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Ethiopian military aviation dates from 1929, when Tafari
Mekonnen (before he came to the throne as Haile Selassie)
hired two French pilots and purchased four French biplanes.
By the time of the Italian invasion of 1935, the air force
had four pilots and thirteen aircraft. After World War II,
Haile Selassie authorized the expansion of the air force. In
1947 he named a Swedish general as air force commander and
contracted for a Swedish training team, equipped with
eighteen Saab trainers and two squadrons of Saab-17 light
bombers, to develop the air force. A Swedish officer
commanded the air force until 1962, at which time Brigadier
General Asefa Ayene assumed command.
The 1953 United States-Ethiopian Mutual Defense Assistance
Agreement resulted in the delivery of a squadron of F-86 jet
fighters in 1960. Beginning in 1966 and continuing until the
early 1970s, the United States delivered Northrop F-5A/B/E
fighters, which became the mainstays of the air force until
the late 1970s. Beginning in 1977, the Soviet Union supplied
aircraft and instructors to Ethiopia.
In early 1991, some 4,500 officers and airmen operated
approximately 150 combat aircraft, most of them Sovietmanufactured fighter-bombers. A small number of the aircraft
were transports and armed helicopters. The air force's
tactical organization included seven fighter-ground attack
squadrons, one transport squadron, and one training
squadron. Approximately seventy-nine helicopters performed
reconnaissance, transport, and ground support missions.
Military analysts generally considered the air force
competent. During the Ogaden War, the air force quickly
destroyed its Somali counterpart. By the late 1980s, the air
force had become vital to the Mengistu regime's war effort
in northern Ethiopia. According to an Eritrean People's
Liberation Front (EPLF) spokesman in the United States, the
air force was almost singlehandedly preventing the EPLF from
expelling the army from Eritrea (see
The Eritreans, this
ch.). In fact, most rebel organizations in north-central
Ethiopia confined their activities to nighttime because of
the daytime threat posed by the air force.
Apart from its performance as a military unit, the air
force often has been involved in antigovernment activities.
In May 1989, for example, several senior air force officers
participated in a coup attempt against Mengistu. The purge
that followed this action decimated the service's leadership
ranks. Mengistu not only replaced many senior officers but
also temporarily grounded the air force. Within a few weeks,
the combat victories of the rebels forced Mengistu to
rescind his grounding order. By 1991 it was evident that the
air force was suffering from low morale and that internal
divisions continued to plague its units.
The air force's command headquarters was south of Addis
Ababa at Debre Zeyit, the site of the major air base,
training center, and maintenance workshop. Other air bases
were at Asmera, Bahir Dar, Azezo, Goba, Dire Dawa, and
Jijiga. (A base at Mekele had been captured by the Tigray
People's Liberation Front in 1989.)
Data as of 1991