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Ogaden War, 1977-1978 PDF Print E-mail
Contributed by Tom Cooper, with additional details from Gianfranco Lanini   
Feb 10, 2008 at 06:39 PM
Ogaden War was characteristic for both, its typical African post-colonial character, and for some of the most amazing changes of alliances of the whole Cold War: nevertheless, it saw some of the most vicious fighting in the air ever over the whole continent.


The Coup in Mogadishu


On 15 October 1969, following the assassination of the President, the army and police seized power in Somalia. A Supreme Revolutionary Council was established, the National Assembly and Cabinet were dissolved, political parties were abolished, the constitution suspended, and the Prime Minister arrested. The new regime, led by Siad Barre, established itself in Mogadishu almost immediately announcing that it would support all liberation movements in countries under colonial rule, as well as those in “illegally occupied territory”. This particularly referred to about 1 million Somalis living in Kenya, Ethiopia, and the French Territory of the Afars and the Issas – later to become known as Djibouti. Although Somalia proclaimed a policy of nonalignment in foreign relations, its foreign policy for the following 20 years has been consistently anti-Western and pro-Communist.

Barely a year after climbing to power, Barre declared Somalia for a „socialist“ and democratic republic (as “al-Jumhouriya as-Somaliya al-Domocradiya”), but this was nothing but a farce. In fact, the Somali dictator was little more but a typical Stalinist dictator, who tolerated no opposition or resistance to his rule, yet needed a strong army to keep himself in power. Almost immediately after establishing his rule, he requested aid from Moscow, exchanging rights for Soviet ships to use Somali ports as bases for modern weaponry.

Somali Air Corps


The Somali Air Force - translation of the original designation meant actually „Somali Air Corps“ (SAC) - was originally established with Italian aid, in the early 1960s. Emerging from the Italian "Corpo die Sicurezza della Somalia" while the country was under Italian administration, between 1950 and 1960. The most important pieces of its original equipment were eight North American F-51D Mustangs, which remained in service until 1968.

Between 1950 and 1960, Somalia was under Italian administration. The Italians run the "Corpo di Sicurezza della Somalia", which also operated a number of F-51D Mustangs. Eight of these were handed over to Somalia, together with six C-47/Dakotas and six Beech C-45s, when the country was released into independence, and they formed the core of the future Somali Air Corps, remaining in service until 1968. The exact look of Somali F-51D Mustangs is still somewhat of mystery, with almost no references being available. The artwork here was prepared with help of information from Mr. Gianfranco Lanini and a decal sheet released in Portugal, years ago. In addition to national markings - worn in six places - and the large black code "2", applied on rear fuselage, the aircraft should have had a part of its original serial applied somewhere on the fin. (Artwork by Tom Cooper, based on information from Mr. Gianfranco Lanini)


Back in 1963, Somalia rejected as “too small and too restrictive” a joint US-Italian military aid proposal, and instead began requesting arms from the Soviet Union. Connections with Moscow were established and soon afterwards resulted in an agreement for a $35 million Soviet loan with the objective of raising a 20.000-man army. The Soviets immediately began supplying their aircraft, including the first out of eventual 40 MiG-17s and MiG-15UTIs, three Antonov An-24s and three An-2s. In addition to aircraft, the Soviets also delivered some SA-2 SAMs, and reconstructed existing or built several new airfields, including Mogadishu, Hargeisa, Baidoa, and Kismayu.

By 1967, in addition to more than 50 aircraft, Somalia received also about 150 armoured vehicles, anti-aircraft and field artillery, and quantities of vehicles and infantry weapons. The port of Berbera, barely 250km from the strategic strait of Bab el-Mandeb and port of Aden, was modernized by the Russians.

At the time, the Somali Army was about 13.000 strong, organized into nine mechanized infantry battalions of 700 men each (equipped with BTR-40, BTR-50 and BTR-152 armoured personnel carriers - APCs), four tank battalions with T-34 tanks, one commando battalion, two field artillery battalions with 76mm guns and 122mm howitzers, two heavy anti-aircraft battalions with 100mm radar-controlled guns, and three light anti-aircraft battalions with 37mm and 14.5mm automatic cannons. Combat readiness was low due to poor maintenance.

Following the military coup of 1969, Soviet military assistance increased considerably. Several hundred Soviet officers served as military advisers and technicians, and more equipment was to follow. In 1974, SAC received the first of an eventual total of 40 MiG-21MFs and MiG-21UMs, possibly up to ten Il-28s, and some Mi-8 helicopters. However, the small force was never capable of manning or maintaining all of its aircraft, and by 1977 only some 30 MiG-21s, perhaps ten MiG-17s and a handful of Mi-8s remained operational, most of which were stationed in Mogadishu, even if a sizeable contingent was always deployed in Hargheisa. The SAC has had some 1.750 men at the time, and – aside from Soviet-made combat aircraft and helicopters – still operated also few US-made transport aircraft, including three Douglas C-47s and one Beech C-45, as well as three Italian-made Piaggio P-148s.

