Africa’s top fighter aircraft

The technology and status of African air forces is underreported in Western media, so in an effort to redress this we will look at the continent’s most deadly combat aircraft. The cliche of African air arms being universally equipped with antiquated, badly maintained fighters is now a myth. 

 African air power is a subject full of surprises and contradictions. In a dramatic reversal of the world of the past, today many of the continent’s air forces are equipped with some of the most potent machines in the world, including the extraordinary Dassault Rafale and updated variants of the Russian heavyweight ‘Flanker’. Though as elsewhere, the air-to-air mission has become rarer, it remains a more pressing consideration than it is for Europe and the US.

What is the best fighter aircraft in Africa?

There are several candidates for this title. In judging this, it is important to look at pilot quality, training and the aircraft’s weapon systems. In determining which warplanes are the most effective in the air-to-air mission we must (for the sake of brevity) put several significant factors aside, but be aware of them. Fighter aircraft operate as part of a system, and require a network of surveillance, C3I and infrastructure. For example the Sudanese MiG-29SEh is a well armed, well-equipped fighter, but Sudan has next to no radar surveillance. A fighter in the defensive role, without the benefits of decent ground radar or AWACS, is severely limited in its effectiveness.

Fighters are complicated machines that require exhaustive overhauls, something very few African nations can do without foreign support (we shall see that there is one very significant example of independent ‘deep overhauls’). This means, that most countries must maintain a good relationship with the nation/s providing spares and technical support, this is something that can be very restrictive, considering the high incidence of wars and sanctions in the region.

One important element in a fighter’s effectiveness is the quality of its electronic warfare (EW) suite. Though most details of this aspect are kept secret, some information is in the public domain. The Swiss air force’s 2008 evaluation report of the Gripen, Rafale and Typhoon was leaked, revealing that the Saab aircraft has ‘strong’ electronic warfare capabilities.

The Block 52 F-16s of the Royal Moroccan Air Force (RMAF) and Egyptian Air Force (EAF) contain very modern equipment, though they are not the highest specification F-16s. Whereas the most advanced F-16s, the Block 60s of the UAE, are fitted with an AESA (the AN/APG-80) radar, RMAF and EAF make do with the capable, but inferior, mechanically scanning APG-68v9. But this will change with the likely advent of the F-16V. Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars are now an entry level technology for a modern air force. Egypt was the first African nation to get membership to the AESA club  with the arrival of its French Rafale fighter-bombers. 

One of the biggest game-changers in African air power has been the appearance of the ‘Flanker’ heavy fighter series on the export market. This has been followed by the appearance of sophisticated Western aircraft. Let’s take a look at the most formidable fighter aircraft in Africa.

 Egyptian Air Force: Lockheed Martin Block 52 F-16/Early F-16/ Dassault Mirage 2000/Dassault Rafale/Sukhoi Su-35/RAC MiG-29M/M2

That the decision to supply Morsi’s new Egypt with advanced F-16s has been the subject of such fierce debate, gives an idea of the capabilities late Block ‘Vipers’ have.

The bulk of Egypt’s fast-jet force is made up of around 200 early F-16s. These aircraft, from Blocks 15/32/40, are excellent dogfighters (and have been subject to upgrades) but are limited in the BVR arena by both weapons and radar types. They are usually employed in the air-to-ground role. Egypt is a very experienced operator of the F-16, having received its first aircraft in the 1980s.

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The F-16s are not armed with AIM-120 AMRAAM (nor will even the Block 52s) but AIM-7P Sparrows (assuming they have not exceeded their shelf lives). This is due to Israeli insistence that Egypt should receive the weapon. Sparrow is a virtually obsolete weapon and puts the aircraft at a large disadvantage against potential threat aircraft like Israel’s AMRAAM armed F-15s and F-16s (RAF Tornado F.Mk 3s, armed with semi-active Skyflash missiles learnt this harsh lesson in exercises against AMRAAM-equipped F-4Fs of the Luftwaffe in the early 1990s, although the RAF did devise some good ’anti-AMRAAM’ tactics) . Another disadvantage is the EAF’s F-16s Within-Visual-Range weapon, the AIM-9M-2, inferior in many respects to both the R-73 and AIM-9X. Egypt’s pilots are highly rated but political upheaval and the shifting new regimes complicated relationship with the US may affect this.

Egypt’s has around twenty active Mirage 2000s (sixteen 2000EMs and four 2000BM two-seat trainers) which have received some upgrades, notably to their ECM suite. They are capable fighters, superior to the F-16s in agility at higher altitudes, and are armed with the modern MICA medium-range missile. 

The EAF has 46 MiG-29M/M2s which are close in standard to the RuAF MiG-35s. It is likely that the US refusal to sell Egypt AMRAAMs may have aided this programme as the MiG-29 is armed with a modern active BVR weapon in the form of the R-77. 

