Small force that has wealth of experience

Jon Lake looks at the Al Quwwat al-Jawwiya At'Tunisia – the Tunisian Air Force.


The Tunisian Air Force (Al Quwwat al-Jawwiya At’Tunisia) is the smallest and least modern, in terms of its frontline combat element, of all of the five Mahgreb countries. It is small by regional standards with just 3,500 personnel – 700 of them conscripts – and with about 20 fixed-wing frontline fast jets and around a dozen armed helicopters. But though it is equipped with relatively ageing aircraft, the air force is viewed as being professional and broadly capable of fulfilling its allotted roles. In recent years it has made real efforts to forge links with neighbouring air arms, most notably in Italy and Spain.

Prior to the 2011 revolution some Tunisian pilots were trained in Egypt, while other officers attended staff colleges and other advanced training courses in France and Italy.

Tunisia has participated in recent UN peacekeeping efforts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia/Eritrea, and previously participated in similar operations in Burundi, Cambodia, Namibia, Rwanda, and Somalia, though few of these required much use of air power assets.

The Tunisian Air Force did see some action during last year’s uprising in neighbouring Libya, with Tunisian F-5E fighters and various helicopter types patrolling the Tunisia-Libya border in May and June after pro-regime Libyan troops fired artillery shells and rockets close to the frontier.

For the future, Tunisia is unlikely to make a major contribution to offensive coalition air operations – its fast jet element is simply not large enough, nor are its ageing F-5Es suitably equipped to allow interoperability with most potential coalition partners. However, the Tunisian Air Force does have a significant rotary-wing capability, with about 40 frontline tactical helicopters on charge, including Sikorsky S61Rs, AB-205s, UH-1Hs and UH-1Ns, AS-350Bs and armed Gazelles. These helicopters, and the nation’s 16 aircraft transport force (consisting largely of C-130 Hercules tactical transports) give Tunisia’s armed forces an unusual degree of air mobility, relative to the nation’s size.

Though Tunisia had been a French protectorate from 1881–1956, when the nation gained its independence, it did not initially follow the pattern set by other francophone North African nations and did not turn to France to supply its aircraft. Instead, when Tunisia established its air force in 1959 – the last branch of the Tunisian Armed Forces to form, fully three years after independence – it turned to Sweden for its first aircraft. Eight Saab 91 Safirs (later followed by another seven) were transferred after the first pilots completed training in Sweden.

Tunisia did later acquire aircraft from France, including a number of T-28D Fennecs – T-28 armed trainers converted by Sud-Aviation – as well as an initial pair of Alouette II helicopters, three MD315 Flamants and 12 T-6 Harvards. The air arm was even initially known as the Armée de l’Air Tunisienne, though it was soon re-named.

The Tunisian Republic Air Force’s first jet type was the Italian MB326 jet trainer. Tunisia acquired eight MB326Bs and used these to form an Advanced Flying Training Squadron, preparing the way for the induction of 12 F-86Fs delivered from the Unites States.

The Sabres were seen as an interim type and there were a number of attempts to procure A-4 Skyhawks to replace them. Sixteen aircraft drawn from the USA’s desert boneyard were offered and refused in 1973. In the end the Sabres were replaced in 1978 by further MB326s, when eight single-seat MB326KTs and four MB326LTs were delivered, giving a useful light attack capability. The surviving six or so MB326s are still serving with No11 Squadron at Sidi Ahmed.

In the meantime, the Saab Safirs had been replaced in the basic training role by nine SIAI Marchetti SF.260CTs delivered in 1974. Tunisia also took delivery of 12 similar SF.260WT Warrior aircraft, which featured under-wing hardpoints and were capable of being armed.

The late 1970s and early 1980s also saw a real expansion of Tunisia’s helicopter force, with the delivery of two UH-1N and two UH-1H Hueys in 1975, followed by 18 Italian-built AB205s in 1980. Later these were augmented by further UH-1H helicopters supplied as US aid and (according to some reports) by a number of AB412s.

While the MB326KT was a useful ground attack aircraft, it did not provide a credible air defence capability. To rectify this perceived capability gap, Tunisia ordered six F-5Es and two F-5Fs in 1981 and augmented these with nine or ten ex-USAF F-5Es and two more F-5Fs that were delivered in 1989. About 13 of these remain in service today with a single fighter squadron at Bizerte-Sidi Ahmed, tasked with fighter ground-attack and air defence duties.

A shortage of trained F-5 pilots is believed to have been rectified and Tunisia has expressed interest in an upgrade for its F-5s, which are currently armed with AIM-9J Sidewinder AAMs and AGM-65 Maverick ASMs.

The final element in the Tunisian Air Force’s 1980s modernisation came with the procurement of a pair of ex-USAF C-130B Hercules. The Hercules fleet has subsequently grown with the delivery of further surplus USAF C-130Bs and two or three newly built C-130Hs, of which some seven aircraft remain in service.

Despite some reports to the contrary, there is little hard evidence that Tunisia ever received any Alenia G222 aircraft to augment its Hercules.

During much the same period, the Tunisian air force also gained a new long-range SAR and maritime over-watch capability, acquiring between seven and 16 (probably 11) Sikorsky S61R (HH-3E) helicopters.

