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.
- 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.
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.
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.
Assuming that competent ground-to-air coordination is achieved, by using Wagner Group mercenaries to direct close air support, and that the pilots are capable (they are reportedly Russian pilots and not Libyan), this relatively small force, used well, could easily turn the tide.
The Russians were almost certainly aware that a transfer of 14 aircraft via Syria to Libya would not go undetected by the United States, Turkey, or other actors. At the same time, there has been doubt as to whether Russia would continue to back the LNA and General Haftar, or cut its losses. The LNA’s failed 2019 offensive displayed to the world the incompetence and military shortcomings of General Haftar’s force, even when it was numerically superior to its opponent.
On a strategic and geopolitical level, this deployment is a deliberate signal to other powers, especially Turkey, that Russia will not abandon its proxy. Just as when Assad was losing in Syria and required assistance, Russia is demonstrating that it can turn the tide of the war in Libya and that any peace settlement in Libya will require negotiation with Russia and the LNA.
This is a major development in the course of the Second Libyan civil war. The LNA, reeling from recent losses may be bolstered by this influx of equipment. The Russians have demonstrated intent to back Haftar, despite the LNA’s relative incompetence, and have dramatically increased their footprint with this deployment. Lastly, the presence of Russian airpower in Libya is a key concern for the future.
Syria has become a regional staging post for Russian influence in the Middle East and North Africa; AFRICOM is concerned that Libya may follow. If Russia and Haftar achieve a military victory in Libya, Russia will station military assets in Libya. This would extend and deepen its influence in the Mediterranean, and Africa.