In a move which infuriated the US, Egypt has ordered around 24 Su-35s, the first of which arrived in July or August 2020. This is the most potent heavy fighter ‘Flanker’ in Africa. Egypt’s Su-35s will be a force to be reckoned with. 

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Block 52 Equipment
The EAF’s Block 52s have a decent radar, in the form of the Northrop Grumman APG-68v9, a very capable mechanically-steered radar. Unlike the F-16s of Turkey, Pakistan and Oman which are fitted with the ITT AN/ALQ-211 Advanced Integrated Defensive Electronic Warfare Systems (AIDEWS), EAF F-16s carry Raytheon’s Advanced Countermeasures Electronic Systems.

Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 52
Radar: APG-68v9 (mechanically scanned)
Armament 20-mm M61 rotary cannon, AIM-9M Sidewinder (WVR), AIM-7P Sparrow (BVR- status unknown)

Mikoyan MiG-29M/M2

Radar: Zhuk-ME

Air-to-air weapons: Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-301 30-mm cannon, R-73/R-74 WVR missiles. R-27 and R-77 BVR missiles

Sukhoi Su-35

Radar: IRBIS-E

Air-to-air weapons: Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-301 30-mm cannon, R-73/R-74 WVR missiles. R-27 and R-77 BVR missiles

Mirage 2000EM

Radar: RDM+ (mechanically scanned)
Armament: DEFA 554 30-mm cannon, Magic 550 (WVR), Super 530 (BVR). MICA (BVR)

Egyptian air force: Dassault Rafale 

Two Egyptian Rafales flying over the Pyramids_LR.jpg

The first Egyptian Rafale squadron (34 ‘Wild Wolves’) has been fully operational since October 2018. Rafale offers the most potent fighter on the continent in overall capabilities. When Egypt’s Rafales receive their Meteor missiles in the future, they will be able to utterly dominate the African skies (though in the Middle East may not enjoy the same advantages over Israeli F-35s).

Radar: RBE 2 AESA
Air-to-air weapons: 30-mm GIAT cannon. WVR/BVR AAM weapon: MICA (Meteor in future)

Ethiopian air force Sukhoi Su-27

In the war with Eritrea, Ethiopian Flankers shot down four MiG-29s establishing the ‘Flanker’s fearsome reputation. The most potent asset in the Ethiopian air force is its Sukhoi ‘Flanker’ force. This consists of twelve single-seat Su-27s, and a pair of Su-27UBs.

In a very significant move, Ethiopia developed the first local in-depth overhauls for the Su-27. Only Russia/Ukraine and China previously had such a capability. It means the ETAF is now self sufficient (provided they have enough spares) in terms of its fighter fleet, something few African countries can say. After overhaul, the aircraft are now getting a new splinter camouflage scheme.

Morale in the Ethiopian pilots is a big issue. Training in Belarus and Israel gave access to excellent training, but also gave Ethiopian crews unhappy with the regime, a chance to escape (eight pilots allegedly defected in Belarus). For the lucky ones this meant refuge to Europe, but at least four pilots were less fortunate and were sentenced to death. It is uncertain whether these sentences were carried out. Some of these defections were of the most experienced ‘Flanker’ pilots, including the veteran Captain Teshome Tenkolu. If experienced crews had been kept, Ethiopia would have one of the most seasoned ‘Flanker’ pilot cadres.
The shootdown in 1999 of an Eritrean MiG-29 by an EAF Su-27 was notable as the first kill by the Su-27 and the first jet-versus-jet by a female pilot (named in some reports as Capt. Aster Tolossa), though some dispute the veracity of this claim. According to several accounts, R-27s had a far lower Probability of Kill rate than R-73s during the fighting.

Nigerian Air Force CAC/PAC JF-17 Thunder Block II 

Since 1971, China and Nigerian have enjoyed a cordial relationship, and though it has been a little rocky as of late, the nations still have very strong ties. So it is unsurprising that the Nigerian Air Force opted for the largely Chinese partly-Pakistani JF-17 as its primary fighter-bomber. Not least because it has a long history with Chinese aircraft in the form of the F-7. The JF-17 is not in full service yet as only three have been ordered, and were first publicly seen in Nigerian colours in Pakistan in November 2020.

They will be similar in standard to those for Myanmar, standard JF-17 Block II but with certain systems – like the EJ-seat – replaced with foreign systems.

The JF-17 may lack the raw airframe performance of other modern fighters but boasts an excellent digitalised cockpit, reliability and potent BVR missiles. If JF-17s are ordered in greater numbers they will significantly improve Nigeria’s fighter force from its current small and obsolete force of eight J-7s.

