Although generally receiving less coverage than other regions such as Europe and the Middle East, a number of African countries have built up very formidable fleets of fighter aircraft over the past two decades which in many cases boast some of the world’s most capable heavyweight designs.
The majority of countries on the African continent do not field fighter units with anything more than a couple of ageing jets – if any at all – a number of countries have invested in advanced fighter jets for a number of reasons.
These have ranged from deterrence against aggression, Algeria being a notably example after investing heavily in aerial warfare capabilities following a European-led NATO military campaign against its neighbor Libya.
Ongoing tensions against neighboring states was also the case with Ethiopia and Eritrea’s fleet modernization efforts. Africa as a whole has come to comprise a larger proportion of the world economy, so countries have been able to invest in higher end combat aircraft.
A look at the ten most capable fighter jets in Africa is given below, with the aircraft ranked in order of their positions.
The Egyptian Air Force placed an order for an estimated 26 Su-35 fighters in 2018, providing the country with its first high end heavyweight combat jets after decades of relying on low end lightweight fighters armed with effectively obsolete weaponry.
The Su-35 is the only ‘4++ generation’ fighter in Africa, and is the heaviest fighter on the continent designed with an air to air combat capability.
The aircraft s arguably the most capable in the world made available for export, and benefits from a wide range of next generation technologies from powerful engines and a high composite air-frame to extremely long ranged R-37M missiles for air to air engagements and electronic warfare and sensor suites with few rivals worldwide.
It remains to be seen how many Su-35 fighters Egypt will acquire, with the country widely expected to place followup orders once the first contract is concluded.
The MiG-29M is one of the most capable variants of the medium weight Russian fighter developed, rivaled only by the latest MiG-29UPG and carrier compatible MiG-29K jets, and the fighters were until 2020 considered the most capable in the Egyptian Air Force.
The fighters provided Egypt with its first viable beyond visual range air to air capability for modern combat with the R-77 and enhanced variants of the R-27 missiles, and the jets have also been equipped with Kh-35 long range anti ship missiles.
The Su-30MKA began to be deployed as Algeria’s primary front line fighter in the 2000s to replace the third generation MiG-23, and is a fourth generation heavyweight platform which integrates a range of next generation technologies from its state of the are electronic warfare suite and high composite air frame to thrust vectoring engines.
The fighter is based loosely on the Su-30MKI ‘4+ generation’ design developed for the Indian Air Force, and although inferior to the recently introduced Egyptian Su-35 in air to air combat, it is a more versatile design with superior air to ground capabilities while still being able to hold its own against most adversaries in air to air combat.
The fighter is particularly prized for its anti shipping and anti radiation capabilities using multiple variants of the Kh-31 cruise missile, and also deploys the R-77 active radar guided long range missile for air to air combat.
The Su-30MKA has an excellent flight performance typical for jets from the Flanker family, including a long range, high speed, high maneuverability and a high operational altitude.
An estimated 58 of the aircraft are currently in service, with some reports indicating that the Algerian Air Force is considering upgrading the jets to a ‘4++ generation’ standard using Su-35 technologies.
The Ugandan Air Force acquired the Su-30MK2 in the 2010’s which provided it with a successor to the ageing MiG-21 Fishbed – an obsolete lightweight design still in service in limited numbers.
Only eight Su-30MK2 jets are currently in service, but their long range, powerful sensor suite and access to long range air to air missiles allows them to cover a much wider range than the MiG-21 ever could – easily enough to cover the country’s entire airspace.
Another major Su-30 operator located further south on the continent is Angola, which has more recently acquired a dozen Su-30KN jets.
While the Su-30K is one of the least capable Su-30 variants, and operated very briefly in the Indian Air Force before being returned in favor of the Su-30MKI, the fighters were heavily enhanced in Belarus and brought up to the far superior Su-30KN standard.
The Su-30KN currently forms the backbone of the Angolan Air Force, and it is thought that upgrades in Belarus could have brought it up to a similar standard as newer Su-30 models such as the Su-30MK2 with the program particularly focusing on improving their electronic warfare capabilities.
The Su-24M is considered one of the world’s foremost strike fighters, and is the most capable aircraft in Africa in terms of air to ground capabilities.
The aircraft is prized for its ability to penetrate enemy airspace at a range of altitudes including very low ones, its ground mapping radar, its long range and its compatibility with a number of advanced air to ground weapons including laser and TV guided munitions and standoff cruise missiles such as the Kh-58, Kh-59 and Kh-59M.
The strike fighters have formidable electronic warfare capabilities, and have been extensively tested in combat in theaters from Sudan’s Darfur province to Syria with both Russian and Syrian forces relying on them heavily in a nine year long war in the latter case.
Algeria deploys Africa’s largest fleet of dedicated strike fighters with 36 Su-24M jets in service, with an estimated twelve in Sudan and around four in service in Angola.
The MiG-29 fighters not only have a better flight performance, but also far superior avionics, electronic warfare systems and sensors than the original MiG-29 as well as a much longer range.
Egypt currently deploys over 45 of the jets, which were one of the first weapons systems ordered by the country’s new military government after it took power in 2013 and displaced a prior western-aligned Islamist government.
It is expected that the order will be followed by one for MiG-35 jets, which use much of the same maintenance infrastructure and weapons but are considerably more advanced.
The first fighters on the African continent to deploy active electronically scanned array radars, Egypt fields 24 French build Rafale jets which straddle the divide between medium and lightweight aircraft.
The Rafale is the slowest fighter in the Egyptian Air Force and has the lowest altitude ceiling and a mediocre range and maneuverability. The fighters have not received modern Meteor air to air missiles or SCALP cruise missiles, which seriously restrict their viability in standoff missions – although this could change of Egypt acquires such missiles in future.
Despite this, the Rafale is still a formidable aircraft namely because of its electronic warfare systems and powerful radar – although the very small size of its radar undermines the benefits of its sophistication and reduces its power substantially .
Military Watch Magazine / ABC Flash Point News 2022.