Four years after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi’s dictatorship, his air force continues to operate -- or at least so do some of the Soviet-made warplanes supplied to Libya in the 1970s and 1980s, now flying for one of the rebel groups vying in the country's civil war.
The Tripoli-based Islamist militia Libya Dawn said it carried out multiple air strikes in December against government infrastructure, and claimed Tuesday that it had repurposed “two or three” Cold War-era MiG-23 fighter jets, using them to hit an airstrip in Zintan, a town in the east of Libya.
But that's a far cry from an actual air force. Even in the heyday of Libya's Soviet-supplied military, Gadhafi's air force was a relatively large but inefficient entity, and the rebels who inherited some of its planes may not be able to do much with them.
Soviet weapons expert Steve Zaloga, a military historian and senior analysts at the Teal Group, an aerospace and defense analysis firm based in Virginia, said that while it’s not impossible to make the aircraft functional, it would be determined by a number of hard-to-gauge factors.
“The state of the aircraft really depends on when the last time they were sent back to Russia for maintenance,” said Zaloga. “It’s a sophisticated aircraft to fly so they’d need pilots with experience and ground crews to maintain them. And it really rests on what spare parts they have and how many flight hours each aircraft has.”
Russia did sell some missile systems to Gadhafi in the months leading up to the end of the regime in 2011, and could have done some maintenance on the MiGs at the time, Zaloga said, but the general state of disarray in Libya in recent years would have made it more difficult to keep the 30-plus year old MiGs maintained and functional. It's far from clear how Libya Dawn could realistically operate an effective fighting aircraft that is able to carry and fire weapons, Zaloga said.
With ISIS expanding in Libya, there is also the possibility that the planes may fall in the hands of the Islamic State group's Libyan arm, but even ISIS would not be able to use them successfully. Egypt has been conducting airstrikes over Libya in retaliation for the beheading of 21 Egyptians by ISIS, and its modern air force, trained and equipped with F-16s by the United States, would easily wipe out any Libyan warplanes that might try to challenge it.
For now, the rebels could “get a few missions in and then aircraft would probably no longer function without parts and quality maintainers,” said Zaloga, adding that arming the aircraft would come with a totally separate set of difficulties. “The Russians did manufacture some air-to-surface missiles, but those things are probably age-expired by now," he said. And any weapons fired succesfully would be a far cry from the precision strikes delivered by Egyptian, and Western, warplanes: “If anything, they are probably delivering old unguided rockets along with unguided ... bombs purchased years ago, as long as they were careful with the fuses.”