The Army was reinforced as well. All four tank battalions were re-equipped and enlargened, and – coupled with four mechanized battalions – used to establish four mechanized brigades, equipped with T-55 and Centurion main battle tanks (MBTs), as well as BTR-152 and BTR-60 APCs. Each of these units has had its organic artillery battalion, equipped with 122mm howitzers, while two newly-established artillery units operated BM-21 rocket-launchers. These four units were the pride of the Somali military.

Except for Soviet military aid, assistance has also been received from other countries. In the 1960s, Egypt supplied 12 torpedo boats, training aircraft and light arms for Somali guerrillas in Ethiopia; Sudan trained staff officers, cadets, and signal and engineer NCOs. Somali soldiers were also trained in the USSR, People’s Republic of China, Egypt, Italy, Iraq, and Syria. The USA, Italy and West Germany supplied equipment and training for the police and a commando battalion – until their assistance was suspended, in 1970. However, in general, Somalia received little attention until 1968, when UN geologists made a discovery of what may be the world’s largest deposits of uranium ore in the country. Their finds were close to the surface and susceptible to economical strip mining methods. This discovery was of great importance in the light of the then increasing demands for nuclear fuel.

SAC Mi-4 as seen during a parade in Mogadishu, in the early 1970s. The SAC obtained only a handful of these, and it remains unknown if any remained operational at the times of the Ogaden War. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


Yaityopya Nigusa Nagast Manguist (Empire of Ethiopia)


Ethiopia is the oldest internationally recognized independent African state. In fact, the country has maintained its independence over the centuries against neighbouring enemies by the relative inaccessibility of the high central plateau. For more than 1.000 years, Ethipia’s traditional enemies have been Arabs and other Moslems who surround it on three sides: Egypt has always coveted the headwaters of the Blue Nile and the danger of Egyptian aggression became a serious concern during the 1960s. From 1935 until 1941, Ethiopian independence was broken by Italian conquest: following defeat of the poorly-armed Ethiopian Army, in May 1936, Italy annexed Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somaliland, forming its East African Empire. Thereafter, the region came under one of fire Air Commands of the Italian Air Force. Mindful of the failure of the League of Nations to come to their aid against Italy, following the end of the World War II, Ethiopians supported the UN and the principle of collective security: in implementation of this policy they contributed to UN forces in Korea (1951-1953) and the Congo (1960-1964), and were one of the founders of Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which was headquartered in Addis Ababa, Ethiopian capitol.

Under the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie I, Yaityopya Nigusa Nagast Manguist (Empire of Ethiopia), a hereditary constitutional monarch, Ethiopia began receiving US military aid with the aim of buildup and modernisation of its armed forces. Approximately 300 US soldiers were stationed in the country: while some acted as instructors for Ethiopian military - especially the Ethiopian Army and Air Force - most were manning an important SIGINT/ELINT-base at Kegnew (near Asmara, today in Eritrea), established already back in 1942, at the times said to have been the world’s largest high frequency radio relaying and receiving station. By 1970, some 25.000 Ethiopian officers and soldiers went through different training courses in the USA. The rate was increased after, in October 1970, the ties with the USA were strengthened through new agreements, which included a plan for the USA to equip and train all of the 40.000-man Ethiopian military, in exchange for expansion of the Kagnew Station. Clearly, Ethiopian ties with Pentagon were very close.

Despite significant attempts at development of economy and modernisation of local institutions, during the 1960s the aging Emperor experienced increasing problems in ruling a heterogeneous nation split along ethnic and religious lines. Ethiopian nation, namely, consists of some 40 different tribes, mostly of Semitic or Hamitic origin. The rulling Amharas and Tigreans comprised some 40% of the population and are mostly Coptic Christians. The coastal and lowland peoples of various origins are mostly Moslems. Concentration of power and wealth in the Amharas has aroused jealousy among others, forcing the Emperor to keep power centralized in his hands, even if with strong support of the armed forces, the Church, and the Amhara establishment.

Clearly, modernizing reforms were too slow for many elements of the population – even if too rapid for others. Already in 1960, there was an abortive military coup attempt, and in the following years there was continuing friction with Moslem neighbours, stimulated largely by Egypt.

