Egyptian Air Force’s Top Fighters Destroyed in Action at Key Sudanese Base: Why it Can’t Afford to Lose MiG-29Ms

As hostilities between the Sudanese Military and local paramilitary forces have continued since April 15, growing information has emerged regarding a move by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) group to quickly occupy an airbase hosting Egyptian Air Force fighter jets in the north of the country. Moves by the RSF to occupy key military facilities was reported by the armed forces to be a key cause for the outbreak of hostilities, after months of tensions between the two groups. Merowe Airbase in November 2020 hosted an unprecedented deployment of Egyptian MiG-29M medium weight ‘4+ generation’ fighters to  for joint exercises with the Sudanese Air Force, which deploys a much older version of the same fighter class the basic Soviet era MiG-29. An Egyptian MiGs presence according to some reports having been maintained at the facility ever since.

The Egyptian MiGs were seen on the first day of the fighting on the ground surrounded by RSF paramilitaries, which had apparently captured the facility, with satellite images released since then indicating that the fighters have been destroyed on the ground. Egypt has been a significant supporter of the Sudanese Military since the country fell into unrest in 2019, after late scale and strongly Western backed youth riots in Sudan resulted in the overthrow of the government of then president Omar Al Bashir. Concerns among the leadership of the RSF that Egyptian MiG-29s could in some way support the Sudanese Military may have been behind the decision to destroy the aircraft, with even the older Sudanese MiGs having reportedly taken a significant toll on paramilitary units despite lacking the advanced precision strike capabilities of the newer models. The fact that both countries use a common fighter could have allowed Egypt to deny participation and claim any MiGs operating were local units.  

The MiG-29M plays a critical role in the Egyptian Air Force despite only 46 of the aircraft having been acquired to form just three of the country’s 16 fighter squadrons, as they are the country’s only post-second generation fighters which do not suffer from downgraded avionics or serious restrictions on their armaments. The fighters were ordered from Russia in 2015, and are better equipped than most units in the Russian Air Force itself including with state of the art R-77-1 active radar guided air to air missiles and Kh-35 anti ship cruise missiles. A particularly notable feature is their integration of phased array radars, which they are among the only fighters in the region to use alongside Israeli F-35s, Algerian Su-30MKAs and MiG-29Ms and Syrian MiG-29SMTs among a few others in the Gulf. The capabilities of the MiGs contrasts sharply with other fighter classes in the Egyptian fleet, with Egypt’s ten squadrons of F-16s not only using much less sophisticated mechanically scanned array radars, but also lacking access to modern beyond visual range anti surface or anti ship weapons or any post 1980s air to air weapons classes. Egypt’s recently acquired Rafale fighters similarly suffer from a lack of modern beyond visual range weapons like the Meteor missile – with Egypt being the world’s only Rafale operator not given access to the Meteor. All Western fighters sold to Egypt reportedly have heavily downgraded avionics as well to limit their combat potential, in part due to Israeli pressure on suppliers. 

The MiG-29M notably has not seen its operations restricted as those of Western fighters have been, allowing the Egyptian Air Force to deploy the aircraft to Sudan despite these deployments being at odds with Western interests. Egypt and Algeria have been the only clients for the MiG-29M, although in the latter air force they are at the lower end of the fleet rather than at the high end. The Russian and Indian Navies deploying a carrier based derivative of the same design the MiG-29K. The loss of an estimated four to six MiG-29Ms could well lead Egypt to acquire further units from Russia, which would provide welcome work to its Sokol Aircraft Plant which exclusively manufactures the MiG-29M and MiG-35 and rarely sees orders from the Russian Defence Ministry itself. The factory has a capacity to produce approximately 14 fighters per year. It has long been speculated that Egypt could place major followup orders for further MiG-29M units, and possibly for the MiG-35, although ongoing Western pressure on the country to avoid acquiring armaments from Russia, China or other countries outside the Western sphere of influence have consistently strongly swayed Cairo’s policies on arms acquisitions.