by Helmoed-Romer Heitman

A South African mechanized force operated in support of UNITA in south-eastern Angola from September 1987 to March 1988. An element remained in Angola after the main operations ended to cover UNITA's south-western flank and to provide artillery support.

The motivating factor for the mid-1987 decision to again interfere in the Angolan Civil War was intelligence showing that FAPLA was preparing for a major offensive against UNITA's base areas in south-eastern Angola. A FAPLA success here would not only weaken western-orientated UNITA, it would open up south-eastern Angola to SWAPO terrorist operations against those parts of north-western South-West Africa which have been peaceful for many years. A victory by the Soviet-sponsored MPLA forces would also increase the danger of Soviet-sponsored and perhaps Cuban-backed instability in neighbouring countries.

The South African government therefore decided to commit elements of the SADF to an operation designed to prevent a UNITA defeat. This deployment peaked at around 3,000 men.

The first definite indications that a major offensive against UNITA's base areas was intended, were intelligence reports of a large-scale build-up by FAPLA in the 6th and 3rd Military Regions from early 1987 onward. The movement of arms through Luanda had also reached 'alarming' levels, and the delivery of some equipment by Soviet Air Force transports confirmed a keen Soviet interest in the forthcoming offensive. Another indicator of Soviet interest and support was the deployment of at least four II-76 transport aircraft to Angola to assist with the movement of troops, equipment and supplies - even fuel - to the staging areas round Cuito Cuanavale in the 6th Military Region, and at Lucusse and Luena in the 3rd Military Region. By March 1987 there was no longer any doubt that an offensive was on the way. Intelligence analysts were by now also beginning to ascertain FAPLA intentions.

UNITA meanwhile had begun a major effort to disrupt the FAPLA build-up by means of ambushes and raids in FAPLA's rear areas. The shift of UNITA's operational emphasis from expanding its area of operations to disrupting FAPLA deployment for the forthcoming offensive began in March, operations in central and northern Angola being stepped up in an effort to tie down FAPLA forces there. In July the emphasis shifted to specific operations to disrupt the FAPLA deployment and their logistic preparations. July also brought the first serious clash of the offensive.

The FAPLA offensive proper began in mid-August, with two forces moving south from Lucusse and east from Cuito Cuanavale respectively. The intention appears to have been for the southward thrust to draw, fix and destroy UNITA forces outside the effective range of South African support, and to restrict the movement of supplies and replacements to UNITA forces operating in the central and northern parts of Angola. The southern force from Cuito Cuanavale would then advance to take the important air field at Mavinga, UNITA's main airhead for supplies flown in from South Africa and from the US base at Kamina in Zaire. The offensive would then continue to UNlTA's headquarters at Jamba, effectively forcing UNITA back to low-level guerrilla operations, blocking easy access to supplies, and destroying much of its media image.

The successful completion of this operation would also allow Angola to extend its air defence belt eastwards, complicating access by SAAF aircraft to SWAPO bases, and would give SWAPO access to virtually the full length of South West Africa's heavily populated northern regions.

The initial objectives of the northern FAPLA operation appear to have been the towns of Gago Coutinho and Cangamba. UNITA "stay behind" elements successfully disrupted logistic support of the FAPLA forces approaching these towns while other UNITA elements harrassed their spearheads with artillery ambushes using light guns and rocket launchers. 43, 45 and 54 Brigades reached the Cangamba area but could not make any further progress and were eventually withdrawn to the area of Lucusse. 3 and 39 Brigades were then also withdrawn, but experienced some difficulty in disengaging, at one stage being cut off. An attempt by 45 Brigade to push a supply column through to them failed with heavy losses. Both brigades did eventually succeed in withdrawing.

There was no South African involvement in these operations, although a contingency plan provided for liaison teams to be despatched to the area should UNITA request assistance. These teams would then have reported on the situation and on the type and scale of assistance needed.

