Guardians of forests, volcanoes and oceans
Ecuador is one the smaller countries of South-America. In spite of its size and poor financial situation, the country has at its disposal a small but capable air force comprising around 100 aircraft and helicopters and around 4500 personnel. Notwithstanding the size of the country and air force, it is the Fuerza Aérea Ecuatoriana (FAE) who won the first aerial combat between jets over the South-American continent during a short but fierce clash with Peru in 1995. This conflict is known as the Cenepa Conflict. A peace-treaty between the two neighboring countries was signed in October 1998. In the same period Ecuador entered its worst economic crisis ever climaxing in 1999. In an attempt to break out of this negative spiral the Ecuadorian government decided to adopt the U.S. dollar as their legal tender replacing the Sucre. With the peace-treaty no win place the immediate threat for a confrontation with neighboring Peru was gone and with the economic situation at an historic low, the defence budget came under heavy pressure. This had serious consequences for all of Ecuador's defence forces, limiting the FAE not only in its day-to-day operations but also in modernising its ageing fleet of aircraft and helicopters. The need for a capable air force is still very real as the country has seen a steady increase of infiltrations into the country by guerrillas from Colombia and the use of Ecuadorian air space for the illicit transportation of narcotics. This lead to a change in the priorities and in restructuring of the organisation and its assets.
As a result of the shifting priorities and budget limitations it was decided to reorganise the structure of the air force in an effort to improve its administrative agility and to centralize the control of all the air operations. To achieve this, two new commands were created and introduced last January: Comando de Operaciones Aéreas y Defensa (COAD) and the Comando de Educación y Doctrina (CEYD). The COAD replaced the Comando Aéreo de Combate and the Comando Aéreo de Transporte and comprises the following Wings (Alas): Ala de Combate 21, Ala de Combate 22, Ala de Combate 23 and Ala de Transportes 11. Ecuador's air space is divided into different sectors and these are controlled by the Centros de Operaciones Sectoriales (COS). These units control the radar stations at various locations throughout the country. Three different COS's are also part of the COAD. An Ala is typically divided into one or more Grupos (groups), these are divided into Escuadrones (squadrons) while these are formed by Escuadrillas (flights). All educational facilities and institutions, including the Escuela Superior Militar de Aviación, the Escuela de Infantería Aérea and the Escuela Técnica de la Fuerza Aérea, come under the control of the CEYD.
The flying units of the FAE are housed at five Main Operating Bases, four of these are used for both civilian and military aviation. The FAE further has at its disposal a number of Forward Operating Bases (FOB). Lago Agrio, less than 25 kilometers from the Colombian border has become the most important FOB and aircraft are very regularly based here. Lago Agrio is in an area frequently infiltrated by Colombian guerrillas. The construction was for the greater part paid for by the American government. With the opening of the base in 1998 a new wing was created: Ala 31. Base Aérea Latacunga is home of the FAE's maintenance centre. Previously this unit was known as Ala de Investigación y Desarrollo No. 12. But as part of restructuring the organisation, Ala 31 is being referred to as Base Aérea Lago Agrio and Ala 12 is now just known as Base Aérea Latacunga. The same change applies to the Grupo Aéreo de Baltra, which is now known as Base Aérea de Galápagos. These three bases come under the command of the Dirección General de Logística.
Jaguar and Mirages
Located about 30 kms south of Ecuador's most important city Guayaquil is Base Aérea Taura, being the only base to have a sole military purpose. Based here is Ala de Combate 21 with two flying squadrons using the IAI Kfir and Marcel Dassault Mirage F-1 respectively. A third squadron, Escuadron de Combate 2111 'Jaguar', ceased flying operations with the Jaguar in 2002. The last flight on the Jaguar took place on 17 September 2002. The remaining aircraft are been kept in storage since and the FAE is trying to sell the Jaguars abroad. The official reason for the sudden retirement of the Jaguar has not been disclosed, but it probably is a combination of funding problems and the fact that the modern Kfir CE is also used in the Air Interdiction and Ground-Attack role. The Jaguar was upgraded only a few years before its retirement and is similar to the RAF Jaguar GR.3.
