Turkey set to play a major role in future of the “Libyan” Air Force

“Turkey is able to exploit various loopholes to operate freely and with impunity in Libya despite the ongoing arms embargo.”

Earlier this year, the UN-recognized government in Libya signed a contract with Turkish Aerospace Industries to acquire two-seater Hurkus-C basic trainer and ground attack aircraft. The announcement of that deal and Turkey's backing of Tripoli in Libya's civil war indicate that Ankara may play a major role in rebuilding Libya's almost non-existent air force and shaping its future configuration.

Oded Berkowitz, the deputy director of intelligence at the Israel-based MAX Security intelligence firm, stressed that there is no "Libya" or "Libyan Army" as a single entity at this point. The North African country is broadly divided between two governments: the House of Representatives (HoR), backed by General Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA), and the Government of National Unity (GNU) in the capital Tripoli, which, of course, ordered the Hurkus.

Aside from training new pilots, the GNU forces might very well utilize the Hurkus for combat if there is any more fighting in Libya.

"It's very possible that they will, in fact, operate them in combat roles, including for air-to-ground strikes, as they have utilized similar types of aircraft in the same manner in the recent past, and possibly continue to retain this option," Berkowitz told Gercek News. "Such platforms mostly include the G-2, L-39, SF.260, and of course AT-802U."

"However, there's likely more to it than just that," he said. "Turkey is able to exploit various loopholes (such as their NATO membership and the framing of their involvement in Libya as an official military intervention) alongside a general disregard by the international community to operate freely and with impunity in Libya despite the ongoing arms embargo."

"This is why they are able to deploy and sell advanced military hardware to the country and why they may be able to sell the Hurkus, along with other items."

While other international actors, such as LNA backers Russia and the United Arab Emirates, have also deployed advanced military hardware to Libya, they have, by contrast, done so more covertly, often through their proxies.

"Turkey, therefore, has a significant advantage in arms supply, and in effect is the only country to provide arms to Libya openly, a status that is likely to remain uncontested at this point," Berkowitz said.

"As such, this deal may have greater implications than just converting to attack aircraft, possibly including entrenching Turkey's leverage and the dependency on them for military support, as well as actually providing training for pilots in preparation for future deals for other aircraft," he added.

During the intense 2019-20 hostilities between Haftar's LNA and the GNU's predecessor, the Government of National Accord (GNA), both sides relied heavily on drones rather than manned aircraft for carrying out strikes. Chinese-built Wing Loong II drones bombed Tripoli in support of the LNA when it besieged the capital. On the other side, Turkish Bayraktar TB2s enabled the GNA to break that siege and decisively rout the LNA from western Libya in May 2020.

When the GNA seized Al-Watiya airbase west of Tripoli from the LNA that month they found the gutted remains of the former Libyan Air Force's fighter fleet, including French Mirage F1 jets long in disrepair and old Soviet-era Su-22 Fitters. Shortly afterward, Russian contractors flew a small fleet of unmarked MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter jets and Su-24 Fencer attack aircraft to the LNA-controlled Al-Jufra airbase. They bizarrely claimed the jets were restored ex-Libyan Air Force jets, despite the salient fact Libya never operated MiG-29s. These two incidents aptly demonstrated how the old Libyan Air Force was indeed dead.

The future air force will likely be much different than the old one. It could consist of a combination of light attack aircraft, such as the Hurkus-C, and possibly jet-powered versions like Turkey's Hurjet down the road, along with armed drones.

"This is particularly a possibility since the latest rounds of conflict in Libya saw both sides ditch their obsolete (due to the arms embargo) manned-aircraft fleet in favor of drones (including extensive use of Turkish drones), in what was really the first live 'drone warfare' testing field, that simply received less attention than other subsequent conflicts," Berkowitz said.

"In that sense, this deal is likely meant to test the waters, and any international response it elicits, or the degree to which it is ignored (alongside and just as important - how the domestic situation unfolds), will determine the future shape of a future 'Libyan Air Force'," he added.

"This would be on a spectrum of heavy reliance on drones alongside a negligible and aging fleet of manned aircraft as it is right now, to a Turkish-supplied modern hybrid fleet with some of the latest Turkish-made toys."

*Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist who writes primarily about the political and military affairs and history of the Middle East.

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