Small air force with a big reputation

The Royal Air Force of Oman (Al-Quwwat al-Jawiyya al-Sultaniyya al-'Umaniyya) is not the largest air arm in the GCC, nor is it the most modern, but it is one of the most professional air forces in the Arab world, enjoying an enviable reputation and long operational experience. Jon Lake reports.

Never colonised, Oman has benefited from a long and close alliance with Britain, which helped transform the tribal levies and palace guard of Muscat and Oman into modern armed forces.

It was a process that was accelerated following a 1953 dispute over the ownership of the Buraimi Oasis with Saudi Arabia, and following the Saudi-supported rebellion in the Jebel Akhdar region. Sultan Said bin Taimur regained control of the area in 1959, with the help of British air power, and on March 1 1959 the Sultan of Oman’s Air Force (SOAF) was formed, with seconded British personnel and two (later four) Scottish Aviation Pioneer CC.Mk 1 aircraft and three (later five) Provost T.Mk 52s transferred from the RAF. Four DHC-2 Beavers were also transferred.

The new air arm operated from Bayt al-Falaj, near Muscat, and consisted of seven seconded RAF pilots, with maintenance by Airwork Ltd.

The new air arm was initially equipped with a variety of liaison and transport aircraft, but with the start of the Dhofar Rebellion in 1962, 12 armed Percival Provost T.Mk 52s were taken on charge, and these saw extensive use in the close air support role.

The rebellion, initially supported by Saudi Arabia, intensified in 1967, with the establishment of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), which gave the rebels an adjacent source of arms and supplies, and which radicalised the Adoo rebel forces, whose aims went from greater autonomy for their region, and an improvement in living standards, to an overthrow of the Sultanate.

The campaign moved from a tribal revolt into a major communist rural insurgency backed by the USSR and the Peoples Republic of China. Jet-engined BAC Strikemaster Mk.82s entered service in 1968 (the order increasing from four to 12 and later to 24), and these were augmented by Dakota transports and later by DHC-4 Caribous and Short Skyvans and five second-hand Vickers Viscounts. Pilatus PC-6 Porter air ambulances were also used extensively during the conflict.

By 1969, the situation was becoming critical but the following year the reactionary Said bin Taimur was overthrown by his son, Qaboos bin Said, in a palace coup. The nation became the Sultanate of Oman (rather than the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman), and the air force was renamed as the Sultanate of Oman Air Force (SOAF).

The new Sultan was a professionally trained military officer, a graduate of the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, having served with the 1st Battalion of the Cameronians. Qaboos reorganised the armed forces along more modern lines and instituted a re-equipment programme. He also launched a series of liberal social reforms, using income from the oil industry to improve Oman’s infrastructure and especially its schools and hospitals.

The Sultan also instigated an effective ‘hearts and minds’ campaign aimed at winning over the population of Dhofar. This proved successful and a number of Firqat irregular units were formed from surrendered rebels.

The reorganised and modernised armed forces, ably supported by British SAS and (from 1971) Iranian detachments, and by RAF, IIAF and SOAF air power, drove the rebels back into their heartland, and the rebellion was finally declared to be over in 1976.

The ramifications of a failure to hold the line in Dhofar would have had far reaching effects upon the whole Gulf area and, indeed, upon the rest of the world, had the revolution spread to the other Gulf States. Instead, this was claimed to be the only time a sovereign state overcame a full-blown communist insurgency in the field.

In 1974 the SOAF placed orders for eight Britten Norman BN-2A-21 Defenders, three BAC One-Elevens, together with a BAC VC10 for the Royal Flight. The SOAF’s capabilities were also expanded by the induction of a fleet of 20-35 Agusta-Bell AB205s, which equipped Nos 3 and 14 squadrons at Salalah and Seeb.

The Omanis received four Agusta-Bell AB.206s, eight AB.205s and two AB.212s from Italy, and five Bell 214s from the USA. These were augmented by two squadrons of Bell 205s, placed under Omani orders by the Imperial Iranian Army.

Even more significantly, the Sultanate received some 31 Hawker Hunter fighter ground attack aircraft donated from both Jordan and Kuwait.

About 15 or 16 Hunter FGA.Mk 73A/Bs and FR.Mk 10s, as well as two or three T.Mk 66s from the fleet, were maintained in flyable condition with No 6 squadron at Thumrait, with the remainder being used for spares or as attrition replacements. The newly acquired Hunters undertook a five-week offensive across the Yemen border against supply routes and gun positions, exposing Yemeni vulnerability, and undermining Yemen’s support for the PFLO rebels.

Some of the Hunter FGA.73A/Bs were subsequently upgraded by Singapore Industries with Tracor AN/ALE-40 chaff/flare dispensers, LORAN navigation equipment and extra wing pylons to allow carriage of the AIM-9P Sidewinder air-to-air missile.