Escuadron de Combate 2112 'Mirage' is equipped with the Marcel Dassault Mirage F-1JA/JE. As a result of an American embargo on the export of the General Electric J-79 engine Ecuador could not initially buy the aircraft of its choice the IAI Kfir. In 1977 it was decided to buy 18 Mirage F-1s instead. The primary task of the Mirage is Air-Defence and it has a limited Air-to-Ground role. Armament for these missions include the Matra R550 Magic 2 and Rafael Phyton 3 AAMs and the Matra Durandal runway denial bomb. The Mirage F-1 played a major part in the Cenepa Conflict of 1995, as the pilots of Mirages FAE-806 and FAE-807 shot down two Peruvian Sukhoi Su-22 Fitters. Allegedly one Fitter was damaged and crashed later and one Fitter was destroyed when the missile hit the aircraft. This proved to be the first aerial victory of South-American jets on the continent. From the few Mirages that are still flying today, the FAE keeps these two legendary aircraft in a pristine condition: It is keeping the memory of this overwhelming success alive.
This year the FAE celebrates 25 years of flying the Kfir. After the Americans had ended their veto against the export of the J-79 engine, Ecuador could finally purchase the long wanted IAI Kfir. Eight Kfir C.2s and two Kfir TC.2s were ordered and entered service in 1982 creating Escuadron de Combate 2113 'Kfir'. Over the years more then ten different Kfirs have been identified, which means that additional deliveries have taken place.
Even before the economic crisis of the late-nineties Ecuador's economy was not very strong. As a result it has long lacked adequate resources to acquire modern defense systems. With the delivery of the MiG-29 to Peru in 1996, a threatening military instability arose between the two neighboring countries and Ecuador felt itself forced to look for better equipped aircraft. This resulted in a serious interest in the MiG-29SMT. But after studying the various options carefully the MiG-29 proved to be too expensive to operate and the project was cancelled. Instead of acquiring new equipment the FAE decided to modernise its fleet of Kfirs. The modified Kfir was designated Kfir CE. Although details are still surrounded by secrecy, the CE is based on the Kfir C.10. In appearance there are considerable differences between the brown/green camouflaged C.2s and the grey CE. The most obvious differences are the air-refueling probe and the completely modified radome, which houses the ELTA EL/M-2032 Multimode Airborne Fire Control Radar. The air-refueling probe is noteworthy as the FAE does not have air-refueling capacity at the moment and there are still no plans to introduce it in the near future. The cockpit is also completely different. The C.2 is provided with an almost old-fashioned conventional cockpit, whereas the CE has a modern ergonomic cockpit fitted with multi-functional LCD displays, a modern HUD and the Hands-On-Throttle and Stick (HOTAS) system.
With the introduction of the Kfir CE the FAE also took delivery of a new air-to-air missile (AAM); the Rafael Phyton IV. This missile is of the 4th generation AAMs and one of the first missiles with a high off-borsight agility that can be operated with the use of a helmet-mounted sight. The introduction of the Phyton IV meant a serious boost in the Air-Defense capabilities. The CE is also better equipped for the Air-to-Ground role and is capable of launching smart air-to-ground weapons. A contract was signed to modernise eight Kfir C.2s. This modernisation was completed by Ala de Investigación y Desarrollo No. 12. The first Kfir CE was introduced in May 1999. During a recent visit the unmodified Kfir C.2s were seen inside a hangar clearly awaiting maintenance and giving the author the impression that these aircraft had not flown for some time. This would probably mean that the FAE is allocating is limited funding to operations with the Kfir CE only.
When the Lockheed (A)T-33 T-Bird was withdrawn from use in 1996, Escuadron de Combate 2312 'Triburones' was disbanded. A 40-year period of flying with the T-Bird came to an end. From that moment the Cessna (O)A-37B Dragonflies and BAC (later BAe) Strikemasters from respectively Escuadron de Combate 2311 'Dragones' and Escuadron de Combate 2313 'Halcones' took over its tasks. These squadrons are part of Ala de Combate 23 based at Base Aérea 'Eloy Alfaro' near de city of Manta.
