Ethiopia’s tiny air force, which just four years ago was in danger of implosion, spearheaded last month’s assault into southern Somalia to drive out Islamic Courts and their militia forces. Beginning on December 24, Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker fighter-bombers hit strategic targets and even struck ground troops while at least 3,000 Ethiopian soldiers – 8,000 according to the United Nations – supported by T-55 tanks, Mil Mi-24/35 Hind gunship helicopters and artillery darted more than 150 miles to surround Mogadishu in just seven days. By the first week of January, Islamic forces had fled to the southern tip of Somalia and a jungle enclave and were being tracked by U.S. aerial drones flying out of Djibouti. On Jan. 8, the last Islamic holdouts came under assault by U.S. and Ethiopian forces, signaling the imminent end of large-scale Islamic military resistance.
This is only the latest victory for a storied air service. The Ethiopian air force, then backed by Russia, defeated the powerful Ukrainian-supported Eritrean air force during the two nations’ 1998-2000 border conflict. But the service suffered in post-war political crackdowns. Two senior officers, Major Daniel Beyene and Captain Teshome Tenkolu, were abducted by government security forces and reportedly held for years on suspicion of disloyalty. Beyene died last year, apparently assassinated, while Tenkolu and more than a dozen other pilots and technicians defected several years ago, Tenkolu while at the controls of an Aero L-39 jet trainer. Meanwhile, Ethiopia’s MiG-21 Fishbed and MiG-23 Flogger fighters were becoming obsolescent.
But an improved Ethiopian political climate and a concerted effort to re-equip the air force and its sister services preceded the Somali fighting. Between 1998 and 2004, Ethiopia received around 16 Flankers plus a handful of Sukhoi Su-25 Frogfoot attack planes from Russia as well as several dozen Hinds and other helicopters. The army, for its part, bought around 100 pristine T-55 tanks from Bulgaria in addition to Russian- and U.S.-built self-propelled howitzers; these would arm the invasion force and likely inflict the majority of Islamic casualties. But it was Ethiopia’s new fighter jets that elicited hysterical comments from Islamic Courts leaders in the days before the Ethiopian invasion. “I hope God will help us shoot down their planes,” Sheik Mohamoud Ibrahim Suley told the Associated Press in December.
The Sukhois are the backbone of operations in Somalia and are the only jet types mentioned in press reports from the fighting. Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times claimed a jet even strafed the Mogadishu airport on Dec. 25. Hinds, too, have featured prominently in journalists’ dispatches. One Hind was reportedly shot down on Dec. 25. Professor Abdiweli Ali from Niagara University, who claims to have contacts with pro-Ethiopian Somali commanders, told Pajama Media that the Islamic Courts were armed with Russian should-fired surface-to-air missiles but had failed to hit the mostly high-flying Ethiopian aircraft. It’s not clear what brought down the Hind.
The effectiveness of the Ethiopian air campaign came as a surprise to at least one observer. “There’s nothing significant to bomb … that would really affect the Islamic Courts,” Professor Terrence Lyons from George Mason University said at a Dec. 15 Council on Foreign Relations event. Lyons perhaps neglected the disproportionate effects of combined air-ground operations, as demonstrated by U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan in 2001. The Ethiopian air force apparently worked in close coordination with ground forces. If doctrine applied during the 1998-2000 border war is still current, the majority of Ethiopian air strikes within sight of friendly ground forces in Somalia were guided by ground-based forward air controllers. (During international mediation of damage claims following the war with Eritrea, the Ethiopian government insisted that of hundreds of attack sorties launched by its air force, only 20 were executed without ground controllers.)
In Somalia, Flankers hit airports, roads, ammo dumps, Islamic militia camps and convoys – disrupting transport, communications and emergency re-supply – while T-55s sporting external fuel tanks crawled south ahead of self-propelled howitzers. Hinds flew top cover and even dropped 250-kilogram gravity bombs. Mil Mi-17 medevac choppers evacuated wounded troops. Helicopters kept pace with the ground advance by way of forward operating bases.
These heavy forces faced just a few thousand Islamic troops boasting nothing heavier than “technicals” – pickup trucks hauling heavy machine guns. There were reports of Eritrean forces aiding the Islamists and even swapping artillery barrages with the invaders; if true, this resistance hardly slowed the Ethiopian advance. The Ethiopian government claims 1,000 Islamist fighters killed while declining to cite its own, surely lighter, losses.
What role the United States has played in Ethiopia’s initial success is unclear. For years, the Pentagon has reported only around $200 million annually in military aid to Ethiopia, mostly in the form of technical assistance for aircraft. This assistance might be related to the 1995 U.S. donation of four used Lockheed Martin C-130B Hercules transports.
Training support is another matter. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. soldiers headquartered in Djibouti have instructed Ethiopian troops in infantry tactics. “This goes from troop-leading procedures to react to contact, break contact, reconnaissance, patrolling, vehicle searches and so on,” Army 1st Lt. Christopher Anderson told a military journalist in April.
“They love it and eat it up,” Sgt. Ryan Castro said in the same article. “A part of this class is short-range marksmanship. The Ethiopian army shoots maybe ten rounds a year. Here, they went through 400 to 500 rounds in a week.”
This murky relationship is getting clearer. On Jan. 8, CBS news reported attacks by a U.S. Air Force Boeing AC-130 Spectre gunship on Islamic forces in southern Somalia. CBS also mentioned supporting operations by unspecified U.S. aerial drones, most likely General Atomics RQ-1 Predators based alongside the Spectres in Djibouti. Meanwhile, the U.S.S. Eisenhower aircraft carrier and her battlegroup departed their station in the Arabian Sea and headed towards the Somali coast, apparently to support further operations against “terrorist” forces in Somalia.
What happens next in Somalia is anyone’s guess. In weeks of furious fighting, Ethiopian forces proved effective at conducting fast-moving, conventional air-ground operations leveraging one of the world’s most advanced fighter jets. Whether the same forces will succeed or even attempt to provide post-conflict security remains to be seen.
Cross-posted at Defense Tech and Ares