CAC/PAC JF-17 Thunder Block II 
Radar: Chinese KLJ-7V2 X-band multi-functional PD radar
Air-to-air weapons: 1 × 23 mm GSh-23-2 twin-barrel cannon, PL-12/SD-10,  PL-5E and PL-9C

Royal Moroccan Air Force: Lockheed Martin Block 52 F-16

Morocco enjoys a good relationship with the United States granting it access to advanced military equipment. In August 2011, the MAF received the last of 24 Block 52+ F-16s. Morocco’s F-16s are probably the best armed fighters in Africa, equipped with both the AIM-9X and AIM-120 (though most publicly released photos show the aircraft without any weapons). The F-16s are intended to counter Algeria’s force of 28 Su-30MKAs. In 2019 it approval was given for Morocco to receive 25 F-16C/D Block 72s and upgrades of its existing 23 F‑16s to the F‑16V block 52+ standard.

The Royal Moroccan Air Force also operates 12 F-5A/Bs upgraded with Tiger II avionics and 24 upgraded F-5 Tiger III. Another asset that should not be overlooked is the RMAF’s Mirage F1s. The Association Sagem Thales pour la Rénovation d’Avions de Combat (ASTRAC) consortium has performed a radical upgrade of these aircraft, fitting a new multi-mode radar, cockpit displays and importantly the addition of MICA missiles to its arsenal. The RMAF has is reported to have ordered both MICA variants: IR and EM (an active radar-guided variant) form. This potent weapon is a modern fire-and-forget system that few air forces know much about countering. Despite this upgrade, the F1 is not in the same class as the F-16 as an air-to-air fighter, lacking the agility (and several other benefits) of the US type. Still, it boasts the impressive systems of the 2000-5 in the trustworthy airframe of the F1.

Lockheed Martin Block 52+ F-16
Radar: AN/APG-68(V)9
Air-to-air weapons: 20-mm M61 rotary cannon, AIM-9X Sidewinder, AIM-

Algerian Air Force (QJJ): Sukhoi Su-30MKAs (similar to MKM spec)

Algeria has been investing heavily in its air force and is becoming one of the continents most formidable air arms. Algeria ordered twenty eight Su-30MKAs in May 2006, which have now all been delivered. These were then joined by sixteen additional aircraft of the same type, which replaced an order for MiG-29s which were returned due to being sub-standard quality.

The Su-30MKA is a very potent aircraft. The Algerian Su-30s are well-armed, with both R-73 (Within-Visual-Range Infra Red guided missiles) and fire-and-forget R-77 (Beyond-Visual-Range radar-guided missiles). This gave Algeria the first fire-and-forget air-to-air missile in the region (the first in all of Africa were Sudan’s MiG-29SEhs), an edge it maintained until the Royal Moroccan Air Force fielded its operational AMRAAM capability. Not only is the Algerian fighter force well equipped, it is manned by well-trained crews, many with combat experience. The aircraft are fitted with Thrust Vectoring Control (TVC), which when carefully used against inexperienced crews can greatly increase combat effectiveness in the merge. There was some controversy in Algeria, when it was revealed, despite earlier reports to the contrary; that the Su-30MKAs are alleged to contain some Israeli equipment (it is unlikely that is the jamming systems used on Indian air force Su-30MKIs).
Algeria’s Su-30s are long-ranged and available in sufficient numbers for a decent state of readiness, and the crews of good quality. It is fair to say, that they are in many ways, they are among the most potent fighters in Africa, being surpassed only by Egypt’s Su-30s and Rafale.

Algeria ordered a force 14 MiG-29Ms of the same standard as those of Egypt. There are indications that some aircraft have already arrived despite the recency of the order.

Sukhoi Su-30MKA
Radar: NIIP N011M BARS Passive Electronically Scanning Array
Air-to-air weapons: Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-301 30-mm cannon, R-73 missiles, R-77 missiles

Uganda People’s Defence Force: Sukhoi Su-30MK2

The elite fighter force of Uganda is 6-8 Sukhoi Su-30MK2s. The aircraft were delivered in 2011. Morale was reported as low, with pilots leaving the air force due to the very low rate of pay. These aircraft are not fitted with Thrust Vector Control.

Sukhoi Su-30MK2
Radar: NIIP N011M BARS Passive Electronically Scanning Array
Air-to-air weapons: Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-301 30-mm cannon, R-73 missiles, R-27 Missiles, R-77 (probably) missiles

Angolan air force FAPA: Sukhoi Su-27
Another ‘Flanker’ operator is Angola. Scant information is available about Angola’s Su-27, which were purchased second-hand from the Belarus. Angola previously had had only two Su-27S and one Su-27UB. An additional Angolan Su-27 crashed in 2000, falsely reported lost to a UNITA SAM. The aircraft may have been piloted by Ukrainian mercenary pilot Igor Valenchenko.
Angolan ‘Flanker’s have at times been based at Catumbela airport, Lubango. Achieving a constant state of readiness with such a small fleet size proved impossible and so more Flankers were ordered. Angola’s 12 Su-30s started life with the Indian Air Force as Su-30Ks (an interim variant without thrust vector control, something these particular aircraft still lack). Following a period of storage and an upgrade in Belarus they were sent to Angola, the last arriving in 2019. With new jamming equipment, R-77 compatibility and the potential to use anti-shipping missiles they are said to be of Su-30SM standard.