The Hunters were soon augmented by an initial batch of ten SEPECAT Jaguar OS single-seaters and two Jaguar OB two-seaters, ordered in 1976 and delivered between 1977 and 1978 to equip No 8 squadron at Thumrait. A second batch of 12 Jaguars (again including a pair of twin-stickers) delivered in 1983 enabled the establishment of a second squadron, No 20, at Masirah.

Single ex-RAF single- and two-seaters were delivered subsequently as attrition replacements; 21 surviving Jaguars were upgraded with the Ferranti FIN 1064 nav-attack system in 1986-1989, and many were subsequently further upgraded. Like the Hunters, the Jaguars had an important air defence capability, using the AIM-9P Sidewinder.

Like most SOAF types, the Jaguars were flown primarily by seconded RAF ‘exchange’ or contract pilots, though during the 1990s and the first decade of this century Oman has made great strides in training local pilots.

British Aerospace began the construction of a modern integrated air defence system (IADS) in 1974 and this was complete to its original specification by 1978, though it was much improved subsequently. Airfields were linked together by a centrally-controlled communications system and an early warning radar control and reporting network was established.

The development of this IADS was the main driver in transforming the SOAF into a truly modern air force. Low-level air defences were strengthened by the acquisition of two squadrons of Rapier SAMs, which were subsequently upgraded and improved through the addition of Blindfire radars in 1983.

Though Oman has maintained its relationship with Britain, it has also strengthened its links with its neighbours and, during 1981, with Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates formed the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC). Oman assigned an infantry battalion to the GCC’s Peninsula Shield force during the Iran–Iraq War, which began in September 1980 and lasted until August 1988.

Oman continued its re-equipment and modernisation programme during the 1980s. The IADS was enhanced, and ground-based radars were upgraded (and augmented by new equipment including Martello 5713 long-range 3D radars and their associated MACE display and data-handling systems) after 1982. A new control and reporting centre (CRC) was established and existing CRCs and sector operations centres were upgraded and improved. Three C-130H Hercules were ordered to strengthen the transport arm.

In 1990 SOAF was renamed as the Royal Air Force of Oman (RAFO), and it supported operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Some CAP missions were flown when it appeared as though Yemen might back Iraq, and coastal patrol/maritime reconnaissance missions assumed a new importance. The Hunters and Jaguars worked with USAF, USN, USMC, and Royal Air Force units as they worked up, and made simulated attacks against USN carrier groups. An Omani battalion served in Saudi Arabia, as part of the Saudi Arabian-led Task Force Omar – which, in turn, formed part of the GCC contribution to the ground forces used to liberate Kuwait. RAFO C-130s based operated from Seeb to supply these forces.

In 1993 and 1994 the RAFO replaced its Hawker Hunters with four BAE Hawk Mk 103 lead-in fighter-trainers and 12 single-seat Hawk Mk 203 light ground attack/interceptor fighters, equipped with Westinghouse APG-66H radar. These equipped No6 squadron at Masirah which, with No1 squadron, formed part of the Sultan Qaboos Flying Academy.

No1 squadron used a mix of PAC Super Mushshak primary trainers, with Pilatus PC-9s taking the basic training phase, before student pilots moved to the Hawk for advanced flying training. Rotary wing students fly the Bell 206 and Super Lynx Mk 120 with No3 squadron at Salalah.

After evaluating a number of new fighter aircraft, the RAFO decided to delay the procurement of new combat aircraft, and instead opted to upgrade and extend the service lives of its remaining 17 SEPECAT Jaguars, following the example of the RAF’s Jaguar 97/GR.Mk 3A upgrade. This gave the ageing Jaguars a new AMLCD in the cockpit, GPS navigation, and compatibility with the TIALD laser designation pod. A contract was placed with the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence in September 1997 for the $40 million upgrade, which extended the Jaguar’s planned service life until well into the second decade of the 21st century.

But increased tensions in the region saw Oman deciding to expand its fast jet force, augmenting the two Jaguar squadrons with a new unit. This would be equipped with 12 Block 50 F-16 Fighting Falcons, ordered in May 2002. Eight single-seat F-16Cs and four two-seat F-16Ds were delivered during 2005/2006 under the Peace A’sama A’safiya (clear skies) programme, equipping the newly formed No18 squadron at Thumrait.

The acquisition of the F-16 allowed the Hawk 203s (Oman’s first fast jets to be equipped with search radar) to be relegated to advanced training duties, and gave the air force expanded air-to-surface capabilities. The Omani F-16s also have a vital reconnaissance role, using the BAE Systems’ airborne reconnaissance system (ARS). BAE Systems was awarded a $27.5 million ‘foreign military sales’ contract in 2004, for the delivery of two ARS pods and a ground station to Oman. BAE Systems announced it had successfully completed the in-country commissioning of the pod on November 27 2007.

