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Libya & Egypt, 1971-1979
By Tom Cooper
Nov 13, 2003, 03:03

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The Egyptian and Libyan Air forces are two different branches of military in two different Arab countries. In the early 1970s, however, the cooperation between them was so close that for a longer period of times Libyan aircraft were an important part of the Egyptian Air Force. Nevertheless, just a few years later the very same aircraft were used in combat against Egypt, and against other Mirages!

Libyan Mirage-Order

Immediately after climbing to power during a military coup against King Idriz, in September 1969, the new Libyan leader, Captain (later Colonel) Moammar el-Qaddaffi started reforming his armed forces. Within just a few months the USA and the UK were forced to pull their troops out of the country; the few US-supplied Northrop F-5A/B Freedom Fighters and Douglas C-47 transports were sold to Turkey, and Libya also became the first oil-exporting country that significantly rose the price of its oil. While the last US and British troops were not to leave Libya before March 1970, already in November 1969 Qaddaffi began negotiations with France for supply of large amounts of new equipment.

The largest and most important of all the Franco-Libyan agreements was the order for over 110 Dassault Mirage 5 fighter-bombers. Libya was – after Lebanon – only the second Arab country to order Mirages, but definitely the largest single customer ever: the contract signed in January 1970 included:
- 32 Mirage 5DE radar-equipped interceptors (serials 101 thru 132)
- 15 Mirage 5DD two-seaters (serials 201 thru 215)
- 10 Mirage 5DR reconnaissance fighters (serials 301 thru 310)
- 53 Mirage 5D fighter-bombers (serials 401 thru 453)

The Libyan order included also a ground simulator and an immense amount of spare parts, various ground equipment, and weapons – in fact so many, that these were to last for the best part of the following 25 years! As delivered to Libya, the Mirage 5DEs were by all purposes Mirage IIIEs interceptors, equipped with Cyrano II fire-control radar and Doppler (mounted in a prominent fairing under the cockpit), but with a stretched forward fuselage (i.e. the intake lip behind the rear edge of the canopy), and an additional fuel tanks behind the cockpit. Except for two DEFA 30mm cannons, they were armed with Matra R.530 air-to-air missiles, only one of which could be carried bellow the centreline.

The fighter-bombers of the Mirage 5D version were based on the same fuselage but had the thinner nose of the simpler fighter-bomber variant. Instead of the large, complex, and malfunction-prone Cyrano II radar, they have got only the EMD Aida radar range-finder. Despite their much reduced avionics package they were quite well equipped, and actually superior to early Mirage IIICs, especially in regards of a much heavier external weapon load. Their avionics included the CSF97 sight with elementary HUD, central digital computer, and inertial platform, Thompson BU/DR-AX-10 Artemix RWR (this had two antennas on the fin, one facing forward and the other rearwards for 360° coverage; it scanned on X- and Q-bands, at 11 and 17.5 GHz, and had two displays: one on the right side of the front cockpit panel, showing a small aircraft with chevrons towards four different quadrants, and another with two lights, for showing if the aircraft was tracked by conventional pulse or continuous wave emissions). On the outside the aircraft could also be easily recognized by the HF aerial mounted in the extra dorsal fin. Being a further development of the original Mirage 5J, based on an Israeli order for a low-cost day fighter (clandestinely delivered in 1970 and 1971 to be put together, with US support, by IAI – as “Nesher”), the Mirage 5D retained the Atar 9C engine and Mach 2 capability of the earlier Mirage IIIE, and ability to operate from rough fields, while having a substantially better combat radius of out to 680km in lo-lo-lo profile when carrying maximum external fuel and two 400kg bombs. Mirage 5Ds were also armed with two DEFA 552A 30mm cannons (each with 125 rounds), but no air-to-air missiles then at the time the French-made Matra R.530 Magic Mk.1 was still years away from entering production, while the export of US-made AIM-9 Sidewinders to Libya was sanctioned by Washington.

LARAF Mirage 5DE interceptor as seen in France, in the early 1980s, while the aircraft was to be refurbished and upgraded with more advance fire-control and navigation systems. (Photo: Dassault)

The Mirage 5DRs were based on the same fuselage like 5Ds and 5DEs, but had a completely different nose, equipped with five British-made Vinten or four French-made Omera 31 cameras, arranged to peer obliquely sideways, downwards or forwards through windows in the nose section. Aside from being capable of flying reconnaissance missions, 5DRs were also armed with two 30mm guns, and could carry bombs, like 5Ds. Finally, Mirage 5DDs were two-seaters without a radar-nose, equipped with a single 30mm gun, and retaining the bomb-carrying capability, albeit at the cost of lower internal fuel tankage.

Libya received also ten Mirage 5DRs in the early 1970s. Although at least two were impounded and left parked at the Dassault airfield Toulouse-Colomiers, in 1983, no less but six remained in service with No.1011 Squadron LARAF by 2003. (Photo: Dassault)

Egyptian Connection

Although the first Mirages did not reach Libya before 1971 (where they initially entered service with the No.1001 Operational Conversion Unit), there were Mirages flying over that country already at earlier times. Between 28 August and 4 September 1970 five Armée de l’Air Mirage 5B two-seaters of ECT 2/2 were painted in Libyan markings for a display on the first anniversary of the Arab Republic of Libya. The aircraft were flown by mixed crews over Tripolis on this occasion, each with an Egyptian in the front cockpit, and a French pilot in the rear.