Operation Moduler

The southern element of the FAPLA offensive was launched from the area of Cuito Cuanavale on 14 August 1987. The brigades involved here were 25 Brigade, already deployed east of the Cuito River at Tumpo, and 16, 21, 47, 59, 66, 8, and 13 Brigades, which were deployed for this operation. Additional forces were held in reserve.

Intelligence having indicated that FAPLA had deployed a large number of armoured vehicles around Cuito Cuanavale, a team of South African officers was detached to UNITA to assist in the preparation of their anti-tank plan. UNITA's detailed knowledge of the region facilitated a careful analysis of the likely approach routes and battlefield, and these were thoroughly prepared and mined. South Africa also agreed to provide air support if needed. In August, when the full scale of the FAPLA offensive had become clear, it was decided to also deploy South African artillery south of the Lomba River to support UNITA as needed. This deployment in support of UNITA was named "Operation Moduler".

FAPLA advanced with two brigades along each of two routes: 16 and 21 Brigades from Chambinga to the source of the Cunzumbia River, southward along its eastern bank to the confluence with Lomba River, and from there towards Mavinga; 47 and 59 Brigades from the area of the sources of the Hube, Vimpulu and Mianei Rivers to the source of the Cuzizi River, southward along its western bank to the Lomba, and from there towards Mavinga. Both forces moved very slowly through often thick bush, averaging 4 km daily and generally digging in for the night around 16hO0.

One factor which slowed down their advance was uncertainty concerning the extent to which South Africa would support UNITA. FAPLA had already learned that South African mechanized forces move fast and strike hard, and that the SAAF's fighter-bombers are dangerous. The dangers of the sudden appearance of a mechanized force and of air attack, mandated relative concentration - both to deal with a mechanized attack and to stay within the umbrella of the accompanying air-defence systems, and the careful concealment of stationary forces. Neither requirement is conducive to fast movement in south-eastern Angola. The danger of ambush will have served to further slow the advance. Another factor was ongoing UNITA activity in the rear of the advancing forces and to the west of Cuito Cuanavale, hampering logistic support and the logistic movements of follow-on forces.

As more intelligence became available concerning the strength of the advancing FAPLA force, South Africa decided to deploy a mechanized force to block the advance of FAPLA's 47 Brigade at the Lomba River. This disrupted FAPLA's planned crossing of the Lomba, various FAPLA attempts to establish bridgeheads being defeated by UNITA forces supported by SA Army and SWA Territory Force elements. 47 Brigade suffered considerable losses in this fighting.

There was particularly heavy fighting on 13 and 14 September, when a FAPLA force crossed the Lomba and overran a UNITA position, killing some 40 UNITA men. FAPLA did not exploit, however, and this bridgehead was soon cleaned up. There were six engagements involving the South African force over these two days. Six South African soldiers were killed, two APCs were destroyed and two damaged in the fighting. The FAPLA force involved - an independent "tactical group" - suffered 382 men killed and lost six tanks and various other vehicles captured.

Angolan claims suggest that the SAAF had meanwhile set about isolating the battlefield. Specific claims include air strikes which disrupted FAPLA attempts to move up additional forces between 20 and 30 September. No further reinforcement was attempted by FAPLA thereafter.

There was a fierce clash on 3 October 1987, and this marked the turning point of the fighting. FAPLA's 47 Brigade was engaged and severely mauled, withdrawing without their main equipment in disorder during the night of 3/4 October to join up with 59 Brigade. Both brigades then withdrew to the area of their jumping-off point. 16 and 21 Brigades were also withdrawn. 47 Brigade lost 250 killed and a large amount of equipment destroyed or captured. Among the equipment losses were three SA-8 and two SA-9 launcher vehicles, eighteen tanks, three ICVs, sixteen APCs, five armoured cars, six 122 mm guns, the equipment of three light AAA batteries, and 120 logistic vehicles.

UNITA followed up the defeat of this FAPLA force, crossing the Lomba on 4 October and evicting FAPLA from their positions along the River.