The EtAF purchased four Canberra B.Mk.2 bombers (serialled 351, 352, 353, and 354) from the UK in 1968. By the time of the Ogaden War only two remained intact, and both were reported as destroyed on the ground by early Somali air strikes. (BAe)


(Imperial) Ethiopian Air Force in the 1970s


With most important details about the history of the Ethiopian Air Force (EtAF) mentioned in the feature about the I Ethiopian-Eritrean War, there is not much left to explain about this branch in the mid-1970s.

At the time, the EtAF had about 3.000 men, organized in one bomber squadron equipped with three English Electric Canberra B.Mk.52 bombers (survivors of four airframes originally delivered from the UK), one fighter-bomber squadron equipped with ten Northrop F-5A and two F-5B Freedom Fighters (most were delivered from the USA, starting in 1966, but at least three were added from Iran, in 1972); three small units of North American F-86 Sabres (including 12 originally delivered aircraft, plus a similar number “cascaded-down” from Iran, in 1970), a counter-insurgency squadron flying eight Douglas T-28A Nomads and eight Saab 17A/B ground attack aircraft, and an advanced training and light-strike squadron equipped with at least eight (but probably up to 12) Lockheed T-33A.

The transport element was significant, operating a total of some 50 aircraft. It included two squadrons flying a total of some 22 Douglas C-47s and C-54s, as well as Fairchild C-119Ks, one training unit with 15 Saab 91 Safir trainers, and a helicopter squadron flying at least three Aérospatiale SA.316 Alouette helicopters.

Main EtAF air bases were Debre Zeit, Bishoftu, Jijiga, and Harar, but additional airfields were available in Agordat, Gondar, and Gode.

In 1974 at least three F-5As - including this example - were transferred from Iran to Ethiopia. Ironically, several Ethiopian F-5As - perhaps also including this example - were re-sold to Iran, in 1985. (Artwork by Tom Cooper; Photo: Tom Cooper collection)


One of eight F-5Es delivered to Ethiopia in 1975; remaining nine F-5Es and three F-5Fs were embargoed, and ended with USN Aggressor squadrons. (via Tom Cooper)


The Dergue/Derg Regime


The complacency and brutality of Emperor Selassie I, his failure to meet the needs of his people during the catastrophic drought which affected Ethiopia in the early 1970s, as well as the inability of his army to fight down the rebellion in Eritrea, resulted in a coup in Addis Ababa, organized by a group of young officers, on 12 September 1974. Emperor and his most important supporters were all arrested – only to be executed a year later.

The coup was organized from within and followed by a period of confusion in which several different groups struggled for power, none of which had a clear idea about how to reorganize one of the world’s poorest countries, the vast majority of whose population could neither read nor write.

Eventually, the power of feudal Amharian landlords crumbled before the Provisional Military Administrative Committee (PMAC) – better known as the “Dergue” (or, simply, “Derg”, which means “Committee”). The PMAC was led by two majors, Mengistu Haile Mariam and Atnafu Abate, who emerged as new Ethiopian leaders following what was actually a new coup, on 23 November 1974, when they wrested power from Gen. Anam Amdom – who was killed, together with two former prime ministers and two former defence ministers, while “resisting arrest”. In 1976, Marian and Abate were replaced by the former chief of staff, Brig.Gen. Teferi Bante, who became a new head of state.

Insurgency in Ogaden


Mengistu’s and Derg regime inherited a number of problems from the Emperor Selassie as well as previous military regimes. The largest of these was the struggle against an insurgency in Eritrea: through most of the late 1960s and most of the 1970s, significant contingents of the Ethiopian Army were involved in a war against Eritrean rebels along the coast of the Red Sea.

Another problem was continuing friction with Moslem neighbors. Some 500.000 Moslem Somalis lived in the Ogaden Province, claimed by adjacent Somalia. Border clashes between Ethiopia and Somali were numerous already in the early and middle 1960s, and the situation was further complicated by traditional movements of Somali nomadic herdsmen across the poorly defined frontier. Somalia’s growing arsenal and communist arms from Egypt, the Soviet Union and China posed a serious threat to Ethiopian territorial integrity and stimulated its further military buildup.

Barre’s regime reinforced Somali irredentist policy against Ethiopia and French Territory of the Afars and the Issas (Djibouti), in 1969, despite a treaty that delimited the entire 1.000km-long border between Somalia and Kenya , reached in the following year. In fact, in the early 1970s, the Somali regime began supplying arms to separatists of what became known as the West-Somali Liberation Front (WSLF), in Ogaden. The WSLF was officially organized with the purpose of the defence of the ethnic Somali minority, but actually to promote unity of Somali peoples living beyond the frontiers of their country. The later claim was even written at the then Somali flag, and affected Ethiopia massively.