The reason for the appearance of Egyptian pilots in Libyan Mirages was the fact that at the time these fighters were ordered, the Libyan Arab Republic Air Force (LARAF) counted barely 400 officers and enlisted ranks, including a very small group that was about to complete training on Northrop F-5A Freedom Fighter. Clearly, the Libyans had thus no pilots for all the new fighters they ordered. But, it was also not their intention to keep or even to man all of them: their intention was to buy not only enough aircraft to keep a considerable number of them in reserve, but also to support Egypt in preparing a new war against Israel.

Prior to arrival of first Mirage 5s in Libya, a major installation for their maintenance, training of crews and storage of weapons and spares was set-up at the former RAF el-Adem airfield, now renamed into Gamal Abdel Nasser AB. During 1971, aside from French, also a number of Pakistani pilots were contracted to support the training of Libyan and Egyptian Mirage-pilots in Libya.

According to US and Israeli sources, it was already on 18 July 1971 that the Israeli Defence Force/Air Force (IDF/AF) was informed by the US State Department that Libya started transferring its new Mirage 5 fighters to Egypt. The Libyans actually did not receive more than 25 Mirages even by the summer of 1972. Nevertheless, almost all of these were immediately forwarded to Egypt. This came as no surprise to either the Israelis, or even the NATO, as both were closely monitoring the military build-up in Libya. Within the following two years an equivalent of at least three squadrons, totalling 42 Mirage 5s (including 20 Mirage 5DEs, 20 Mirage 5Ds, and two Mirage 5DDs) were flown to Egypt together with a considerable amount of spare parts, and have received full insignia of the Egyptian Air Force (EAF).

By the summer of 1972 the rumours about deployment of LARAF Mirages in Egypt became known in the public, and Israel protested, demanding France to stop exporting fighters to Libya. French protested as well, officially threatening to stop deliveries if any Mirages would be send to Egypt. It was too late, however, and neither the Libyans nor the Egyptians were to show especially concerned of French threats: while ascertaining that no similar action was taken, Qaddaffi continued sending additional fighters to Egypt.

According to as of yet unconfirmed reports up to 54 Libyan Mirages were eventually sent to Egypt, and these included all the 32 of Libyan Mirage 5DE radar-equipped fighter-bombers acquired by LARAF. More in-depth research revealed, however, that not more than 42 Libyan Mirages ever entered service with the EAF.

In an contemporary interview for Western press, the Libyan leader reported that the LARAF Mirages were, “used to train EAF pilots”, and were under his control. The fact was, however, that right since their first arrival in Egypt all Libyan Mirages were under the full control of the EAF. In fact, it appears that the whole project of Mirage acquisitions by Libya was run with considerable Egyptian involvement right from the start. Namely, instead of Libyans, Egyptian pilots went to France, with Libyan passports, to train on the Mirage. The first Egyptian pilots completed their training in France already in October 1970. The then Capt. Mohammad Fathi Fat-hallah Rif'at, Egyptian Air Force, explained who were the “Libyan” pilots trained on Mirages in France, and how was the matter organized in his case:
- I made my conversion course to the Mirage III at Dijon in 1973. A mix of pilots from MiG-17, MiG-21, and Su-7 units converted to the Mirage. This was good because it was a multi-role jet. We flew Mirage Vs in Libya for training and also some Mirage IIIEs, which were ground attack jets....There was a big difference between the Su-7 and the Mirage. The Su-7 had a good engine, reasonable payload, but poor manoeuvrability. The Mirage has good manoeuvrability, better acceleration, good visibility, and much better avionics.

One of the interesting anecdotes from the times when Egyptian pilots were trained on Mirages in France was when in discussion with several "Libyan" pilots a French multi-linguistic instructor remarked something ini Russian, and two of his students found this very funny. The French instructor found it estranging that Libyans could speak Russian, then at the time there was no cooperation between Libya and the USSR. Consequently, he asked himself where did these pilots learn Russian...Most likely, the French instructor knew exactly what he was doing: after all, found themselves under pressure for deliveries of Mirages to Libya - and Egypt - the French certainly wanted to get a clear picture.

In summary, most of the Egyptian pilots found the Mirage to be more than equal to all but the MiG-21F-13 in air-to-air combat. The Mirage 5 had at least two times greater attack capabilities than Su-7 and markedly greater attack capabilities than the MiG-21. The aircraft was only lacking good air-to-air missiles: except for old and poorly functioning Matra R.530s, which were the main weapon of Mirage 5DE, the Libyans have got no other missiles. The USA were not ready to supply AIM-9 Sidewinders, and the Matra R.550 was still in development and not to enter service for years longer.