Base Aérea 'Eloy Alfaro' was inaugerated on 24 October 1978 and the first aircraft to arrive were eight BAC Strikemaster Mk.89s moving from Taura. They formed Escuadron de Combate 2313 'Halcones'. The first eight Strikemaster Mk.89As were delivered in 1972 followed by another six in 1976. Operations in a small country with huge geographical differences resulted in a relatively high number of accidents leaving only six aircraft operational by 1981. In 1987 reinforcements arrived with the delivery of the first three of a total of six new Strikemasters. The remaining three were delivered during 1988. Three of these aircraft were built in 1978 for the air force of Sudan. A veto by the British government prevented the delivery of these aircraft to this African nation and they were put into storage. Today Escuadron de Combate 2313 is the last military operator of the Strikemaster with four aircraft operational and operating alongside the Cessna (O)A-37B Dragonflies from Escuadron de Combate 2311 'Dragones'. The Strikemaster is an economic aircraft to operate and is used for Lead-In Fighter Training, for aerial observation, Forward Air Control and Close Air Support. Recently two additional aircraft, four engines and a selection of spare-parts were purchased. It is believed that these aircraft were previously operated by the Botswana Defence Force, but the FAE refused to comment on this. In December these aircraft were still in the United Kingdom for modifications and delivery was expected last January.
The highest number of aircraft of one type in service with the FAE is the Cessna (O)A-37B Dragonfly with around 25 still on the inventory list. But as with most of the different types of aircraft still in service today, considerable fewer aircraft are actually airworthy! The first aircraft out of an order for twelve were delivered in 1976 and based at Taura. In the first half of 1979 the aircraft moved to Manta and on 31 July of the same year Escuadron de Combate 2311 'Dragones' was formed. The aircraft proved to be useful and the FAE was soon looking for additional airframes. Cessna had already closed the production line and the USAF did not have any surplus (O)A-37s available for export to Ecuador. Embraer responded to this situation and offered the EMB-326GB Xavante as an alternative. Following the retirement of (O)A-37Bs from the Air National Guard a surplus became available and approximately 25 additional aircraft were purchased. Deliveries were spread over a few years at the end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties. The main task of the aircraft has never changed and it is still doing today what it was designed for; Counter-Interdiction (COIN), Forward Air Control (FAC) and Close Air Support (CAS).
Israel is an important supplier of equipment and armament to the Ecuadorian Defence Forces, and during the years most types of aircraft received some kind of Israeli modification. The (O)A-37 is not an exception. Already before the outbreak of the Cenepa Conflict, the possibility of arming the Dragonflies with an air-to-air missile was studied. As a result of this conflict the project was given priority and soon after the war, the aircraft were modified to carry the Israeli-built Shafrir AAM. The FAE is currently looking into a replacement for the Strikemasters and Dragonflies. Aircraft that are being considered include the Korean Aerospace Industries T-50 Golden Eagle, BAe Hawk, Aermacchi M-346, AERO Vodochody L-159 and the Embraer EMB.314 Super Tucano. The Super Tucano seems to be the preferred option.
The training of new pilots is the responsibility of the Escuela Superior Militar de Aviación 'Cosme. Rennella Barbato' (ESMA) located in Salinas. Potential pilots will first be screened on the Cessna A.150L Aerobat during the first year at the academy. After an average of eleven hours it is determined whether the cadet has the capacity to complete the course or not. During the second year in the academy the cadet will follow classes and only flies around two hours per month. In the third year the actually flying syllabus starts with the basic flying course. As part of this course the cadet will fly around 50 hours on the Aerobat. When this stage is completed successfully, the cadet will start flying the Beechcraft T-34C Turbo Mentor. It takes around 15 flying hours before his first solo-flight. After another 185 hours, spread over 18 months, the student has learned how to fly on instruments, to do aerobatics, to navigate etc. After completion the cadet will be assigned elsewhere. Those who are selected to fly fast-jets will then move to Manta to continue their training and complete type conversion on the Strikemaster or Dragonfly. Future helicopter and transport pilots will be assigned to Ala-22 in Guayaquil or Ala-11 in Quito respectively. Pilots flying the Kfir or Mirage all have substantial flying experience on the Dragonfly and or Strikemaster. It was only very recently decided that woman are also allowed to be trained as pilots.
