of southern Angola again, resulting in two inconclusive air battles. The first occurred around noon on Feb. 25, when the FAPA-DAA ground control vectored a MiG-23ML under way on an air-to-ground mission to intercept two Mirages. The enterprising Cuban pilot initiated a pursuit but had to break off just before reaching the maximum engagement range due to lack of fuel. The aircraft landed at Cuito Cuanavale on its last few drops of fuel. The MiG was swiftly refuelled and took off, returning to Menongue despite SADF artillery shelling the airfield in response. Several hours later, two Cuban-flown MiG-23MLs were vectored to intercept three Mirages. The SAAF detected their presence only by monitoring FAPA-DAA radio communications and after the MiGs had established visual contact with their opponents. There followed a short, high-speed engagement during which one of the Mirages fired two missiles, both of which were out-accelerated by the targeted MiG. This would be the last known air-to-air engage-ment of the First Angolan Civil War.
Top MiG-23 photo credit: unknown