Above and bellow: early Mirage 5Ds slanted for delivery to Libya as seen during testing in France. Note that the aircraft above is releasing a "volley" of no less but 14 bombs calibre 125 and 250kg. Their markings at the time were essentially the same as those of the Egyptian aircraft. (Photo: Dassault)

Mirage Spark

By the summer of 1973 a total of 38 (Libyan) Mirage 5s were in full service with EAF, all assigned to the ‘No. 69 Independent Squadron Mirage’, based at Birma/al-Tanta AB. Its Egyptian pilots were trained in both, air-to-air and air-to-ground missions, most of which were conducted over western Egypt – far from the Israeli eyes. This unit was manned as follows:

* Commander: Colonel Ali Zien-Alabideen Abdul-Jawwad

* Pilots with rank of Lieutenant Colonel: Ahmad Mohammad Hashem Dawood, Mohammad Dawood Mokarim Sa’ad, Mohammad Abdul-Min’em Zaki Okashah, Ahmad Ramzi Housain Ramzi, Shareef Abbas al-Shafi’i

* Pilots with rank of Major: Mohib Ali Shihab-ed-dien, Hamdi Abdul-Hameed Aqil, Housain Mahmood Izzat, Abdul-Hadi Housain Jad, Mohammad Ameen Ibraheem, Haydar Isma’eel Dabbous

* Pilots with rank of Captain: Majd-ed-dien Rif’at Mohammad Ahmad, Mohammad-Rida Ahmad Ali Musharrif, Sa’ad Sayyed Abu-el-ola, Kamal-ed-dien Abdul-Ra’oof, Khalid Ahmad Mahmood Omar, Tariq Ahmad Farhat, Mohammad Fathi Fat-hallah Rif’at, Isam Ahmad Mohammad Sayyed, Khamees Ali Mostafa, Mohammad-el-tayyedb Ahmad Ali, Adel Mohyee-ed-dien Ahmad Fahmi, Mohammad Rif’at Rifa’i Mobariz

Navigation Officers were Major Obadah Abu-Shababneh Obadah and Captain Mohammad Mohammad Abdullah al-Husayni

The No.69 Squadron became involved in the October War, 1973, right from the start. At 14:00hr of 6 October a total of 16 Mirages flew highly successful attack missions against Israeli Defence Force (IDF) positions in the Tassa pass area. Approaching at a very low level in two waves, they hit local Israeli headquarters and artillery position, as well as an observation post. One of the fighters was damaged by anti-aircraft artillery (AAA), while another was reportedly shot down by an Egyptian Air Defense Force SA-3 missile while returning to base separated from the rest of formation.

The unit lost another Mirage on the following day, 7 October 1973, during an escort mission for EAF Tupolev Tu-16K bombers, which were attacking Israeli electronic warfare and ELINT-station at Ra’s Abü Qurun, a mountain in central Sinai, west of Bi’r Hasanah, with KS-1 Kometa air-to-surface missiles (ASCC-Code “AS-5 Kelt”). Four Mirages from the No.69 Squadron were escorting two Tupolevs. As one of the bombers released its second Kelt the missile malfunctioned: it first dropped away, then climbed, pulling a hard right turn without any previous warning, impacting the wing of the nearest Mirage, causing it to crash. Nevertheless, that strike was an overall success and the strategically important Israeli station was not only damaged, but also remained inoperational until 14 October 1973.

During the following week the No.69 Squadron was mainly tasked flying CAPs over the Nile Delta. Little combat activity was recorded as the EAF High Command tended to keep its most important assets back while defending own bases in the Nile Delta from several Israeli air raids. It was not before the morning of 14 October that the unit is known to have flown its next offensive mission, in support of the ill-fated Egyptian ground offensive on Sinai. On the same afternoon the IDF/AF launched a major attempt to bomb Birma/al-Tanta AB, and neutralize the No.69 Squadron based there. Intense air combats developed between MiG-21s from al-Mansourah AB, which were defending Tanta, and Israeli fighters over the Nile Delta. Surely enough, parked inside well-protected hardened aircraft shelters at Tanta, EAF Mirage 5s were spared the sad fate of at least six Iraqi Hunters, destroyed in a strike of IDF/AF McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom IIs while refuelled and parked on apron of Qwaysina AB, on 10 October 1973: al-Tanta AB remained fully operational.

While the No.69 Squadron was not to fly many combat sorties in the following days, the EAF was nevertheless to lose one of pilots who passed training on Mirages in France. On 16 October Lt.Col. Sa'ad Ahmmad Zahran was shot down while flying a MiG-17 fighter over Sinai. Why was a high-ranking officer with an extra course on Mirages flying MiG-17s and not attached to the No.69 Squadron remains unknown.

Probably the best-known mission of Egyptian-flown LARAF Mirage 5s during this war was a strike against the Israeli-occupied el-Arish airfield, in northern Sinai, undertaken on the late afternoon of 18 October 1973. This airfield was of immense importance for the Israel because it was one of the bases to which the US transport aircraft were arriving since 14 October, bringing ammunition and new weapons, badly needed due to depleted Israeli stocks. The so far released Israeli accounts of this Egyptian operation indicate involvement of only four Mirages, as well as that these were intercepted before accomplishing their mission. Sources close to the USAF, however, report that eight Mirages were involved, and that the outcome of this mission was considerably different.

The first flight, consisting of four Mirage 5DEs, were detected too late to be intercepted, and executed their attack, dropping two 400kg bombs each and hitting the runway and taxiway as planned. Exact extent of the damage to these remains unknown, nevertheless, and it is also unknown if any of the US or Israeli transport aircraft that were at el-Arish in the moment of that strike were damaged. Certain is only that these four Mirages came away almost undisturbed: only one was damaged by Israeli AAA fire.

