Country Listing

Ethiopia Table of Contents


Air Force

Ethiopian military aviation dates from 1929, when Tafari Mekonnen (before he came to the throne as Haile Selassie) hired two French pilots and purchased four French biplanes. By the time of the Italian invasion of 1935, the air force had four pilots and thirteen aircraft. After World War II, Haile Selassie authorized the expansion of the air force. In 1947 he named a Swedish general as air force commander and contracted for a Swedish training team, equipped with eighteen Saab trainers and two squadrons of Saab-17 light bombers, to develop the air force. A Swedish officer commanded the air force until 1962, at which time Brigadier General Asefa Ayene assumed command.

The 1953 United States-Ethiopian Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement resulted in the delivery of a squadron of F-86 jet fighters in 1960. Beginning in 1966 and continuing until the early 1970s, the United States delivered Northrop F-5A/B/E fighters, which became the mainstays of the air force until the late 1970s. Beginning in 1977, the Soviet Union supplied aircraft and instructors to Ethiopia.

In early 1991, some 4,500 officers and airmen operated approximately 150 combat aircraft, most of them Sovietmanufactured fighter-bombers. A small number of the aircraft were transports and armed helicopters. The air force's tactical organization included seven fighter-ground attack squadrons, one transport squadron, and one training squadron. Approximately seventy-nine helicopters performed reconnaissance, transport, and ground support missions. Military analysts generally considered the air force competent. During the Ogaden War, the air force quickly destroyed its Somali counterpart. By the late 1980s, the air force had become vital to the Mengistu regime's war effort in northern Ethiopia. According to an Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) spokesman in the United States, the air force was almost singlehandedly preventing the EPLF from expelling the army from Eritrea (see The Eritreans, this ch.). In fact, most rebel organizations in north-central Ethiopia confined their activities to nighttime because of the daytime threat posed by the air force.

Apart from its performance as a military unit, the air force often has been involved in antigovernment activities. In May 1989, for example, several senior air force officers participated in a coup attempt against Mengistu. The purge that followed this action decimated the service's leadership ranks. Mengistu not only replaced many senior officers but also temporarily grounded the air force. Within a few weeks, the combat victories of the rebels forced Mengistu to rescind his grounding order. By 1991 it was evident that the air force was suffering from low morale and that internal divisions continued to plague its units.

The air force's command headquarters was south of Addis Ababa at Debre Zeyit, the site of the major air base, training center, and maintenance workshop. Other air bases were at Asmera, Bahir Dar, Azezo, Goba, Dire Dawa, and Jijiga. (A base at Mekele had been captured by the Tigray People's Liberation Front in 1989.)

Data as of 1991