FAPLA now adopted a defensive posture while it strove to move additional brigades into the area. 16 and 21 Brigades were deployed at the source of the Chambinga River, 59 Brigade and a "tactical group" between the Vimpulu and Mianei Rivers.

By mid-October the South African G-5s had advanced to within range of Cuito Cuanavale, quickly forcing the closure of the air base. They then turned to disrupting FAPLA use of the town and movement through it, and prevented the repair of the crucial ridge of the Cuito River. FAPLA forces east of the Cuito were hit by supply shortages as a result. Air support, already severely restricted by the presence of US supplied Stingers, was now further limited, the Angolan Air Force having been driven back to the air base at Menongue, 150 km west of Cuito Cuanavale - bringing longer reaction times and less time in the target area. The shelling also forced the withdrawal of the FAPLA headquarters to Nancova on the road to Menongue.

The major fighting involving the South African force was between 9 and 16 November, in the area of the source of the Chambinga and Hube Rivers. Sixteen South Africans died in this fighting. FAPLA losses to the combined South African/UNITA force were 525 killed and 33 tanks, three SA-13 launcher vehicles, fifteen APCs and 111 logistic vehicles captured or destroyed.

This fighting effectively ended Operation Moduler which wound up in mid-December.

Operation Hooper

FAPLA had meanwhile continued to move up additional forces to the area of Cuito Cuanavale, bringing its strength there to some 25,000 men according to UNITA estimates. While this was achieved only at the expense of denuding other parts of Angola of security forces - immediately exploited by UNITA, particularly in the Cazombo salient which has again largely fallen under UNITA control, and in Cabinda - it did present the danger of a renewed FAPLA offensive before the rainy season set in. This was underlined by the deployrnent of Cuban troops and T-62 MBTs to the Cuito area. This concentration of forces in and around Cuito Cuanavale was promptly engaged by the G-5s which finally forced dispersion to the west and north of the town. The threat, however, remained.

In the light of this continued threat, it was decided that a South African force should assist UNITA in clearing FAPLA forces from the area between the Cuatir II and Chambinga Rivers with the aim of reducing FAPLA's foothold east of the Cuito and thereby complicating a renewed FAPLA offensive. This continued deployment from 15 December was named Operation Hooper.

Another element of Operation Hooper was the continued employment of G-5s to keep the air base at Cuito Cuanavale out of action, to complicate logistic movement in and around Cuito Cuanavale, and to prevent the repair of the crucial bridge of the Cuito river, thereby hampering FAPLA efforts to regain the initiative. During January the G-5s reportedly fired some 150 and 200 rounds daily at targets in and around Cuito Cuanavale.

Operation Hooper proper began on 13 January 1988 with an attack on the 21 Brigade position next to the Cuatir II River to the north-east of Cuito Cuanavale. Contact with the FAPLA force was made at around 18hO0, and fighting went on for some two hours before 21 Brigade broke contact and withdrew, leaving UNITA to establish itself in the area. The South African force suffered no losses during this fighting. FAPLA losses amount to 250 killed; twelve tanks (5 of them captured), one BTR-60, two M46 130 mm guns (captured), two BM-21s, and ten logistic vehicles (three captured).

21 Brigade regrouped at Tumpo, its original base, re-equipped and launched a counter-attack on the UNITA forces in its lost position on the Cuatir II, evicting the UNITA defenders after some heavy fighting. Other FAPLA positions east of the Cuito River were reinforced during this period.

The next South African involvement came with an attack on the positions of 59 Brigade on 14 February. Fighting began around 14h00, FAPLA breaking contact by 17h30, but counter-attacking shortly thereafter. The counter-attack failed and 59 Brigade withdrew, having lost some 230 killed. Equipment losses came to nine tanks, four BRDMs, one SA-9 launcher vehicle, five BM-21s and seven ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft guns. The South African force lost four men killed in one of five Ratels hit by direct fire during the FAPLA counter-attack. One Olifant tank was disabled but came back into action later. UNITA forces simultaneously attacked 21 Brigade in its reoccupied positions, dispersing it yet again.