Surely, the Israeli defences were now alert and only five minutes later the second Egyptian flight, led by Capt. Rif’at, was approaching the same target, flying at barely ten meters over the sea surface.

Exactly how could the Israelis detect a formation flying at such a low level remains unknown: the IDF would not specify, while some Arab sources indicate that Rif’at and his three formation members were either detected by the repaired Israeli ELINT station at Ra’s Abu Qurun, or by Grumman E-2 Hawkeye AEW-aircraft from one of USN aircraft carriers known to have been in the eastern Mediterranean Sea at the time. Capt. Mohammad Fathi Fat-hallah Rif'at later recalled in an interview to Dr. David Nicolle:
- "We were intercepted just 35 seconds from the target by Israeli Mirages. I think that the American reported the strike as we flew over many ships in the Mediterranean, or they might have their [Grumman] E-2C airborne early warning plane up. It would have been hard for the Israeli to detect us as we were flying very low over the sea. The Israeli Mirage intercepted us. They shot down one of our jets, another crashed into the water and the others turned back ….”

Whatever was the case, as Capt. Rif’at’s section was over the Sabkhat al-Bordavil (Bordavil Laguna), only some 50km west of el-Arish, they were intercepted by two IDF/AF Neshers, from 113 Squadron. On sighting their opponents the Egyptians jettisoned bombs and rocket pods while attempting to turn back towards west and accelerate away. While executing this relatively complex manoeuvre, the Number 4 of the Egyptian formation hit the sea surface with wingtip, the force of this collision being sufficient to throw the Mirage nose-down into the water, a huge plume of which marked the crash site. Meanwhile, the Number 2 of the Egyptian formation was shot down by a Shafrir AAM and crashed into the sea. Number 3 followed shortly after: directly hit by a Shafrir AAM that detonated inside the tailpipe, it disappeared in a ball of flame. Capt. Rif’at managed to escape, flying at a maximum speed and minimal level towards the setting sun.

One of the downed EAF Mirage-pilots was Capt. Majd-ed-dien Rif’at Mohammad Ahmad. He ejected safely and landed with parachute in the Bordavil Laguna, but found himself encircled by several very upset Egyptian farmers, who believed he was an Israeli, "because he doesn't look like an Arab". The farmers wanted to beat him even if he shouted that he was an Egyptian. His Arabic language made the farmers very curious so they arrested him and brought him to the nearest police station...

On 19 October the 69 Squadron at Tanta was joined by a Squadron of Moroccan Air Force Northrop F-5A Freedom Fighters. Originally, the Force Aérienne Royal du Maroc (FARM) intended to send two units to Egypt in a case of a new war against Israel. Only one unit could be deployed now: the major problem was that after the coup attempt in 1972 many of the pilots of the 1st Squadron were arrested, and the second problem was that of logistics: barely 50% of Moroccan F-5A/Bs – all of which were supplied from USA, in accordance to a Military Assistance Program (“MAP”), or from Iran – were operational at any time. In essence, the FARM F-5A/Bs were “on loan” from the USA, which conditioned delivery on their use solely for defence of Morocco. As it seems, this did not keep the FARM from deploying assets – including at least 14 pilots trained on MiG-17s, but apparently also around a dozen of F-5As – into the war zone. According to unconfirmed reports, the F-5As arrived after a lengthy trip, via Algeria, Tunis and Libya, accompanied by Lockheed C-130 Hercules transports that carried spare parts, weapons, and equipment.

Moroccans started flying already on the following day, initially being tasked with CAP missions over the Nile Delta, but are not known to have had any kind of encounters with Israeli aircraft during the war. (Nevertheless, it might be of interest to add in this place that the in January 1974 two F-5As armed with a pair of AIM-9B Sidewinders and 20mm cannons, plus carrying one small fuel tank under the centreline each, was scrambled to intercept a pair of IDF/AF Mirage IIICs on a reconnaissance mission. As the Israelis turned away once the F-5As became obvious, dragging both FARM fighters behind them, concerned about a possible ambush by IDF/AF McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom IIs the EAF mission control eventually ordered both Moroccans to return, replacing them by two EAF MiG-21MFs from el-Mansourah AB.). Meanwhile, the No.69 Squadron became involved in operations against the Israeli bridgehead on Deverosoir and other targets in the area surrounding the Great Bitter Lake, on the Suez Canal, meanwhile captured by the Israelis.

Despite the heavy loss on 18 October, the EAF Mirages were in action again on 21 October, when a four-ship attacked a part of the Ugda Adnan due south of the Great Bitter Lake. Four others were on a CAP over Fayid, when engaged by four Neshers from 144 Squadron IDF/AF vectored from orbit in the Tassa area. The following battle was over before it really began, with one Mirage being hit by an air-to-air missile and then finished by 30mm guns. The other three disengaged towards West.

The situation of the No.69 Squadron now worsened also because the spare part stocks had begun to run down, and a resupply was needed from Libya, which would take a few days. Nevertheless, by the end of the war the unit flew at least 28 additional attack sorties, eventually ending the war clocking a total of 495 combat missions. According to Israeli sources at least five, but according to US sources at least nine Mirages were lost in combat and five more to non-combat causes.