Seeing the Ethiopian Empire crumbling, Barre seized the opportunity: by the Spring of 1977, the Somali regime reinforced the WSLF to make it capable of mounting a conventional military campaign, the aim of which was the capture of the whole Ogaden. On a meeting of WSLF’s central committee, in Mogadishu, the front claimed all the territory east of the line connecting Moyale, on the Kenyan border, through Awash, some 160km east of Addis Ababa, to the Djibouti border for itself: this area covered almost one third of Ethiopia. A military action followed only few weeks later.

In spring 1977, Ethiopia appeared at its weakest. Political chaos and the bloody struggle were raging, and by the time the revolution – initially supported by Ethiopian population – became highly unpopular: even the sympathy of other African states was alienated. In an attempt to make themselves popular again, the Dergues embraced Marxism-Leninism, a philosophy of the revolution based on a form of idealistic socialism, which was expected to become interesting to Ethiopian peasants. All the land was nationalised, offices set to “politicise” the masses, a “workers’ party” (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party” – EPRP) was established, and a “People’s Democratic Republic” declared. This leftward drift of the revolution was not uncontested, then the Ethiopian democrats fought back in Addis Ababa and in north-western Ethiopia, where they were supported from Sudan.

From this chaos two predominant groups emerged: the Dergue, comprising 140 members, decided to continue its support for Mengistu – and eventually won. On 3 February 1977, Bante was disposed in another bloody coup, which culminated in hand-to-hand fighting in the Grand Palace, in Addis Ababa. The following day Mengistu’s triumph was hailed by Cuba’s leader, Fidel Castro, and subsequently by the USSR as well.

Mengistu and the now ruling EPRP, however, very soon came under attack by the Marxist-Leninist group opposed to military government, grouped around a French-educated Marxist Haile Fida – the so-called MEISON – which launched an insurgency in northern Ethiopia. Fighting broke out on the streets of Addis Ababa between MEISON-supporters and the EPRP, resulting in summary executions. By mid-1977, MEISON was defeated: Fida was arrested in a murderous campaign of terror launched by Mengistu to establish himself firmly in control.

Mengistu’s victory came not out of nothing. In May 1977, he visited Moscow and signed 13 cooperation agreements with the Soviets. He returned to Ethiopia via Tripoli, and Libya later delivered the first shipments of Soviet arms to Ethiopia. These arrived too late.

WSLF Invasion


The Somali invasion was initiated in May, when a force of between 3.000 and 6.000 WSLF fighters crossed the border to join forces of local resistance leaders. This invasion was therefore not merely an escalation of guerrilla warfare, but a well-planned strategic campaign. Many of involved WSLF fighters were actually officers of the Somali military, but resigned their commissions in order to take part in the operation.

The immediate target of Somali operations was crippling what was left of Ethiopia’s economy by cutting the country’s only railway line, which links Addis Ababa to Djibouti. In June 1977, guerrillas attacked a train and shortly afterwards blew up five bridges, bringing a halt to all traffic. Garrisons were attacked as well, especially the EtAF air base in Gode, in southern Ogaden, and the nearby barracks of the 5th Brigade 4th Division Ethiopian Army.

By 13 July 1977, the first out of four mechanized brigades of the regular Somali Army became active in Ethiopia, supported actively by the SAC. From 21 July, Somali MiG-21MFs - in part reportedly flown by a number of Iraqi and Syrian pilots - started a series of attacks against different points in Ethiopia. The SAC first tried to neutralize the remnants of the EtAF on the airfields nearby, and already on the first day of this counter-air operation an Ethiopian DC-3 was intercepted and shot down near Harer. Four days later, after more Somali air attacks, Gode fell to WSLF, and Mogadishu explained that so far at least eight Ethiopian aircraft were destroyed in air raids. Finding large amounts of supplies and arms in the five local military camps, the Somalis then turned to attack Sidamo and Bale, as well as Jijiga and Harer. Now the Ethiopian regime was forced to definitely do something about the whole affair.

The few Mi-8s available to SAC in 1977 are known to have been used for transport and liaison purposes during the early stages of the Ogaden War. Wether they flew any sorties beyond the border is questionable, however, given the Ethiopian air superiority over the battlefield. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


Air Combats


It is usually said that the EtAF has been massively purged during the turbulent power struggles in Ethiopia, between 1974 and 1977. The fact was, however, that only very few higher officers were forced to leave, arrested, killed or executed – and then mainly because of their involvement in various political fractions. Overall, the EtAF suffered much less than the Ethiopian Army, remaining largely intact. It even managed to keep ties to the US military mission in Addis Ababa, despite the fact that the USA ceased supplying aid to Ethiopia immediately after the coup in September 1974.

