Friends of Angola

The first of Angola’s Russian-made Su-30Ks arrive

By War is Boring

The first two of 12 Sukhoi Su-30K fighters Angola ordered nearly four years for $1 billion have arrived in the country, giving a country with one of the most formidable air forces in the region some of the best military hardware Russia has to offer.

Angola enters the club of African states possessing Su-30s along with Uganda and Algeria. The planes bounced around a lot before they got there.

In 2013, Angola inked the purchase with Russia for the fighters, which served with the Indian Air Force from 1998-2005 before returning to Russia in exchange for more modern Su-30MKIs. Via Russia, the Su-30Ks headed to Belarus for refurbishment and an upgrade to their radar and navigation systems, before heading to Angola.

The Su-30K — a commercial export version of the Flanker-C, per its NATO reporting name — is a highly maneuverable aircraft that fills a similar role to the U.S. F-15E Strike Eagle, capable of both ground attack and air superiority missions. Its range amounts to more than 1,800 miles and can boost to a maximum speed of Mach 2. The warplane’s maximum payload is 18,000 pounds of bombs, rockets and missiles mounted on 12 hardpoints.

And Angola is considering buying more.

Angola has long had one of the largest air forces in Africa, a fact which owes to the Angolan civil war from 1975-2002. During the 1970s and 1980s, enormous amounts of outside support poured into the country in an extended Cold War proxy conflict — a war which began to recede following the 1994 Lusaka Protocol.

The Soviet-backed MPLA, which prevailed in the war and rules Angola to this day, received aircraft, weapons and training assistance from the Soviet bloc and Cuba — the latter which sent its own warplanes and pilots to enter the fray. Zaire and Apartheid South Africa intervened on the side of the FNLA and UNITA, which both received support from the United States.

South Africa’s intervention and its heavy use of air power — bombing bases and strafing convoys — posed as one of the MPLA’s biggest threats.

The MPLA’s extensive support and heavy combat experience also meant Angolan pilots — schooled by Romanian instructors — became some of the best on the continent.

As of 2016, the Angolan air force numbers some 83 combat-capable aircraft, including six Su-27 Flankers, 26 MiG-23 Floggers of two variants, 20 MiG-21bis Fishbeds, 13 Su-22 Fitters and one Su-24 Fencer amounting to the fighters capable of air-to-air combat. Ten Su-25 Frogfoots are Angola’s only dedicated ground-attack jets, although 42 of its fighters have dual-roles. Angola has a fleet of 44 Hind attack helicopters.

It’s all very impressive, and the Su-30K purchase back in 2015 had set off alarms in the South African press that the state-of-the-art planes could pose a threat. But while the Angolan military is tough, it’s not as tough as the charts make it appear to be.

“On paper the army and air force constitute a significant force, but equipment availability and serviceability remain questionable,” the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based research institute, noted in its book-length Military Balance 2016.

Secondly, air-to-air fighting is about more than what an airplane is technically capable of doing. “For various reasons, the Angolans allowed their air force to lose much of the expertise it gained in the 1980s and with it their ability to keep up with the latest developments in air power doctrine and technique,” Darren Olivier noted in the African Defense Review in 2015.

Advanced training, buying deadlier missiles and sharper radars, and practicing with electronic warfare systems, modern data links and new techniques all matter greatly — and here South Africa has done a better job than Angola. For one, the South Africans have better air-to-air missiles — brand-new V3E A-Darters — on their Swedish-made JAS 39 Gripen fighters than the older Vympel R-73s to feature on Angola’s Su-30Ks.

Angola intervened in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1998 and aspires to be a more significant regional power.

The Angolan air force is also a matter of prestige for the authoritarian MPLA and Pres. José Eduardo dos Santos, the third longest-ruling leader in the world and who taps fossil fuel-rich Angola like his personal piggy bank. In a country with one of the world’s worst childhood mortality rates, he has still found time to enrich his family members and spend lavishly on the military in true autocratic style.

Su-30s help accomplish all of these goals, and helps keep the military happy — though without the training, maintenance and doctrine the practical utility for this splurging could be for naught. Which is still better than Angola actually using the planes for war.