As well as ordering F-16s, the RAFO set in train a major helicopter re-equipment programme. In January 2002 a contract was signed with Westland Helicopters to provide 16 Super Lynx 300s. Oman was the first customer in the Middle East for the new CTS800-engined Lynx, and was the first customer to operate the aircraft in a multi-role configuration, equipped for a wide range of overland and maritime roles including utility and troop transport as well as search and rescue and coastal patrol.

The first three Super Lynx 300 helicopters arrived in Oman on June 24 2004, just 28 months after contract signature. The type equips No3 squadron at Salalah and No15 squadron at Al Musana, with a SAR detachment at Masirah.

As the first Lynxes entered service in July 2004, Oman also ordered 20 larger NHI NH90 Tactical Transport Helicopters (TTH). The first pair were delivered on time on June 23 2000 after a gruelling in-theatre two month evaluation. This marked the first delivery of an NH90 in the Middle East.

At much the same time the Royal Oman Police also decided to modernise its rotary winged fleet, placing an order for the AgustaWestland AW139 helicopter. The first of these were delivered from 2005, initially replacing the four Police Bell 214STs, which finally retired in 2008.

In January 2007, the RAFO signed a contract for two A320 Airbus Corporate Jetliners, primarily for VIP transport duties, but with an important secondary trooping role. The delivery of the A320s to No4 squadron allowed the retirement of the RAFO’s ageing trio of BAC 1-11s, the last of which was officially withdrawn on July 14 2010 after 35 years’ service.

Today, the RAFO remains organised along British Royal Air Force lines, with aircraft currently grouped into 12 numbered squadrons at five main bases and one smaller airfield. Historically, the four main bases were located at Thumrait and Salalah in the south, close to the Yemen border, the former RAF base on the offshore island of Masirah (which now houses the Sultan Qaboos Flying Academy and the Technical Air College) and the main transport and logistic base at Seeb, which also functions as Muscat’s International Airport.

There is also an air base at Khasab, on the strategically vital Musandam peninsula – an exclave of Oman separated from the rest of the country by the United Arab Emirates but commanding the Strait of Hormuz, through which passes 20% of the Western World’s oil. The base houses three No14 squadron AB205s on permanent SAR detachment.

The key RAFO bases have benefited from a rolling programme of hardening and improvement. Runways have been lengthened and strengthened; aircraft shelters have been constructed and extensive support facilities – ordnance depots and fuel dumps – have been added.

To allow further civilian traffic growth at Seeb, the RAFO has built a new base at Al Musana’a, about 75 miles west of Muscat.

Oman is also building a further new air base at Adam, about 100 miles southwest of Muscat. The construction of RAFO Adam started in early 2010, and the base is expected to host the first Eurofighter Typhoon squadron.

There has been an intensified effort to ‘Omanise’ the armed forces and all three C-in-Cs are now Omani nationals, whereas as recently as 1993 all were seconded British senior officers.

Great emphasis is placed on training and for the RAFO this is primarily achieved via the Air Force Technical College (AFTC) at RAFO Seeb (responsible for airman training) and at the Sultan Qaboos Air Academy (SQAA) at RAFO Ghala (officer training) with flying training at the Sultan Qaboos Flying Academy at Masirah, and ATC training at the Aircraft Control College at Seeb.

The RAFO today enjoys an impressive spectrum of capabilities and its inventory includes some of the world’s most advanced aircraft. There remains a pressing need to replace the Short Skyvan in the light transport role, since the nation’s attempts to acquire the Alenia C-27J Spartan (first reported after the 2003 Dubai Airshow) have come to nothing.

Even more urgent is the requirement to replace the related Short Seavan – a Skyvan aircraft fitted with radar and special navigational equipment and used by the RAFO for maritime reconnaissance and anti-piracy missions as well as for anti-pollution and EEZ protection patrols.

Oman’s most high-profile requirement is for a replacement for its ageing Jaguars and, indeed, to provide a more robust air defence and air superiority capability than can be guaranteed by its Block 50 F-16s.

The front runner to provide a new generation fighter is widely believed to be the Eurofighter Typhoon and there have been reports that the type has already been selected (and perhaps even ordered), with senior UK RAF officers talking about the need to replace the 12 Tranche 3 Typhoons that are to be diverted from UK orders. It has been reported that the RAFO will eventually receive 18-24 Eurofighter Typhoons, perhaps refurbished and upgraded ex-RAF Tranche 1 aircraft.

Saab’s JAS 39 Gripen was also reported to have been under consideration by Oman, though this fighter now seems to have faded from the scene, while French offers to sell the Dassault Rafale to Oman, made by French president Nicolas Sarkozy during a meeting with Sultan Qaboos bin Said in February 2009, also gained no traction.

Surprisingly, in August 2010, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified Congress of a possible sale of 18 F-16 Block 50/52 fighters to Oman. The proposed $3.5 billion contract included the upgrade of Oman’s existing 12 F-16s. It remains uncertain as to whether Oman plans to expand its F-16 fleet to augment its new Typhoons, or whether its interest in the F-16 represented a ‘fall-back option’ or even a negotiating tactic.