In 1975, the ties between the EtAF and Pentagon enabled Ethiopia to reach new agreement with the USA, and issue an order for new US-made combat aircraft, including 14 Northrop F-5Es and three F-5F Tiger IIs, 12 Cessna A-37B Dragonflies, and 15 Cessna 310 trainer- and liaison aircraft. Eight F-5Es were transferred by the Carter administration already in the same year. However, after final accession of Mengistu, the USA withdrew its personnel and cut diplomatic relations. Therefore, the six remaining Ethiopian Tigers were embargoed and instead delivered to the USAF’s 3rd TFW, forming the 26th TFTS aggressor unit, at Clark AFB, in the Philippines.

The EtAF was thus left alone at the time of increasing tensions with Somalia and the WSLF invasion. Reportedly, Mengistu’s regime initially contracted a number of Israelis to help support the US-made EtAF equipment. According to US and Israeli sources, a group of Israelis arrived in Ethiopia in early July 1977, and helped return a number of F-5As into working order. So it should have happened that on the morning of 16 July, two F-5As piloted by Israelis were on a "training combat air patrol near Harer" (citate from former USAF instructor who worked with Israelis in Ethiopia at the time), when a flight of four MiG-21MFs was detected nearby. The Israelis engaged immediately and the ensuing air combat was over before it really started. Two MiGs were shot down by Ethiopian fighters, and two others collided while trying to avoid an AIM-9B fired by F-5s.

Ethiopian sources deny any kind of Israeli involvement, instead insisting that the EtAF did everything alone – even in face of increasing Soviet and Cuban presence. During the final months before the WSLF invasion, namely, the four EtAF fighter-units launched a crash programme to bring as many F-5As, F-5Es and F-86s into operational condition. Ethiopian F-5E-pilots flew dissimilar air combat training sorties against F-5As and F-86s, which simulated MiG-21s and MiG-17s, respectively, and were well-prepared to face their opponents in air combat.

Due to the fact that their F-5As were not equipped with AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, Ethiopians decided to use these for interdiction strikes; F-86s were used for close support, while F-5Es were to fight for air supremacy. Ethiopians claim also that it was their pilots alone who fought against the Somalis, and only them who scored any air-to-air kills against SAC MiGs – including those on 16 July 1977.

SAC MiG-21MFs, as found by the US troops dumped at Mogadishu airfield, in 1992. The planes wore the characteristical camouflage painting for this version in the 1970s. Somalia purchased over 50 MiG-21MFs in the early 1970s. (above via Tom Cooper; bellow artwork by Tom Cooper)


A wreck of one of Somali MiG-21MFs shot down during the fighting in July 1977.


Somali Advance


Despite the apparent fiasco in air-to-air combats, the SAC continued its air offensive, striking regularly Ethiopian airfields and concentrations of ground forces. The WSLF - now supported by a whole armoured brigade of the Somali Army, equipped with British-made Centurion main battle tanks (MBTs) – led an advance ever deeper into northern Ogaden. Ethiopian resistance was weak: the few surviving units - including one equipped with M-24 Chafee tanks - were swiftly defeated and, on 9 August 1977, the regime in Addis Ababa was forced to admit that it lost the control over Ogaden.

By now both sides were deploying seasoned troops on the battlefield - regardless if newly recruited Army troops or raw militiamen. The local Somali tribesmen are used to carry personal weapons through their whole life, while the Ethiopians were rushing reinforcements to Ogaden from all parts of the country – leaving only skeleton units in Eritrea. Consequently, the fighting was extremely bitter and cost both sides many casualties. On 13 September Jijiga was taken by Somalis, with Ethiopians suffering very heavy losses in manpower and equipment - including the last few operational M-24s, and most of artillery left in the area.

In return, the Ethiopians claimed that the SAC probably lost at least 23 fighters by the date, some ten of which in air combats (including two MiG-21MFs in another clash with F-5As, over Kebri Dehar, and two shot down by newly deployed Ethiopian Soviet-made SA-3s SAMs, on 11 August), while a number of others crashed due to technical malfunctions, so that only some ten MiG-17s and MiG-21s remained operational at Hargeisa. Due to its superior training and better equipment, EtAF was soon to defeat the SAC in battle for air superiority. Ethiopian F-5-pilots have trained against their colleagues flying F-86 Sabres, and were more than ready to tackle Somali MiGs. After the training session, all the F-5s that remained operational - together with two serviceable Canberra bombers - were deployed to airfields at Bhir and Dire Dawa. Using newly-delivered F-5Es as interceptors, and F-5As and Canberras for ground attack, the Ethiopians swiftly overwhelmed the SAC.

This task was not completed without losses. At least two F-5As were shot down by ground fire during attacks against supply bases in western Somalia; a chartered civilian DC-3 was shot down by SA-7s, and both Canberras were damaged by anti-aircraft fire and rendered inoperational.

