Editor’s note: This article was written by Louis Tayler and originally published on Grey Dynamics.

This report seeks to offer an assessment of the recent deployment of Russian aircraft in Libya in support to the LNA.

Key Judgements

  • On a tactical level, as many as 14 Russian piloted aircraft competently used will likely increase the LNA’s Close Air Support capabilities. More crucially, MiG-29s in the air superiority role will almost certainly attempt to target the Turkish drone fleet in Libya.
  • On an operational level, the influx of these aircraft at this time is almost certainly intended to halt the GNA’s gains in recent weeks, and preserve the LNA’s position.
  • On a strategic and geopolitical level, this deployment is a deliberate signal to other powers, especially Turkey, that Russia will not abandon its proxy, the LNA.

Libya is in the throes of a second civil war. On the one side, the UN-approved Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli, is supported directly by Turkey, but also by Italy and Qatar. On the other side, the Libyan National Army (LNA), commanded by strong-man Field Marshal Haftar, and supported by Russia, France, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates offers a Tobruk-based alternative government.

The LNA had mostly surrounded the GNA in Tripoli and Misrata, where fierce clashes, drone-based warfare, and artillery shelling dominate the conflict. However, in recent weeks, the GNA, with Turkish support, has driven the LNA back.

Overview of areas of control in Western Libya. (liveuamap.com)

Tactical Level

U.S. AFRICOM recently announced that Russia has deployed military aircraft to Libya, in support of Russian contractors fighting on behalf of the LNA. The aircraft will likely be piloted by Russian mercenaries. AFRICOM Spokesperson Major Karl Wiest confirmed that “at least 14 Russian Aircraft” were deployed to Libya. These are likely MiG-29s and SU-24s.

The MiG-29 and SU-24 can be equipped for air superiority missions as well as CAS or bombing missions. Turkish drones have proved essential to recent GNA successes, and it is almost certain that Russian pilots will attempt to target, deter, and destroy, in the air as well as on the ground, the relatively small Turkish drone fleet in Libya and regain aerial superiority for the LNA.

Satellite image MiG-29 deployed at Al-Jufra Airfield in Libya. (AFRICOM)

Operational Level

The timing of the arrival of these aircraft is no coincidence. Recent GNA victories pushed back LNA forces from the outskirts of Tripoli and Misrata and saved the GNA from near annihilation. These aircraft, alongside other less-high profile support and materiel, are a part of the Russian attempt to halt the LNA retreat and regain the initiative against the GNA.