The Beechcraft T-34C was introduced in 1978 replacing the Cessna T-41 and Beechcraft T-34A. Originally 23 aircraft were delivered. Although they are primarily used for training, for operational purposes the Mentors can be armed with gun- and rocket-pods. Because Salinas is located on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, it is increasingly problematic to keep the Mentors and Cessnas airworthy. During the recent visit it was clearly visible how the salty environment affects the aluminum structure causing severe corrosion on the aircraft. Although the FAE briefly considered buying the Slingsby T.67, which consists largely of composite materials, as a replacement for the Turbo Mentor, it was decided to overhaul and upgrade the twelve remaining T-34C's instead. By the time this article was written one aircraft was modified. As part of the modification the aircraft will receive updated avionics, new canopy, an improved GPS system and new wings. The first aircraft that was overhauled was painted in a white / orange livery. It is believed that the remaining aircraft will be painted grey. The overhaul is carried out by the Dirección de la Industria Aeronáutica (DIAF) in co-operation with Ala de Investigación y Desarrollo No.12 (now known as Base Aérea Latacunga.)
Transportation and support
All transport aircraft are assigned to Ala de Transporte 11 based at Base Aérea 'Mariscal Sucre', which is part of Quito International Airport. The primary transport aircraft is the Lockheed C-130 Hercules operated by Escuadron de Transporte 1111 'Hercules' including the C-130H, B and a single L-100-30. This last aircraft is currently awaiting overhaul. All aircraft are used for the usual transport tasks including logistic flights to Baltra on the Galapagos Islands. In a country that consists for the greater part of mountainous terrain and tropical rainforest, aircraft with good STOL capabilities are essential. An aircraft with such characteristics is the De Havilland DHC-6-300 Twin Otter flown by Escuadron de Transporte 1113 'Twin Otter'. Together with the IAI Aravas and Mil Mi-171s of the army, the Twin Otter is used to fly people and supplies to the remote villages of the Oriente. It often operates from unhardened landing strips cut out of the tropical rainforest.
VIP and personnel transport is provided by three Rockwell Sabreliner 40/60Rs and a small number of Hawker Siddely HS-748 Avros. The fleet of HS-748s was recently expanded with the delivery of two ex-Brazilian Air Force HS-748s arriving in Quito on 25 June last year (2006). The aircraft (FAE-742 and FAE-743) are painted light grey, whereas the original aircraft are painted white. The HS-748s are assigned to Escuadron de Transporte 1112 'Avro'. One HS-748 (FAE-001) is used as a VIP aircraft. The Sabreliners, assigned to Escuadron de Transporte 1114 'Sabreliner' can also be fitted with photographic equipment and Escuadron de Reconocimiento uses the aircraft for photo and reconnaissance missions.
Like more countries in South-America, Ecuador operates a semi-military airline: Transportes Aéreos Militares Ecuatorianos or TAME. TAME has for a long period only operated with a fleet of older aircraft including HS-748s, Boeing-727s and Fokker F.28s. Since the beginning of this century TAME is modernising its fleet. In September 2002 it received two Airbus A-320s followed by the recent delivery of two Embraer ERJ-170s and an Embraer ERJ-190. The Embraers are part of a fixed order for three aircraft (two ERJ-170s and a ERJ-190) and TAME has an option for a further four. The Embraers are modern aircraft with a state-of-the-art avionics package and a modern comfortable cabin greatly improving flight safety and comfort. TAME operates mainly on the domestic routes.