Nevertheless, on 29 September, the Somalis captured the important Gara Marda Pass, and one of their columns then turned towards Harer: the city and the whole 3rd Ethiopian Division were put under a siege.

In the hands of Somali pilots the MiG-21MF proved no match for far better trained and more experienced Ethiopian and Israeli pilots. In fact, very early after the initial Somali attacks and invasion of Ogaden the EtAF F-5s were operating offensivelly into the Somali airspace, flying "training sorties" even over the Hargheisa AB. It was during these "training sorties" that the Israeli pilots scored five confirmed kills against SAC MiG-21s, thus winning the air superiority battle of this war. (all artworks by Tom Cooper)


Switching Alliances


At this moment Cuba and the USSR entered the conflict - on the Ethiopian side. The Cubans officially wanted, „nothing else but to support the revolution of the Ethiopian people“, while the Soviets - offended by the fact that Barre kicked all the 6.000 Soviet "instructors" out of Somalia after learning about this deal - agreed to supply weapons needed for the intervention, in exchange for rights to use Ethiopian ports and bases.

On 25 November 1977, the Soviet Air Force initiated a huge air-bridge to Ethiopia, deploying no less but 225 Il-18, An-12B, An-22, and Il-76 transports from Tashkent, via Baghdad, over Aden and Masawa to Addis Ababa to fly enough BM-21s, T-55 and T-62 MBTs, BMP-1 and BRDM APCs, 130mm, 155mm and 185mm artillery, ammunition and supplies for three small divisions.

The first to arrive were BM-21s: deployed aboard EtAF transports to Harer, they were decisive in Ethiopian capability to repulse further Somali attacks before the rain-season. For the next two weeks, in a unique development that stunned most of Western observers, another Soviet transport aircraft was landing every 20 minutes at Addis Abbaba - day and night. In addition to immense amounts of equipment for Ethiopian Army, the Soviets also delivered 48 MiG-21bis' and MiG-23BNs, at least ten Mi-6s, a number of Mi-8s, and at least six Mi-24As (later to be increased to 16). Simultaneously, 6.000 Cuban mechanized troops were flown-in from Cuba and Angola, and equipped with 120 T-54 MBTs and 100 BTR-50 APCs delivered from the USSR, while some 300 instructors arrived from various Warsaw Pact countries.

A row of Soviet An-12Bs photographed in November 1977 at the Debre Zelt AB, in Ethiopia. (via Tom Cooper)


Starting in September 1978, Ethiopians received some 40 MiG-21bis' and MiG-21UMs from the USSR. These aircraft entered service with the 1st and 2nd FIS, one of which was equipped with ex-Cuban, and the other with ex-USSR aircraft. Both units were initially manned by Cuban personnel, although a number of EtAF pilots was soon qualified to fly the type as well. To disappointment of their Soviet advisors, Ethiopian pilots preferred the F-5E to MiG-21 for air combat, and also proved wastly superior to their Somali MiG-21-counterparts. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


Battle of Harer


The Somalis were fast to realize that the time was now not on their side any more. Counting on bad weather to keep the EtAF on the ground, on 28 November they staged their last offensive against Harer, while simultaneously attempting an advance down the road towards Alem Maya. However, by this time the first Cuban units were deployed in the area as well, together with several BM-21-batteries. They proved decisive: the Somali attack failed at great cost.

The fighting died down, with both sides digging in and scrambling to reinforce available units: even if Somalia was subsequently capable of securing some small amount of US and Egyptian support, the Soviet airbridge was continued and soon enough it was clear who was to win the race.

Despite reports about Somalis activating all their reservists, and - reportedly - also contracting 20 Pakistani pilots and some other foreign and domestic personnel to bring the SAC back into fighting condition, in late 1977 and early 1978 their air force actually cased operations over the Ogaden. This enabled the EtAF to unleash its full fighting capability against Somali troops inside Ethiopia.

On 8 January 1978, after a series of air strikes by F-5As, MiG-21s, and MiG-23BNs against Somali positions and also the air base at Hargeisa, an Ethiopian division - bolstered by Cuban armor and led by Soviet General Petrov - approached Somali positions around Harer. These were first put under constant artillery- and air-bombardments, and then stormed by 120 T-54 and T-62 tanks. The Somali defeat at Harer was complete: according to unconfirmed contemporary reports, one of their brigades was completely destroyed, losing possibly up to 3.000 men killed in that battle alone.

With the loss of Harer, the whole Somali position in Ogaden was actually outflanked: the Somalis were forced to retreat to Jijiga and Dible, the last important crossroads in the area, or else risk being cut off from their major supply bases. The rest of Ogaden had only very poor road communications: the remaining Somali and WSLF units were scattered and heavily depending on supply lines running from Hargheisa. Once these came under a direct threat they began a withdrawal towards the border. This withdrawal swiftly turned into a rout, with Cubans and Ethiopians racing to reach the Somali border before the remnants of three Somali brigades could do so.

