The South African Air Force in the Border War

The Africa@War series Volume 9 offers and introduction to South African air force operations in Angola  and will be available in mid-2012.

The South African Border War was the last of the true African Liberation Struggles, which, at its simplest, pitted the monolithic South African Defense Force (SADF) and South African Air Force (SAAF) against the rag-tag guerrilla army of the South West African people’s Organization, or SWAPO. It was also, however, intertwined with the internal and international anti-Apartheid struggle, with the simultaneous war of liberation in Zimbabwe, and both the Angolan liberation war and the subsequent Angolan civil war that immediately followed.

Initially – from 1966 to 1976 – the war followed a low-key counter-insurgency pattern, with a minimum of air involvement that usually only compromised helicopter support for combat tracker teams on the ground, or casualty evacuation as and when it was necessary. A certain amount of cross border military cooperation took place between the Portuguese authorities in Angola and the SADF and SAAF located at a number of bases on the border between South West Africa and Angola. This, however, did not amount in any way to intervention. Matters changed dramatically when in 1974 the right wing fascist dictatorship of Marcello Caetano was overthrown in Portugal in early 1974, which set in motion the collapse of Portuguese rule in both Mozambique and Angola.

From that point the war escalated into a typical Cold War confrontation with the incumbent MPLA government in Luanda receiving massive Soviet and Cuban military aid which it used in part to fend off internal insurrections, and to support the SWAPO insurgency into SWA. South Africa responded with an increase in both ground and air forces, resulting a massive escalation of the war.

South African Air Force Involvement

South African air assets at the time included helicopter squadrons of French Aérospatiale Alouette III and SA 330 Puma aircraft, Mirage III and F1 fighter squadrons, English Electric Canberra medium bombers, Blackburn Bucanners, Impala strike jets and a transport fleet of C-60 Transalls and C-30 Hercules aircraft. In the main the Angolans were armed with Soviet supplied and Cuban piloted (although not exclusively) MiG-21s and MiG-23s interceptors and Mi-24 and Mi-25 attack helicopters.

South African air operations throughout this time were undertaken either in support of large scale mechanized incursions into Angola or as routine interdiction along the main communication routes. Later a great deal of military assistance was given to the local Angolan rebel movement UNITA, with an increasingly conventional character to the war beginning to evolve. The war culminated in a series of combined operations in support of UNITA collectively known as the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, in which the enemy was nominally defeated, but which also resulted in an accelerated conclusion to a long negotiated peace process that had begun in the early 1970s.

By the time of Cuito Cuanavale the SAAF had begun to feel the effects of a long stranding arms embargo as Soviet supplied Angolan aircraft and armaments increased in sophistication, quite as South African assets slipped into obsolescence. It was only the superb standards of training and leadership, and excellent operational planning, that allowed the SAAF to retain air superiority – although only narrowly – while coming up against state-of-the-art Soviet supplied tanks, artillery and aircraft.

The Border War, in all its facets, ended in 1989, with SWA finally achieving independence in 1991. The Angolan civil war did not begin to reach any conclusion until the death of UNITA’s charismatic leader, Jonas Savimbi, in 2002, by which time South Africa itself had been independent, or at least under majority role, for eight years.

No where else in sub-Saharan Africa has a war on this scale been fought, and not since El Alamein during the desert campaign of WWII was a conventional mobile tank battle fought, as it was during Cuito Cuarnavale. The South African Border War was the last of Africa’s wars of liberation, and without doubt the most dramatic.