Controversy with Libya

Soon after the end of the October War, 1973, the assistance provided by Libya to Egypt during the war, including LARAF Mirages given to EAF, became a matter of controversy between the two neighbouring states. Qaddaffi, namely, found the results of the war as of limited in overall scope, and this – as well as the materials his country provided – provided him with an opportunity to criticise Egypt and Syria for their limited objectives and achievements, as well as Jordan for not even daring to challenge Israel. Qaddafi described the war as nothing more but a cowardly attempt to alter the status quo, and being nothing like a “total war of liberation” he hoped for. When the ceasefire negotiations began, Qaddafi was infuriated, criticising Sadat to extension – and not without quite a few exaggerations:
- “We gave you [i.e. the Arabs] funds and weapons, and we became exhausted together with you, and for nothing. Ultimately, you all became friends with the U.S., and you recognize Israel. Only Libya has not recognized Israel, and of course will never recognize it until the Day of Judgment. We were exhausted for your sake, and ultimately you cursed us. We gave you 100 Mirage aircraft as a gift to Egypt in order to liberate the Sinai. We gave 100 Mirage aircraft, and then Sadat cursed us. It came out [looking] as if we had not participated at all [in the war], and the unfortunate Egyptian people do not know the truth.
We are approaching the anniversary of October 6. All the boats that the Egyptian army used to cross the Suez Canal and all the rubber dinghies were Libyan. We do not want reward and we do not want them to say thank you to us, because we fulfilled our pan-Arab and historic obligation. The mobile artillery at the Egyptian front was all Libyan. All the mobile Italian cannons that we purchased from Italy and gave as a gift to Egypt. The Egyptians had no bulldozers. We acquired bulldozers [for them]. It was us who gave the Egyptian army supplies, clothing, and even socks...
I personally carried the missiles on my shoulders and marched with them until we gave them to the Egyptians. The Israelis reached 83 kilometres from Cairo. But Sadat told me: 'Enough. I am finished with my war. Have a happy holiday.' I told him, 'Goodbye, and happy holiday.'"

The fact was, however, that Qaddaffi was bitter over the fact that he was not consulted by Egypt or Syria about their plans for war, as well as that Sadat’s success in the war was now to prevent a union between Egypt and Libya, the leader of which Qaddaffi hoped to become. That was the reason for his criticism. The fact was, namely, that Libya could not play the main role in any such union, despite its considerable oil resources, and especially not because of its minimal military capabilities. When the Egyptian Lt.Gen. Saad el-Shazly visited Libya, in summer 1973, he found no military really ready for a war. In the book “The Crossing of the Suez” (American Mideast Research, 1980, p.135), he commented, “Qaddaffi’s forces were so small, they had nothing of value for us except Mirage fighter-bombers, and we already had these”. All the Libyans could provide were two squadrons of Mirage fighters, 24 self-propelled 155mm guns, 12 mortars calibre 120mm, and 100 armoured personnel carriers.

Although being in a more than a clear picture about this situation, Qaddaffi presented a completely different picture in the public, explaining that it was Libyan pilots who flew LARAF Mirages in the war against Israel. On 19 May 1974 the Libyan newspaper al-Fatah reported that, “the Libyan air force made some 400 sorties against the Israelis”. Contradicting even his own statements in several instances, Col. Qaddaffi also reported to Western and Arab reporters that Libya, “had not sold, loaned or given any weapons to the Egyptian Government”. Immediately afterwards, however, he would proudly add to the same reporters that LARAF pilots were helping train the Egyptians how to fly. As no Egyptian attempts to challenge such statements are known in the West, even most of Western aviation journalists still rely on Libyan media reports and so the true story of the No.69 Squadron’s performance in the October War remains largely unknown. Qaddaffi’s bold statements nevertheless hurt the Egyptian pride. The fact was that no LARAF pilots are known to have flown even a single combat sortie during the whole war in 1973. Even if six of them should have been present in Egypt at the time, none was involved in training EAF pilots. There are only few reports indicating a possibility that a number of Pakistani Air Force pilots, contracted to work with LARAF but involved in training with Egyptians from the times before the war, continued providing assistance and instruction to the Egyptians and even flew some CAP missions with the No.69 Squadron. Eventually, however, for most part the combat was left to the Egyptian pilots.

Thus the involvement of LARAF Mirages loaned to Egypt from 1971 until 1974 was to set early stages of what would become a much larger problem between these two Arab states in the future.

