An air force of mercenaries has turned the tide of battle against insurgent rebels in Angola and West Africa.


A GROUP OF South African mercenaries, all veterans of their country's long-lasting war against the Marxist regime in Angola during the 1980s, has established the world's first mercenary air force. Over the past two years, in a reversal of its previous role, the force has been fighting for the Angolan Government against Sierra Leone rebels entering Angola from Liberia and against Dr Jonas Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Africa (UNITA) movement.

In both of these conflicts, the mercenary air operation has helped bring an end to hostilities. A peace agreement was signed between Angola and Sierra Leone in early 1996 and, although it was longer in coming, agreement was reached with UNITA following negotiations in Lusaka, Zambia. There have been flare-ups since, but all have involved the mercenary-led Angolan People's Air and Air Defense Force (FAPA), and a peace of sorts now appears to be holding.

The "flying guns for hire" originally operated under - and are still known by - the name Executive Outcomes (EO), although this name has now been officially dropped and the organisation "liquidated" because of pressure from foreign governments. It now uses other names and shields behind ancillary organisations such as the Strategic Resource Corporation (SRC).


Aircraft registered with SRC include several Mil Mi-17 "Hip-H" combat helicopters, two Beech King Airs, which were used principally for communication in the Angolan theatre, and two Boeing 727-23s purchased for only $560,000 each from American Airlines in the early 1990s. Registered in Angola and operated in the livery of Ibis Air, the 727s have proven ideal for ferrying troops and equipment in the countries in which EO operates.

Chief executive, Eeben Barlow reports that EO, unlike earlier mercenary organisations, works only for legitimate governments and will not participate in any kind of anti-government revolt, either actively or by training rebels. "We are high profile and such activity would immediately make us a renegade organisation. The world is too small for such activity," he says.

In their various military operations, EO crews have flown numerous types of combat aircraft and helicopters, including Mil Mi-24V Hind Es in Sierra Leone. In Angola, Pilatus PC-7 trainers were fitted with hard points for 18-round SNEB rocket pods and used for the first time in the counter-insurgency role. The 68mm 40A rockets can be fired singly, in threes, sixes or all 18 simultaneously.

During the final phase of the Angolan war, EO pilots also flew three of FAPA's Mikoyan MiG-23BN Flogger-H fighter-bombers. The pilots were all South African Air Force (SAAF) Dassault Mirage or Blackburn Buccaneer veterans, operating against UNITA ground units.

The most active element within the ranks of EO has been its helicopter wing in Sierra Leone. Several Mi-17s were acquired by the force in Angola, and on the European arms market, and were ferried across Africa to Sierra Leone. In Nigeria, while en route, aircrews were arrested by the military and threatened with execution. It was only direct intervention by the Sierra Leone foreign minister, which secured the release of the crews and helicopters.

According to Lafras Luittingh, EO executive director, a former reconnaissance commander in the South African special forces who saw much service in Angola during the war, the company had no difficulty acquiring aircraft and weapons, including 23mm twin-barrel cannons, grenade launchers and French cluster bombs. All were acquired "for cash across the table" through European (mostly Russian) intermediaries. Luittingh says that there were no restrictions on these sales, or by whom or against whom they might be used. The weapons glut is still so great that sales are made to all-comers and can include such sophisticated systems as the latest Mikoyan MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters and Mil Mi-35 Hind helicopters.

Ground-maintenance crews are also available on contract. Squads of former Soviet air force personnel, mainly Belorussian, have spent contract time in both Angola and Sierra Leone.

EO's Mi-17s on the west coast carry a variety of weapons on four external racks, including UPK-23-250 pods containing a GSh-23L twin-barrel 23mm cannon and 250 rounds of ammunition, and GUV pods with an AGS-17 Plamia 30mm grenade launcher and two four-barrel 7.62mm 9-A-622 machine guns. EO has encountered numerous technical problems and/or tampering with all the weapons systems fitted by Belorussian ground staff, however, and has tended to arm its helicopters with pintle-mounted 7.62mm PKM machine guns, one firing from both the port and starboard side doors and one firing from the rear ramp (the clamshell rear-loading doors are usually removed by EO personnel for work in the tropics).