Recognizing the threat of such a force for other local countries, Western powers scrambled to move their units into this part of the world, and the situation became so tense that the French deployed their aircraft carrier Clemanceau off the coast of Djibouti, in order to be in position to repel any eventual attack on their colony.

Map showing Somali advances in northern Ogaden and the counter-offensive by combined Cuban-Ethiopian forces under Gen. Petrov. (Map by Tom Cooper on basis of Encarta 2003)


Column of Cuban-manned Ethiopian tanks seen near Jijiga, in March 1978. (via Tom Cooper)


Rout at Jijiga


By early February, the position of Somali and WSLF troops in Ogaden was untennable: Ethiopian air attacks have destroyed almost all of their heavy weapons, and a series of fast offensives of Ethiopian and Cuban ground forces neutralized the WSLF as a fighting force. Worst yet, the WSLF and the regular Somali troops were threatened to be cut off of their bases in western Somalia. At the time there were no less but 11.000 Cuban troops in Ethiopia: 500 of them alone were training the Ethiopian People’s Militia, while some 8.000 were deployed in two mechanized brigades Castro insisted to be used only for liberation of Ogaden.

Consequently, on 9 February 1978, Somalia proclaimed a general mobilisation followed by a State of Emergency. Additional units were deployed along the frontier after the town of Hargeisa was bombed by Ethiopian F-5s, while large numbers of Somali-speaking refugees from the Ogaden crossed the border and with them came fleeing troops and WSLF-fighters.

All efforts of Barre's regime were in vain, however: the ultimate catastrophe occurred on 5 March 1978, when Gen. Petrov initiated a large combined-arms offensive against remnants of two Somali Army brigades and some minor WSLF-units concentrated at Jijiga. Within only few hours of that morning, the Cuban-flown Ethiopian MiG-21s, MiG-23s, and Mi-24s flew no less but 140 combat sorties, hitting the Somalis harder than ever before. Deploying the Ethiopian Infantry with Cuban armour and artillery support in a frontal attack against Somalis at Jijiga, Petrov simultaneously dispatched all available Mi-6s and Mi-8s to fly troops and 70 ASU-87s and BRDMs deep behind the enemy frontlines. These were followed by the second Cuban mechanized brigade, which drove deep around the Somali flank.

The Somalis fought bravely, but they had little armour on their own, no air cover and dwindling stocks of ammunition. "They were sitting ducks. They didn't have a chance", explained one military expert close to the Ethiopian high command in Mogadishu to foreing media.

After learning about the rout at Jijiga, Barre immediately announced that all Somali troops would be withdrawn from Ethiopia. It was too late: suffering catastrophic losses, the remaining Somali units dropped their weapons, fleeing north-east in complete disarray, pursued by Cuban tanks which drove through Jijiga and continued eastwards at a high pace. Behind them two Ethiopian divisions immediately started mopping-up operations, re-occupying Ogaden within the following week, and concluding their operations in the Jijiga area by 14 March.

The Mi-24A saw its combat premiere when the Soviets brought six examples to Ethiopia, in late 1977. They were a considerable surprise for the Somalis, and proved highly successful in fighting the Somali armor. This example was seen in Djibouti, where it was flown by fleeing Ethiopian pilots, in May 1991. (via Tom Cooper)


By early 1978 the SAC deployed a squadron of MiG-17s to Hargheisa AB, in northern Somalia. These were flown by Pakistani pilots. Conflicting reports - foremost those issued by Somalia - indicate that at least one of these was shot down in an air combat with Israeli-flown F-5As of the Ethiopian Air Force. The Ethiopian and Israeli sources deny this, however. Certain is only that the SAC MiG-17s suffered heavy losses in combat during 1978, albeit it seems that most of these were caused by technical problems, caused by insufficient maintenance and lack of spare parts.


Epilogue


According to US and Israeli reports, the Israeli pilots were not in Ethiopia any more at this time; Ethiopians would not support any kind of such reports any way. Also, despite contemporary reports of the contrary, there were also no Pakistani pilots in Somalia (except few pilots flying civilian passenger airliners on contract basis, there were no Pakistanis flying for Somali Air Corps ever). Nevertheless, the SAC remained active and new reports about air combats over the border area were published between 1 and 4 April, the SAC claiming a total of three Ethiopian MiG-21s as shot down, while the EtAF ended the war with a total of 24 claims for kills against Somali fighters. Ethiopians denied to have suffered any losses, instead claiming additional kills against SAC MiGs, all scored by EtAF F-5Es. Supposedly, Soviet and Cuban officers were not the least pleased by this fact.