EAF Mirage 5SDE or LARAF Mirage 5DE? This was actually one of 32 Mirage 5SDEs delivered to Egypt with Saudi financial support, between 1972 and 1974. While it is very unlikely that any of these aircraft participated in the war with Israel, in 1973, the No.69 Squadron EAF was certainly swift to convert to this version in the months following that conflict. As a paradox, the unit was subsequently to participate in the war against Libya, in July 1977, flying combat operations against Libyan Mirage bases, claiming not only several LARAF fighters destroyed on the ground, but also some air-to-air kills. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)

Preparing for a “Super War”

The final batch of Mirages was delivered to Libya in 1974 and were shortly followed by production of additional airframes for the next Arabian customer. Namely, in 1972 Saudi Arabia issued an order for 32 Mirage 5SDEs: these aircraft were purchased by the Saudis on behalf of Egypt. Their deliveries began in 1974. While still in France all wore markings of the Royal Saudi Air Force, but they never reached Saudi Arabia: instead, in 1974 all were delivered to Egypt, where the first batch entered service with the No.69 Squadron, now a part of the 263 Brigade, but still based at Birma/Tanta AB. They were reinforced by six Mirage 5SDRs from 1978 onwards: these entered service with the No.69 Squadron.

As new Mirages entered EAF service, the surviving Libyan examples were returned, so that by the late 1975 the LARAF was already boasting four squadrons (No. 1002, 1003, and 1004, in addition to the No.1001 OCU) equipped with Mirage 5Ds, the No.1030 Squadron with Mirage 5DEs and No.1011 Squadron with Mirage 5DRs. Meanwhile, the Libyan leader also established good relationship with the USSR.

Realizing that one of the major problems Egypt and Syria encountered during the October War was the question of resupplying their depleted stocks of arms and ammunition, as well as that the Soviets were ready to supply weapons at much lower prices than the French, the Libyan leader decided to order additional numbers of aircraft his air force. All through the 1970s the LARAF was therefore reinforced by immense numbers of aircraft. Already by 1976 it operated two squadrons (No.1050 and 1051) with some 50 MiG-23MS interceptors based at al-Bumbah AB, for example: less than 25 of these were in actual service, while the others were stored – together with immense amounts of spare parts and weapons. The stored aircraft were to be used as attrition reserve in a case of a new – “final liberation war” – with Israel, for which Libya now began to prepare.

In order to train an increasing number of pilots, but also to ascertain diverse sources and so avoid potential political pressure or embargos, the Libyan leader then also ordered 50 SOKO G-2A Galeb jet trainers in Yugoslavia (where also a special centre for training of Libyan pilots was established), and 260 SIAI-Marchetti SF.260WL basic trainers in Italy. Finally, 55 MiG-21MF/UMs were bought from the USSR. The Libyans considered the later type as insufficient for their needs – especially in regards of range and combat endurance. Thus the MiG-21s were to be mainly used for training of Palestinian pilots of the so-called "Force 14", which was to form an air force of the independent Palestinian State, as well as for training of pilots from quite a few different African countries.

In addition to trainers and tactical fighters, Libya – in cooperation with Iraq - placed also an order for a total of no less but 28 Tupolev Tu-22 bombers. The idea was that Libyan and Iraqi air force would operate 14 each, and – in the case of a new war with Israel – these would, for example, take off in Libya, strike targets in Israel, and continue at a high speed to Iraq, or vice versa.

Egypt, to contrary, was economically exhausted after seven years of intensive confrontation with Israel, and in 1974 Cairo also broke relations with Moscow. This left the EAF in a relatively poor condition: reportedly, the Soviets haven’t returned up to 140 MiG-21s which were in the USSR for refurbishment at the time of the break, and immediately stopped all deliveries of weapons and spare parts. Therefore, the EAF was soon in problems with keeping its fleet of Soviet-built aircraft intact. This fleet now included eight MiG-23MS, eight MiG-23BNs and six MiG-23Us (all of which had to be mothballed in 1975, after only two years of service), some 50 Su-20s (hardly 20 in operational condition), and over 100 MiG-21s and 50 Su-7s.

A poor but highly interesting photograph of EAF Su-20, taken during a parade in Cairo, in October 1974. The photograph and the artwork depicting the same aircraft are, showing some details of the "Nile Valley" camouflage pattern, as well as of the national markings worn by the EAF at the time and during the subsequent short war with Libya, in 1977. EAF Su-20s repeatedly hit Libyan artillery positions along the Egyptian border, but exact details of these missions remain scarce. (Photo: Tom Cooper collection; Artwork by Tom Cooper)

Nevertheless, with Saudi help and financial backing, the Egyptians have established contacts to France, and already in 1972 first of 32 Mirage 5SDE and six 5SDDs were produced by Dassault for Egypt. Their deliveries supposedly started in October 1974 In October 1974; it is possible, however, that some of Egyptian Mirages flown in the war against Israel, in October 1973, were examples indeed built for Egypt, and not for Libya.

EAF Mirage 5E-2 at Cairo West, in 1982. This was a much advanced version of the very same Mirage 5D originally delivered to Libya, but deployed by EAF - and flown by Egyptian pilots - during the war with Israel, in 1973. The 5E-2 had foremost a more modern fire-control system, including a laser-rangefinder, mounted under the chin. Note the slightly increased black field on the national marking, as well as identification panels in orange, outlined in black, applied on the fin and the spin of this aircraft. (US DoD)

March on Cairo

Due to the poor economic situation of the country, and the political success in the October War, 1973, Egyptian President Sadat was engaged on making peace with Israel. After years of intensive negotiations, this resulted with a success, and in the summer of 1977, Sadat went so far to visit Israel. This caused an outburst of protests in the Arab world, especially in Libya, where Col. Qaddaffi was still dreaming about establishing a union of Libya, Egypt and Tunis, which would make him a new Arab leader.

