U.S. Warns Russian Jets Risk Raising Libyan War To Regional Threat

This early-model MiG-29, with Russian national markings scrubbed, is one of four caught by U.S. forces en route from Syria to Libya in May.
Credit: U.S. Africa Command

The arrival of Russian combat aircraft in Libya is prompting concerns of an escalation in the battle for control of the bloodied North African state.

The U.S. fears that advanced ground-based air defenses could be next to arrive as tensions ratchet up between the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and backed by Egypt, Russia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Open-source intelligence and commercially available satellite imagery revealed that MiG-29 “Fulcrum” fighters and Sukhoi Su-24 “Fencer” fighter-bombers transited from Syria to Libya around May 18, with the MiG-29s landing at the LNA-controlled Al-Jufrah Air Base, some 140 mi. southwest of the Libyan city of Sirte. The images showed one of the MiG-29s being towed along a taxiway following its arrival. 

  • Russian jets repainted to hide their origin
  • Africom believes MiG-29s and Su-24s in Libya are being flown by mercenaries

Both sides have used aircraft that formed part of the Libyan Air Force’s inventory, but because the MiG-29 was never previously flown by Libya, the type’s presence is considerably more conspicuous. Suspicions were finally confirmed when U.S. Africa Command (Africom) released its own imagery of the Russian fighters en route to Libya on May 26. As many as 14 aircraft may have been delivered to Libya, Africom sources tell Aviation Week.

“For too long, Russia has denied the full extent of its involvement in the ongoing Libyan conflict,” Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of Africom, says in a statement. “Well, there is no denying it now. We watched as Russia flew fourth-generation jet fighters to Libya—every step of the way.”

Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Africa says “The next logical step is [the Russians] deploy permanent long-range anti-access/area denial capabilities. If that day comes, it will create very real security concerns on Europe’s southern flank.”

Harrigian’s warning suggests Africom is concerned that Libya could become Russia’s next overseas target—after Syria—for a more permanent military presence. In 2015, Russia deployed fighters and bombers to Khmeimim Air Base in Syria to support forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But when one of the Su-24s was shot down by a Turkish Air Force F-16, Russia deployed the S-400 integrated air defense system to the country, complicating the already congested military airspace.

Haftar’s forces have already managed to secure access to Pantsir self-propelled air defense systems, likely supplied by the UAE. According to Africom, the Pantsirs are likely operated by the Wagner Group, a Russian private military contractor that Moscow may be using to conceal its role in the conflict. Wagner’s operatives will probably operate the fighters, too, Africom asserts.

Deployment of the fighters was likely prompted by recent successes on the battlefield for GNA forces. The LNA, while already in control of much of Libya, had come close to seizing control of the capital, Tripoli, earlier this year but was forced to pull back after Turkey intensified its support of the GNA.

In May, the GNA captured the strategically important Al-Watiya Air Base, while an air campaign by Turkish-operated Bayraktar TB2 armed unmanned aerial systems destroyed as many as nine Pantsirs in 72 hr., according to the Clash Report, a social media news outlet with ties to Turkey. The GNA’s gains prompted Haftar to announce his forces would “unleash the largest aerial campaign in Libyan history,” with a focus on Turkish targets. Reports suggest a Turkish-flagged ship in waters off Tripoli was attacked by a MiG-29 on May 26.

Images released by Africom appear to show MiG-29s and Su-24s en route from Russia to Syria, where the aircraft made a stop at Khmeimim. According to Africom, the MiG-29s were hastily repainted at Khmeimim “to camouflage their Russian origin” before taking off again for Syria. Russian Air Force Sukhoi Su-35 “Flankers” may have escorted them part of the way. Africom has not said how the imagery was secured, but it appears to suggest that U.S. and coalition assets were shadowing the Russian aircraft from a distance with electro-optical cameras during both legs of the deployment.

Meanwhile, imagery published online on May 26 appears to reveal the presence of the Su-24s at the Al-Khadim Air Base near Benghazi. The images show the aircraft parked under rudimentary shelters.

Additionally, the U.S. has also expressed its concerns about repeated unsafe and unprofessional intercepts by Russian combat aircraft on maritime patrol aircraft. According to the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet, one of its Boeing P-8 Poseidons operating in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea was intercepted on May 26 by two Russian Su-35s for more than an hour. The close encounter restricted “the P-8A’s ability to safely maneuver,” the Navy says. “The unnecessary actions of the Russian Su-35 pilots were inconsistent with good airmanship and international flight rules and jeopardized the safety of flight of both aircraft,” Navy officials say.

Tony Osborne

Based in London, Tony covers European defense programs. Prior to joining Aviation Week in November 2012, Tony was at Shephard Media Group where he was deputy editor for Rotorhub and Defence Helicopter magazines.

Steve Trimble

Steve covers military aviation, missiles and space for the Aviation Week Network, based in Washington DC.


Fourteen aircraft are not going to change the balance of power in Libya. Besides since Turkish-operated Bayraktar TB2 armed unmanned aerial systems can destroy Pantsirs mobile air defense systems they can take out the Mig-29s and Su-24s when those aircraft are on the ground as well.
The UAV success against a modern anti aircraft system is remarkable and needs analysis. Of course it could have been user incompetence.