Sukhoi Su-27
Radar: Phazotron N001 Zhuk mechanically scanned radar
Air-to-air weapons: Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-301 30-mm cannon, R-73 and R-27 missiles (status unknown)

Sudanese air force: MiG-29SEh

South African Air Force: Saab Gripen C/D

The Gripen is probably the world’s best light fighter. South African Gripens are well equipped, notably featuring the Cobra Helmet Mounted Display/ Cueing system. This, combined with IRIS-T missiles (again a world-class system), and the Gripen’s small size and agility, make the type the finest fighter in the merge in Africa. The lack of a Beyond Visual Range (BVR) weapon would make SAAF Gripens vulnerable to any fighter so equipped. This may not be cause for concern, as few air forces in Africa have fighters with a high-level BVR capability, and certainly no countries bordering South African do.

When Saab conceptualised the Gripen in the late 1970s it is unlikely that they considered the type’s performance in the role of policing rhinoceros poaching, but the little Swedish fighter has been doing just that. Gripens are patrolling the area near Zimbabwe border using their Rafael Litening III targeting pods to scan the area at night and direct rangers to any poachers’ camps.

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Noteworthy at least 12 of the aircraft were put into long-term storage in 2013 because of severe budget cuts. but since then it is believed that all SAAF Gripens are flying.

The SAAF has excellent training equipment, notably the upgraded Pilatus PC-7 Mk II and the superb BAE Systems Hawk Mk 120. However, budgetary constraints have limited pilot flying time, though the SAAF hope to increase this to 180 hours a year (this compares with 240 hours for RAF fast jet pilots). In a first, SAAF Gripens took part in an international training exercise in 2012. Exercise Lion Effort, which was held at the F17 Blekinge Wing in Ronneby, Sweden, gave the chance the SAAF the chance to learn and share operating techniques with the Gripen community. The SAAF currently has 26 Gripen C/Ds.

Saab JAS 39C/D Gripen
Radar: PS-05/A mechanically scanned radar
Air-to-air weapons: BK 27-mm Mauser cannon. IRIS- T (normally two), A-Darter. No BVR weapon.

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Sudanese MiG-29

The Sudanese air force (SAF) has the Russian-made MiG-29SEh. The twelve aircraft, ten single-seaters and two MiG-29UB twin-seaters (some sources suggest as many as 24) were ordered from the Russian Federation in 2002 and were delivered in 2003-2004. The aircraft are well armed with R-73 and R-77 missiles, but operate in a nation lacking wide-scale radar coverage. The aircraft cannot provide comprehensive air cover of Sudan, considering the country’s large size and are instead reserved for the defence of Khartoum.

The delivery of the fighters to Sudan was greeted with alarm by the US, who condemned the sale. Sudanese MiG-29SEh are well armed and fitted with a mediocre radar. It is alleged that Sudan has used mercenary pilots, possibly of Russian origin to fly its MiG-29s. South Sudan claimed they downed one during the 2012 border war, during which Sudanese MiG-29s performed bombing missions. The South Sudanese air force offers no real opposition for the SAF, as one source based in the region said to AFM:
“..they had nine Mi-17 helicopters, all of which are unarmed
transports, although one was badly damaged by enemy action in Likuangole and is still there and another in a storm when they forgot to tie down the rotors. Other than that they use private planes for transport. Rumours abound that they were looking to purchase fighter jets, however with the state of the economy this is unlikely to be in the near future.”

Radar: Phazotron N019ME
Weapons: Air-to-air weapons: Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-301 30-mm cannon, R-73 and R-27 and R-77 missiles.

Eritrean Air Force: Sukhoi Su-27 ‘Flankers’

In order to counter Ethiopia’s ‘Flanker’s during the 1998-2000 war, Eritrea ordered some of their own, though they did not get a chance to use them before the war ended in 2000. It is believed that Eritrean MiG-29s (some of which were reportedly flown by Ukrainian pilot instructors) were totally outclassed by Ethiopia’s Su-27s (some reportedly flown by Russian pilots), which by some accounts performed very well (some reports claim ‘Flanker’s downed four ‘Fulcrums’. Eritrea has two single-seat and a pair of two-seat ‘Flankers’.

Sukhoi Su-27
Radar: Phazotron N001 Zhuk mechanically scanned radar
Air-to-air weapons: Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-301 30-mm cannon, R-73 short-range IR missiles and R-27 BVR semi-active radar-guided missiles

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