In July 1977, thousands of Libyan „protesters“ initiated a „March on Cairo“, moving down to the Egyptian border at as-Sallüm. The Egyptian soldiers would not left them into Egypt, however, and President Sadat immediately placed the Egyptian Army and Air Force on alert. This provoked the Libyan dictator to order an attack on Egyptian border posts.

While the technicians of the LARAF were painting a new national insignias on their aircraft – consisting of plain green fields (instead of the old ones which were identical to Egyptian markings) - on 20 July the Libyan artillery opened fire against Egyptian border posts and military installations around as-Sallüm and Halfaya Pass. Qaddaffi expected obviously no strong reaction from the other side, but the Egyptians could not tolerate the situation and at least one of their armoured brigades, reinforced by some artillery, moved towards the border. On the morning of 21 July, the EAF was ready, and immediately ordered into action: a formation of Su-20s, escorted by MiG-21s, attacked several Libyan Army bases near the border, and the radar stations at al-Jagbüb and Bardiyah, while Egyptian tanks attacked the town of Mussayid, several kilometres behind the border.

Remants of an EAF fighter shot down by LARAF Mirages on 22 July 1977. According to contemporary Libyan sources the aircraft in question was a MiG-21; according to Egyptian sources it was a Su-7. Libyan pilots were credited by at least two air-to-air kills during the war. (Tom Cooper collection)

Once this first phase of the operation was finished with satisfying results, the EAF reached out for a far more ambitious target, and the second wave of its fighter-bombers then bombed the Gamal Abdel Nasser AB, near Benghazi, and al-Kurta AB, where a total of seven Libyan fighters were claimed as destroyed on the ground. The Libyans, obviously surprised by this move, claimed one EAF fighter-bomber was claimed as shot down by SA-7s, and then decided to answer in a similar manner. A formation of Mirage 5 - supported by Mi-8s equipped for electronic-countermeasures, which jammed Egyptian radars along the border - was sent to attack Egyptian towns and bases along the border. The Egyptians claimed one of the Libyan fighters as shot down by SA-7s, but the EAF failed to appear this time. Nevertheless, the EAF was back in the air on the following morning, repeating the attack against the Nasser AB in a vain try to suppress the Libyan Air Force. This time, LARAF fighters were in the air and waiting for Egyptians, and two Mirage 5DEs clashed with escorting MiG-21s, shooting down one of them in a short dogfight.

On 22 and 23 July, the LARAF fighters several times tried to attack targets inside Egypt - possibly also the EAF air base near Marsa Matruh. But each time the Egyptians were ready, and by the morning of 24 July three or four Libyan Mirages and one MiG-23 were claimed as shot down by EAF interceptors and air defences. At that moment, the President Sadat ordered an end of the Egyptian operation and a cease-fire.

The same type, same air force - but different markings. The artworks above and bellow show the LARAF Mirage 5Ds as seen before and after the short war with Egypt, in 1977. The aircraft above spots original national markings, essentially the same as those of the Egyptian Air Force, but without an eagle on the white field of the fin flash, and the serial applied in Arabic characters before delivery from France. The example above shows green fields as national insignia introduced during the war in 1977, as well as a serial applied in Persian characters: this is how (most of) Libyan Mirage 5Ds looked like since those times. The type crated the main offensive asset of the LARAF in 1977, when it was in service with no less but four units. On the first view, the Libyans had always lacked pilots to man all their aircraft, but in fact - learning from Arab and Israeli experiences from 1967 and 1973 - the regime in Tripolis was buying more aircraft than were needed in order to keep some as attrition reserve and thus not be dependent on foreign help and deliveries in the times of crisis. In the Libyan case, such planning proved senseful, and Mirage 5Ds remained operational until being sold to Pakistan, in July 2004 - over 30 years after their delivery! (Artworks by Tom Cooper)


During the short war, the Libyans have lost between 6 and 12 fighters, a score of tanks and other armoured vehicles, two radars, and much artillery. The Egyptians certainly lost at least three fighters, while other claims could not be confirmed so far.

The air warfare during this short and not especially fierce war could only be described as a down-scaled version of Arab experiences from 1967 and 1973, even if the whole war was an excellent example of similar conflicts between different Arab states in the last 30 years. All such conflicts – including those between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, or Sudan and Egypt – there is usually a very short outburst of violence, followed by negotiations mediated by the Arab liga. Without surprise, most of such wars do not even manage into the newspapers of the western press.

When it comes to the military aspects, right from the start the EAF was attempting to win the air superiority by striking Libyan airfields. The Egyptians lacked the firepower to cause definite damage, and the political will to widen the conflict by large-scale operations: their main aim was “sending the message” to Col. Qaddaffi. Regardless of the eventual losses the EAF might have suffered, or any exchange rates, this message was clearly delivered. The Libyans remained behind their border, and neither was there a popular uprising in Egypt against the government in Cairo, nor was there to be any kind of an union between Libya and Egypt. The LARAF remained operational despite repeated EAF strikes, continuing to successfully disturb the Egyptian artillery and jam radars along the border. The Libyan political leadership lacked the will to widen the conflict by an all-out invasion of Egypt: it is, of course, also questionable if the Libyan armed forces could mount an operation that would be sufficient in size.