As with other campaigns in which the South Africans have been involved, all cross-country flights in Angola and Sierra Leone were flown in two-ship formations and always at treetop level. According to Col Carl Alberts, another veteran of South African conflicts, this provides the most effective protection against ground fire, which may include SAM-7s and SAM-14s. The down side is that bird-strikes are more likely - as happened in Sierra Leone, after an Mi-17 hit a flock of large birds about 1h out of Freetown. The pilot skillfully flared the stricken Hip into the heavily foliated jungle, averting any injuries to the occupants.


While the Hip was designed primarily for operations in colder climates, it has performed reliably in Africa. According to Col Arthur Walker, who flew in combat with the SAAF for nearly two decades in Angola, Mozambique and Rhodesia, the Mi-17 can maintain a cruising speed of about 185kt (340km/h) while carrying 24 fully equipped troops. In emergencies, it also proved able to carry much heavier loads - near Canfunfu during operations in 1994, 40 troops were airlifted when an Mi-17 picked up the occupants of another Hip which had been brought down by ground fire. Fuel consumption, Walker maintains, averaged about 970km (520nm), with an endurance of 4.5h, depending on the load, altitude, and nature of operations, when carrying two external tanks.

Walker and his wingman, Alberts, have converted to the single Mi-24V, which had been acquired by the Sierra Leone Government. Walker, who had flown Aerospatiale Alouette III gunships and Puma transport helicopters for the SAAF, maintains that the Hind-E is superior to any other combat helicopter he has experienced, saying: "They are a charm; versatile, fast, and their armament can only be compared to that of the AH-64 Apache."

Weapons used during Sierra Leone operations have included the 12.7mm JakB four-barrel machine gun, in an under-nose turret and either two GUV pods, each with a grenade launcher and two machine guns, or four UV-32 rocket pods, (each with 32 x 57mm rockets). According to Alberts the firing system is fully computerised and compensated for side slip and G-force. "All you had to do was keep the pipper manually on the target and the helicopter did the rest." He also recalls that, while obviously not impervious to ground fire, the Mi-24V has proved to be capable of taking much punishment and of surviving repeated hits by heavy machine guns. As he points out, this is due to the fact that pilot and gunner sit, literally, in a "bath" of titanium, and that hydraulics and key systems, such as gearbox and engine, are similarly protected.


Life for South African mercenary aircrews in Sierra Leone is basic. The Freetown-based force operates from the military headquarters of the Republic of Sierra Leone Military Force (RSLMF) at Murray Town to the east of the capital. The men were billeted in large, airy, colonial homes, which are well guarded against attack. Air crews used to keep their side arms handy at all times, more so after Foday Sankoh, the leader of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), intimated that he intended kidnapping one of them. This threat was taken seriously, especially after the previous mercenary commander, Col Bob MacKenzie, an American who had fought in Rhodesia and El Salvador, was murdered during operations in the Mallal Hills.

The mercenary force, has been subsequently commanded by Andy Brown, formerly of South African Military Intelligence, who has held the temporary rank of colonel in the RSLMF. Brown liaised directly with Brig Julius Maada-Bio, who ousted the Sierra Leone President Capt Valentine Strasser.

During the conflict, the South Africans had a free hand in the day-to-day running of the war from the RSLMF military headquarters in Murray Town. They were in close touch with their countrymen operating the diamond fields at Kono in the east. A 24h listening radio watch was maintained and a Mi-17 kept at readiness to provide close-air support and medical evacuation in the event of emergency.

In addition to flying helicopters - their own or those of the RSLMF and FAPA - EO has kept a Hawker Siddeley Andover twin-turboprop transport on alert at Freetown and Luanda in Angola to airlift wounded mercenaries to European or South African hospitals. Both of these ex-Royal Air Force Andover CC Mk2s were previously operated by No 32 Squadron for the Queen's Flight.

A cease-fire between the Freetown Government and the RUF rebels has now been signed, but rebel leader Sabkoh and most of his supporters have yet to come out of the bush. Meanwhile, EO South African mercenaries continue to maintain a military presence in Sierra Leone.

Source: Flight International