In the mid-1990s Tunisia negotiated a major deal with the Czech Republic and took delivery of 12 new AERO Vodochody L-59T armed trainers and three L-410UVP light transports in 1995. Two further L-410s were delivered subsequently. Nine surviving L-59T aircraft underwent a major overhaul in the Czech Republic in 2007.

Before the 2011 revolution, the Tunisian Air Force had a number of requirements for new aircraft and new capabilities but all of these have been delayed as a result of events.

Perhaps the most obvious Tunisian Air Force requirement, if not the most urgent, is for a replacement for the F-5E and the MB326KT. The Air Force would seem to need a more modern, multi-role combat aircraft capable of all-weather air defence, beyond visual range air-to-air combat, and with a robust air-to-ground capability using PGMs. An aircraft in the class of the F-16A MLU (and probably using refurbished second hand aircraft) would seem to meet this requirement, though little progress has been made in launching a competition to find an F-5 replacement.

More urgently, Tunisia needs to replace many of its older helicopter types, and particularly the HH-3E and UH-1H.

The US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) has notified Congress of a plan to supply 12 refurbished Sikorsky SH-60F Oceanhawk multi-mission utility helicopters to Tunisia, but Congress has yet to approve the plan.

Tunisia contracted French company Aerotec Group SAS to upgrade five of its SA 342F2 Gazelle light support helicopters in June 2010.

This provided a 4,000 hour/15-year life extension, Pall Corporation Centrisep engine intake filters and a range of capability enhancements, including the integration of a Nexter Systems’ M621 20mm cannon; belly and door armour; a night attack system based around the use of HELA MK1 night vision goggles; and a nose-mounted Thales airborne gyro-stabilised infrared light equipment (AGILE) 2 sensor turret.

The aircraft also received the MICCA mission system with a digital map and battle management system and a Euroavionics EuroNav RN6 digital map generator.

The government of Tunisia also signed a contract with Lockheed Martin for the purchase of two stretched C-130J-30 Super Hercules airlifters (plus an initial three-year logistics support package) for delivery in 2013 and 2014. Tunisia thereby became the 12th country to select the C-130J Super Hercules, which will augment the existing C-130H and older C-130B aircraft.

The new aircraft are expected to be used for traditional military airlift duties but also for international relief efforts and for aerial fire-fighting duties.

The Tunisian Air Force currently has ten squadrons, based at four main bases.

The first is Bizerte/Sidi Ahmed near Tunis, a short hop across the Mediterranean from Sardinia to the North and Sicily to the East.

A former USAAF heavy bomber airfield during World War II, the airfield was subsequently occupied by France, the colonial power (along with the neighbouring naval base) even after Tunisian independence, until it was finally abandoned on October 15 1963. Today it houses the Tunisian Air Force’s 13 F-5s, six MB326KTs and 326LTs and seven or so C-130s. The base is also thought to accommodate the L-410UVPs, though some reports suggest that these serve with ’12 Squadron’ at Tunis-Laouina.

The base may be used by the single Boeing 737-7H3 BBJ that has been operated by the government for VIP and head-of-state flying since 1999. This aircraft may be based at the International Airport, however, and may only operate from Sidi Ahmed when used by the Air Force.

Bizerte/La Karouba is a separate heliport adjacent and connected to Sidi Ahmed. Some helicopters from the based units are detached at Sfax and Gafsa in the south, and at Monastir’s Habib Bourguiba International Airport.

The next Air Force base is at Sfax-Thyna, where the remaining six SF.260CTs serve with No14 Squadron alongside the eight surviving SF.260WTs. These aircraft are used for basic training and for liaison, observation and light attack.

The L-59T advanced trainers are based at Gafsa in the south, close to the Jebel and the great inland salt lakes of Chott el Jerid and Chott El Fejaj. The L-59T training aircraft have a limited combat capability but it is not known whether the Tunisian Air Force exploits this.

There are a number of other air bases in Tunisia, including Gabès, Monastir – Habib Bourguiba International Airport, Tozeur, Tunis – Carthage, and Zarzis, though these have no permanently-based units assigned.

Tunisia has only the most basic air control and warning system, with limited radar coverage of its airspace. There is no integrated air defence system, with the Army maintaining a mix of light SAMs and AAA, most of which are obsolescent. They include 26 M-48 Chaparral and 60 RBS-70 SAM fire units and about 200 AA guns, including 20mm M55s, 37mm Type 55s, and 12 self-propelled M42 40mm guns. These give a measure of local low level air defence coverage, but do not come close to providing any kind of cohesive air defence umbrella.

The Air Force relies heavily on foreign contractors for engineering and logistics support (with Abu Dhabi’s GAMCO providing maintenance for the C-130 fleet, for example), and has experienced some problems in the training and retention of key personnel.

Attempts to forge a combined operations capability are still in their infancy. In February 2012, Tunisia’s defence minister, Abdelkrim Zbidi, called for increased co-operation with the United States (especially in the fields of training and logistics). There is seen to be an urgent need to gain help in safeguarding Tunisia’s borders, with a growing threat posed by armed groups with links to militants in Libya, and from Al Qaeda-linked groups in Algeria.

Neither the Army nor the Navy have their own air arms, but the 12,000-strong paramilitary National Guard does include an air element with about eight SA-318 and SA-319 Alouette helicopters. The National Guard comes under the control of the Ministry of Interior and shares responsibility for internal security with the police.