Nevertheless, while they were more successful on the ground as well, the Egyptians were surprised by the appearance of Brazilian-built Jararaca and Cascavel armoured cars in Libyan arsenal. These vehicles were heavily armed, but also moved over the desert terrain much easier and faster than any tanks. Large orders for both types followed soon after from numerous countries in the Middle East, where they became particularly popular.

Brazilian-built EE-9 Jararaca armoured cars saw their combat debut during the short war between Libya and Egypt, in the summer of 1977. Lighly armoured but heavily armed, they proved to have a much better maneuverability on the sand and were to impress many observers, resulting in a number of countries ordering the type in the subsequent years. (Tom Cooper collection)

Despite the cease-fire, there were some more skirmishes between Libyan and Egyptian fighters, and on an unknown date in 1979, two LARAF MiG-23MS engaged two EAF MiG-21MF, which were meanwhile modified to carry some of the first AIM-9Ps delivered to Egypt by the USA. The Libyan pilots did the mistake of trying to manoeuvre with more nimble Egyptian fighters, and one MiG-23MS was shot down by Maj. Sal Mohammad (a highly experienced pilot, which took part in the War of Attrition and the October War, and was two times shot down by Israeli Mirages while flying MiG-21s).

LARAF MiG-23MS proved not especially successful in dogfighting more nimble MiG-21s. (USN)

Sometimes in 1984, a Libyan MiG-23-pilot defected with his mount to Egypt; the plane was obviously handed-over to the USA (just like this was the case with almost all Egyptian MiG-23s before) - and there are rumours, that this was the plane in which USAF Gen. Robert Bond crashed during a test-flight, only 12 days later.

Post Scriptum: Fate of Libyan Mirage 5s

In the early 1980s Dassault began modernizing LARAF Mirages. This project was interrupted by Libyan participation in the war in Chad, in 1983, which led to a direct confrontation between Paris and Tripolis. A number of LARAF Mirage 5s – including at least four Mirage 5DRs and a handful of Mirage 5DEs – were therefore impounded in France for several years. According to unconfirmed sources, most of them should have been returned to Libya by 1989, when an UN-imposed arms embargo stopped any kind of cooperation with France.

According to reports from USN pilots about engagements with USN fighters thru the early 1980s, Libyan pilots presented varied training. LARAF Mirage pilots proved markedly superior to the pilots flying Soviet-built aircraft: USN pilots reported they were sufficiently skilful at evasive action to prevent their opponents from holding close formation, and they were very difficult to intercept. The USN pilots could at the time offer no reason for this disparity in capability, although several suggested that most likely it might have been better training supplied by the French when the Libyans were converted to the Mirages.

During the rest of the 1980s the LARAF Mirages were involved in the war in Chad (see separate, six-part feature to this topic), where at least two Mirage 5Ds are known to have been lost. Some 20 Mirage 5Ds and DDs remained in service with four LARAF squadrons by 2003: the No.1001 OCU still flew six Mirage 5DDs for conversion and proficiency training, the No.1002 Squadron operated nine Mirage 5Ds, the No.1030 Squadron had seven operational Mirage 5DEs, and No.1011 Squadron flew five Mirage 5DRs. All the remaining Mirage 5DEs and 5RDs were stored. In July 2004 Pakistan announced that it is buying 50 of Libyan Mirages, together with 150 engines – in turn indicating what a stock of spares for these aircraft LARAF still possessed, no less but 30 years after they were delivered, and despite more than ten years of arms embargo against Libya. According to unconfirmed Pakistani sources, the PAF found most of these aircraft to be in almost “as new” condition: some had less than 1.000 hours flying time. Obviously, the Libyans knew why were they buying so many of them, and Qaddaffi’s doctrine of purchasing more aircraft than actually needed by LARAF was reasonable.

Mirage 5Ds remained the mainstay of the LARAF tactical fighter-bomber force until all were sold to Pakistan, in 2004. This still from a video shown on the Libyan National TV several years back, shows some interesting details, including LARAF markings introduced in 1977, the original camouflage pattern, but also the original serial ("429"), as applied in France before delivery in the early 1970s. Mirage 5s saw distinguished service with the LARAF. while no less but 53 Mirage 5Ds were delivered in the period 1971-1974, up to four were lost in war against Israel, in 1973, at least two during the war in Chad, in the 1988s, and numerous others in different peace-time exercises and in pilot-training, at least nine remained operational with No.1002 Squadron by 2003. Additional examples - some of them still with less than 1.000 hours of flying after all these times - were in storage .(Tom Cooper collection)

Sources & Bibliography

Except for own research, additional information for this article was kindly provided by Yaser al-Abed, S. el-Semman, Oscar W. and Tom N.

Sources of general reference:

- “PHOENIX OVER THE NILE”, by Lon O. Nordeen and David Nicolle, Smithsonian, USA (ISBN: 1-56098-626-3)

- “ARAB AIR FORCES”, by Charles Stafrace, Squadron/Signal Publications, USA (ISBN 0-89747-326-4)

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

- Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine, different volumes between 1971 and 1982

- AirInternational magazine, different volumes between 1973 and 1984

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