With hindsight, it is almost certain that reports from both sides were exaggerated – especially so the Somali claims, then any significant loss of Ethiopian aircraft would definitely mean a loss of air superiority. This would be a development that would at least prevent, if not outright made impossible their operations that concluded the war.

On the contrary, after a pursuit along the road to Berbera up to the border, by 7 April, Somalis in Ogaden were definitely broken, losing over 6.000 troops and WSLF fighters in the process. After their swift advance the Ethiopian and Cuban operations were cancelled short of the frontier, even if for some time the Soviets and Cubans considered a possibility of entering Somalia.

With this, the Ogaden War was actually over, although the situation remained tense until 1980 at least, and there were some additional smaller clashes between Ethiopian security forces, and surviving WSLF-fighters - sometimes joined by few surviving Somali regulars, left behind from defeats at Harer and Jijiba, and despite repeated claims by the WSLF that it is fighting a “Soviet-supported invasion”.

In terms of the air warfare, the Ogaden War was a premiere for several interesting concepts: the Soviets were able to demonstrate their capabilities of organizing heliborne operations in large stile, which passed not unnoticed by the NATO but caused a considerable concern; also, the Mi-24A attack helicopter had its premiere, and the concept proved as well, although it was already then clear, that the type was under-powered - especially under hot climatic conditions.

On the other side, the air-to-air warfare brought nothing new, except another confirmation that better trained pilots will always win the day – and a definite denial of usual claims that Northrop F-5A/E and Mikoyan I Gurevich MiG-21 never met in combat. The success of F-5As and F-5Es against the MiG-21MF was a kind of a surprise, but the fact was that under given conditions - poor radar coverage and ground-control-support for both sides - the better trained Ethiopian (and Israeli?) pilots were also in a slightly better position due to better capability of their mount to operate independently, and certainly due to availability of better air-to-air missiles.

In the summer of 1980, the fighting between Somalia and Ethiopia flared again, with the EtAF MiG-21s striking several smaller Somali border-towns. Somali AAA shot down this Ethiopian MiG-21 near Hargheisa. (via Tom Cooper)





 Order of Battle, Camouflage, Colours, Serials and Markings



Ethiopian Air Force (EtAF)
- No.1 FIS, based at Debre Zeit, equipped with F-86Fs, then MiG-21MFs

- No.2 FIS, based at Debre Zeit, equipped with F-86Fs, then MiG-21MFs

- No.3 FIS, based at Debre Zeit, equipped with F-86Fs, then MiG-17s

- No.4 FIS, based at Debre Zeit, equipped with F-86Fs, then 20 MiG-17Fs

- No.5 FBS, based at Debre Zeit, equipped with F-5A/Es

- No.12 AS, based at Jijiga, equipped with some 20 Mi-24As and Mi-35s

- No.14 A&THS, based at Debre Zeit, equipped with some 20 Mi-8s

- No.16 TS, based at Debre Zeit, equipped with one T-28, three Cessna 301s, and two F-5Bs

- No.?? TS/COIN Squadron, based at Asmara IAP, equipped with (at least) nine T-33As

- No.18 TS, based at Addis Ababa/Boti IAP, equipped with C-47s, DC-4s, DC-6s, Saab 91Cs, and C-119G/Ks


Ethiopian Army Aviation (EtAA)

- Support Squadron, based at Addis Ababa Army Airfield, equipped with three DHC-6s (serials EA.61 thru EA.63), and an unknown number of U-17Bs (serialled EA.30 upwards)

- Helicopter Squadron, based at Addis Ababa Army Airfield, equipped with at least five UH-1Bs (serials EA.40 thru EA.45)


Sources & Bibliography



An expanded version of this article can be found in the book "African MiGs", SHI Publications, Vienna (Austria), 2004 (ISBN: 3-200-0088-0).

Except for own research with help of Ethiopian eyewitnesses, additional materials and research-results were kindly supplied by contributors on ACIG.org forum, including Mr. Mazhar, as well as from Mr. Tom N. and Mr. Pit Weinert. As a source of general reference also the following book was used:

- "AIR WARS AND AIRCRAFT; A Detailed Record of Air Combat, 1945 to the Present", by Victor Flintham, Arms and Armour Press, 1989 (ISBN: 0-85368-779-X)

- "The Almanac of World Military Power" (2nd Edition), by Col. T.N. Dupuy (US Army, ret.) and Col. Wendell Blanchard (US Army, ret.), Arthur Barker Ltd., 1972 (ISBN: 0-213-16418-3)

- "Northrop F-5", by Jon Lake, World Air Power Journal, Vlume 25, Summer 1996

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