Sub-Saharan Africa’s Top Air Force: How Powerful is the Angolan Fighter Fleet?

Having been built up from the 1980s primarily with conflict with neighbouring South Africa in mind, the Angolan Air Force was ranked in 2020 as the third most capable on the African continent and the most capable in sub-Saharan Africa. 

With some of the highest living standards and one of the most developed economies in Africa, Angola has been able to sustain a large combat fleet despite the loss of support from the USSR or personnel contributions from Cuba, and has not only maintained its fleet well but also modernised its Cold War-era aircraft and made new acquisitions. 

The Angolan Air Force’s fixed-wing combat fleet is comprised of four squadrons, each of which uses a different class of fighter. Only one of these is comprised of modern fourth-generation fighters acquired after the Cold War’s end, namely 6 Su-27 and 12 Su-30KN Flanker heavyweight combat jets which form one of the most capable and modern squadrons on the African continent - and the most capable outside North Africa. 

Angola’s other three fighter squadrons are comprised of older but still relatively capable third-generation combat jets, including a squadron of 26 MiG-23 variable swept-wing jets, one of 20 MiG-21BiS/MF lightweight fighters, and a dedicated strike fighter squadron made up of 13 Su-22 jets. 18 of the MiG-23s are MiG-23ML jets, some of the more capable variants, and have reportedly received upgrades to bring some of their capabilities up to a fourth-generation level. 

Alongside fighters, the Angolan Air Force fields the fifth squadron of fixed-wing combat jets comprised of 10 Su-25 ground attack aircraft, which are optimised for providing close air support for its ground forces. 

The country also fields a squadron of 6 Chinese K-8 jets, which though allocated a training role are also highly capable as attack aircraft. Angola also boasts a very large attack helicopter fleet comprised of 56 relatively modern Russian and Soviet aircraft, including 34 Mi-24 and 22 Mi-35 helicopters. 

These all provide it with the ability to lay down considerable firepower, much of it with high precision, against enemy ground targets and to provide significant support to ground forces. 

A notable weakness of Angola’s overall aerial warfare capability is its relatively weak ground-based air defence network, which is comprised of systems first used in the 1970s including the medium-range S-75M and the short-ranged 2K12 Kub and S-125. 

It has been speculated that these could be phased out for some of the relatively low-cost Russian air defence systems currently on offers such as the Buk-M3 and Pantsir-SM. This is partly compensated for by the relatively advanced air to air capabilities of its fighter squadrons. 

The country’s MiG-23ML fighters are thought to have received upgrades from Russia including the integration of R-27 air to air missiles, which was an upgrade package on offer when the MiG-23 was more widely used in the 1990s and early 2000s. If confirmed, this would make Angola’s MiG-23ML jets the most capable MiG-23s in the world in terms of air to air performance, and allow them to pose a threat to fourth-generation aircraft at long ranges. 

The MiG-23ML’s radar was already similarly powerful to those of lightweight fourth-generation fighters such as the F-16 Block 30, which made it well suited to supporting such an upgrade. 

At the high end, the Su-30KN fighters acquired by the Angolan Air Force in 2019 represent a heavily enhanced variant of the Soviet Union’s most capable fighter class the Su-27 and provide an advanced multirole capability with the ability to carry out precision strikes using a second seat to accommodate a weapons systems officer. 

The aircraft are prized for their very powerful and large sensor suites, as well as their high endurances and flight performances. The aircraft were modernised in Belarus before delivery, and form the backbone of Angola’s aerial warfare capability today. Angola also deploys a sizeable fleet of aircraft in reserve, including addition Su-27 and MiG-23ML fighters as well as a strike unit of 12 Su-24M fighters. 

Falling oil prices and a resulting decline in government revenues, as well as the need to accommodate the Su-30 and its high operational costs, ultimately led to these aircraft being removed from frontline service - although they could potentially be returned to service in the case of war. With tensions in Southern Africa remaining low, however, and with Angola’s relations with South Africa being stable and positive, the possibility of an increase in defence spending or of an enlargement of the fleet remains low. 



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