FAPLA now withdrew 21, 23 and 59 Brigades to their logistic base at Tumpo, preparing a defensive position there. On 25 February a South African force attacked FAPLA positions south of the Tumpo River and a UNITA force supported by South African mechanized elements attacked FAPLA positions at Dala. These attacks were restricted to driving outlying FAPLA forces into the main FAPLA perimeter, the main positions not being attacked. South African losses in this fighting amounted to three killed. Four Olifant tanks were immobilised by mines and later repaired, and two Ratels were damaged by indirect fire.

This fighting marked the end of major clashes for the time being, FAPLA forces having been driven from the critical part of south-eastern Angola and confined to the area around Cuito Cuanavale. A South African force remains deployed in the area with a covering mission, however, and President Botha has suggested that there will continue to be a South African presence in southern Angola until Cuban forces are withdrawn.

FAPLA has deployed at least twelve brigades in 6th Military Region, ten of them along the axis from Menongue to just east of Cuito Cuanavale. Most of a Cuban regiment is reported to have been deployed to protect the headauarters at Nancova, which has also been given strong air defences. Another Cuban regiment may have been deployed to protect Longa. Supply convoys between Menongue and Cuito Cuanavale are escorted by elements of FAPLA's 8 Brigade but are nevertheless frequently ambushed by UNITA.

UNITA, for its part, is establishing itself in areas cleared of FAPLA, and has exploited its renewed and expanded freedom of movement in south-eastern Angola to extend its operations in other parts of the country, not least along the Benguela railway and the Cazombo salient.

Observers at the Lomba River fighting reported that the South African G-5 155 mm guns were a key element in defeating FAPLA here. The G-5 proved its ability to cover a wide frontage and to reach deep into the enemy rear with considerable accuracy. The fire control system showed itself able to match the gun, allowing quick target acquisition and engagement with minimum ammunition expenditure. Available information suggests that both spotter aircraft and the South African Seeker RPV were used for target acquisition and to adjust fire. The South African ammunition also proved itself, Soviet light armoured vehicles offering little protection against the 155 mm fragments.

By mid-October the guns had been moved far enough forward to strike targets in Cuito Cuanavale and force the closure of the air base there. The guns apparently opened by destroying the air base's radar and air defence systems and went on to destroy aircraft on the ground, crater the runway and generally render operations extremely hazardous. Continued shelling is reported to be keeping the air base effectively closed and to be preventing the repair of the critical bridge over the Cuito River, which was dropped by a South African "smart" weapon after, according to FAPLA, earlier having been damaged by frogmen. While there has been no detailed public comment, the SADF is clearly very satisfied with its new artillery systems. The SA Artillery has also obviously come far in developing a new doctrine to match the capabilities of its new equipment. Given that it achieved its successes in this fighting largely with towed G-5s, it is interesting to consider how the coming introduction into service of the highly mobile G-6 SP 155 mm gun will further affect the Army's doctrine and capabilities.

While the SADF has not given any details, SAAF support would appear to have consisted chiefly of battlefield interdiction, much of the close air support role having been passed to the long-range G-5s. This allowed the SAAF to minimise exposure of its small fighter fleet to the comprehensive Angolan air defence system.

UNITA leader, Dr Jonas Savimbi, has also said that the SAAF was instrumental in allowing him to swiftly concentrate and deploy his semi-conventional forces to meet the FAPLA advance. It seems likely that this involved moving UNITA troops from the "northern front" in the 3rd Military Region to the defensive positions along the Lomba River in time to stop the southern arm of FAPLA's offensive there. Transport operations may thus also have been a key element in defeating FAPLA, allowing the most efficient deployment of UNITA forces to meet and stop first the diversionary and then the main arm of the offensive.

