Angolan civil war: air power is key

Soviet-built and supplied MIG-23 fighter jets roar over this southern provincial capital each day as Angola's young pilots work to gain years of experience in just a few months. Their intense flight training is necessary because air power has become a key factor in the Angolan civil war.

The Angolan forces are increasingly turning to Soviet antiaircraft equipment and improved air power in their effort to eradicate the insurgency which has lasted more than a decade.

The insurgency, led by Jonas Savimbi, has increasingly relied for its defense on the South African Air Force, with its battle-tested pilot corps. ``We view the South Africans as our principal enemy,'' says Maj. Agostinho Nelumba of the Angolan Army's general staff. ``If it were not for the South Africans, we would have resolved the [rebel] problem already.''

While the Soviets have long maintained low-key involvement with the Angolan Army on the ground, it was reported last fall that they were taking steps to strengthen the Army's air defense systems. The Angolan Army now boasts an arsenal of advanced, Soviet-supplied radar equipment, helicopter gunships, and MIG fighter bombers.

Last week, forces of the rebel National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) claimed responsibility for attacks on Cuito Cuanavale, a strategic government position in the largely UNITA-controlled Cuando Cubango Province. But an official Angolan news agency report quoted Defense Ministry sources as saying Angolan troops were ``firmly resisting'' the South African assault. South Africa has not commented on the situation.

Cuito Cuanavale would be a main starting point for an offensive against UNITA strongholds. For months, UNITA has said it believes the government is preparing just such an offensive. In Angola, offensives are usually launched during the dry season, April to October, because rains during the other months make dirt roads and runways impassible.

In late summer last year, South African war planes raced over from their bases in neighboring Namibia (Southwest Africa) to blunt an offensive staged on UNITA by the Angolan forces. The South African forces destroyed 90 government tanks and armored personnel carriers in the sparsely populated southeast, say military sources and foreign observers in Angola.

Until South Africa intervened, the 50,000-strong government Army, backed by 30,000 Cuban troops, had mauled UNITA forces in the provinces of Moxico and Cuando Cubango, these sources said.

This year Angola, at the urging of its Soviet and Cuban advisers, has decided not to launch another major offensive against rebel strongholds in the southeast.

Foreign diplomats and Army officers say the government believes an all-out assault now would certainly invite another South African counterattack. With prices for the nation's main revenue earner, oil, so low, Angola cannot afford huge losses of military hardware.

``The offensive [last year] demonstrated that if the government shows success against UNITA, South Africa will attack,'' says one Western diplomat. ``In military terms, the situation is a deadlock.'' While Angolan pilots prepare at the training center in Lubango, Mr. Savimbi's forces are reportedly installing American Stinger antiaircraft missiles at his headquarters in the southeast, a few miles from the Namibian border.

UNITA has been waging a bush war against the Marxist-ruled government of Angola since independence from Portugal in 1975. Late last year, the United States Congress struck down a 10-year-old amendment banning the US from supporting any side of the Angolan conflict. Early this year, after Mr. Savimbi met with President Reagan at the White House, the US began shipping sophisticated antiaircraft Stinger missiles to UNITA.

[Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos yesterday called for a meeting with President Reagan to discuss ways of reducing US-Angolan tension and of moving toward diplomatic relations, Reuters reports.]

A cornerstone of the Reagan administration's Africa foreign policy has been its efforts to get Angola to remove the Soviets and Cubans. But the Angolan government maintains that the support these two nations provide, through military advisers, troops, and weapons, is warranted to protect Angola from attacks by South Africa. Pretoria, in defiance of the United Nations, rules Angola's southern neighbor, Namibia, citing the Soviet and Cuban influence in Angola as justification for the continued occupation of that country. It says that raids into Angola are staged to pursue Namibian rebels.

The heaviest fighting between government and rebel forces in Angola, according to Army officers and foreign observers, has been taking place along the strategic Benguela railway, which runs from the south Atlantic port of Lobito to the Zambian border in the east.

Hit-and-run attacks by the 20,000-man UNITA army have kept the railway largely inoperative ever since independence. The rebels have recently stepped up their campaign of economic sabotage by mining roads and fields of staple and export crops.

``UNITA is able to prevent any real economic development in 70 to 80 percent of the country,'' a senior Western diplomat says.

Angolan officials say South Africa's Air Force is also playing a major economic role by supplying the rebels through air drops, particularly in the central provinces.

UNITA has charged that Soviet and Cuban technicians have established two lines of radar-guided antiaircraft missiles across central and southern Angola. Major Nelumba would not confirm this, but said, ``We have taken the necessary measures to stop the flights.''

While UNITA's operations have widened during the past year, Western diplomats here say the rebels have not gained much popular support in more heavily populated areas. ``UNITA's forces aren't able to hold on to populated areas,'' one European diplomat says.

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