South African armour and infantry would appear to have fought with their usual verve - moving faster than the terrain would seem to allow, and delivering massive violence suddenly once in contact. Their ability to move rapidly, manoeuvre to gain the best relative position, and then to engage and destroy an enemy force in the extremely dense bush and, often, soft sand of south-eastern Angola is testimony to an exacting traininq system. Visibility in some parts of the battle area is below 100 m, even less in places; the sand too soft to walk in with comfort. The toughness and reliability of the Ratel ICVs and of the Samil-series logistic vehicles is also a major factor. The Ratel-90 also appears to have again proven itself in the anti-tank role, although it was developed as a fire support vehicle and not as a tank destroyer. The Ratel-81 saw action for the first time, giving the mechanized infantry a highly mobile source of "in house" fire support. The equally new SP 20 mm AAA Ystervark celebrated its entry into service by bringing down at least one MiG-23.

Operations Moduler and Hooper saw the first deployment of the Olifant MBT, which proved itself a tough and reliable vehicle able to absorb battle damage and to move through the heaviest bush. Its gun and fire control system proved more than capable of dealing with the opposing T-55s - although most engagements in the dense bush of the region were probably at too short a range to really test the fire control system. Operating in what must be prototypical "non armour terrain", the Olifant in fact proved particularly valuable for its ability to shrug off the restrictions of the heavy bush, and soft sand to get to where it was needed and deal with the enemy.

Some Observations

A few observations stand out and confirm recent experience in this and other theatres:

The ability of armoured and mechanized forces to operate effectively in "non armour terrain";

The flexibility and power of long-range mobile artillery when imaginatively employed with target acquisition and fire direction equipment as a system;

The ability of long-range artillery to partially make up for the limitations placed on the provision of close air support by the modern Soviet SAM and AAA systems;

The ability of even very limited air defence capability - UNITA's Stingers and the South African's 20 mm guns - to impose severe restrictions on the provision of close air support by relatively modern aircraft- MiG-23s and Mi-24/25s;

The continued importance of air power despite modern SAM and AAA systems, when it is properly applied - in this case in battlefield interdiction role, where the SAM and AAA cover was thinned out by the distances involved;

The key role which air transport can play in manoeuvring ground forces to efficiently deal with a dual threat.


The South African intervention in Angola would appear to have achieved its immediate aim of preventing a major UNITA defeat and FAPLA re-occupation of parts of south-eastern Angola which would allow SWAPO access to north-eastern South West Africa. The small South African force also appears to have achieved some remarkable tactical successes. The relative losses give an idea of what was achieved.

South African losses during operations in support of UNITA came to 31 members of the SADF and 12 members of the SWATF killed and some 90 wounded.

Equipment losses were one Mirage, one spotter aircraft, three Olifant MBTs and four Ratels as well a number of vehicles damaged. The SADF and the SWATF suffered other losses during this period, but these were taken in various operations against SWAPO terrorists and SWAPO facilities in southern Angola. Some of this fighting involved FAPLA elements. UNITA lost some 270 men killed in the southern fighting. FAPLA losses in the fighting which involved the South African forces supporting UNITA, had by 25 February amounted to over 7,000 killed. Equipment losses during this fighting included:

8 MiG-23
4 MiG-21
2 Su-22
8 Helicopters
94 Tanks
94 BMP-1s
64 BTR-60s
32 BRDM-2s
2 BTS-4 tank transporters
4 M-46 130 mm guns
11 D-30 122 mm guns
33 BM-21s
3 BM-14s
7 SA-8 SAM systems
5 SA-13 SAM systems
3 SA-9 SAM systems
33 SA-14 and SA-16 man-portable SAMs
1 ZSU-23-4 SPAA
20 ZU-23-3 AA guns
5 Radar systems
4 Communications vehicles
7 TMM Bridging vehicles
377 logistic vehicles

Minor equipment items lost included one Grad-1P single-122 mm rocket launcher, three B-10 recoilless guns; two 120 mm, fourteen 82 mm and four 60 mm mortars and seven AGS-17 grenade launchers.

(South African Defence Force Review, 1989)

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