Most of Ecuador's helicopter force is operated by the army with the navy and air force operating around half a dozen helicopters each. All of the FAE's rotary assets belong to Ala de Combate 22 based at Base Aérea 'Simon Bolivar', which is part of Guayaquils' International Airport. The designation carried by the wing and its squadrons is somewhat strange as the word Combate does not cover the unit's primary tasks: (troop)transport, ground-support and Search-and-Rescue. Ala 22 consists of two flying squadrons. Escuadrón de Combate 2211 is equipped with the Alouette III, a Cessna Ce.206 and a Piper PA-34 operated by the commander of COAD. Until recently the squadron also flew a sole Bell-212, but this helicopter was written-off in an accident in December 2004.
Only a few Alouette's remain operational. The second squadron, Escuadron de Combate 2212, uses the Bell TH-57A Jet Ranger. The TH-57A is used to train new pilots and in support of security forces and the police. For the later task they can carry a 7.62mm machine gun. The fact that a part of the helicopters can carry armament is, according to personnel of Ala 22, the reason why the designation as a combat unit still is justified. With only a few helicopters left, the acquisition of up to six medium sized transport helicopters is high on the FAE's list with priorities.
The Cenepa Conflict
Because the border between Ecuador and Peru has been disputed for different reasons, there has long been tension between the two countries. As a result there have been several small-scale conflicts. Tension increased rapidly in the first few weeks of 1995 when both countries started to deploy ground-forces in and around the Cenepa Valley. This was the start of what became known as the Cenepa Conflict. After an increasing number of border skirmishes the situation escalated. On 10 February, after two days and nights of Peruvian air strikes flown by the Fuerza Aérea del Peru (FAP) against Ecuadorian army positions, operation Acero (steel) was launched from Taura. During the previous days FAE radar operators had examined the flying patterns of the FAP strike aircraft, giving them a good indication on how the coming attacks would be flown. With help of this information two Combat Air Patrols were established over the area.
When the radar operators of the Centro de Operaciones Sectoriales (Ground Controlled Intercept) spotted aircraft taking off in Peru and flying the same route as the previous days, a CAP of two Mirage F-1s flying at 20,000 ft. was directed to the incoming aircraft. In the fight that followed the leader of the two Mirages, Maj. Raúl Banderas, damaged a FAP Sukhoi Su-22 Fitter. The aircraft did not make it back to its base and crashed as a result of the inflicted damage. That day the FAE made history and became the first South-American air force to shoot down a jet over the continent. Only seconds after the first Fitter had been damaged, Capt. Carlos Uscátegui shot down a second FAP Su-22.
While this took place, a second CAP consisting of two Kfir C.2s flew at 5000 ft. A misunderstanding, caused by the poor radio contact between the two CAPs as a result of the mountains between the four aircraft, made the leader of the Kfirs think that the Mirages were under attack and he decided to help them. But on their transit to the Mirages they sighted two FAP A-37B's. After visual identification the leader of the two Kfirs, Capt. Mauricio Mata, engaged and shot down one aircraft. CNN later reported that Peru lost four aircraft that day. It is likely that the second A-37 collided with a mountain when it dived into the low hanging clouds that surrounded the mountains in an attempt to flee for the Kfir of Capt. Wilfrido Moya.
Other aircraft were also involved in the conflict. Dragonflies were deployed to the airfield of Macas, forming Grupo Amazonas, and to Salinas. During the conflict one A-37B was hit by a shoulder-launched SAM. The aircraft was just slightly damaged and was able to return safely. Later the aircraft was named "Tiwintza", after the location of the incident. (A)T-33's were based at Taura and used to fly interception missions, while T-34C's flew communication missions from Salinas. Hercules transport aircraft together with Twin Otters and helicopters from Ala 22 were extensively used to fly supplies and troops into the region as well as for MEDEVAC missions.
After a short period of heavy fighting a cease-fire was agreed with intervention of the UN. Nevertheless, fighting continued for a while longer. Finally, a demilitarized zone was created in the disputed area and the observance of the agreement was monitored by the Mission of Military Observers Ecuador-Peru (MOMEP) consisting of observers from Argentina, Brazil, Chile and the United States of America. The fact that the FAE seemed to have air-superiority over the conflict area, certainly contributed to reaching the cease-fire agreement. Ecuador was in a strong position during the UN-enforced peace negotiations. Only a week after Peru lost four aircraft on 17 February 1995, Declaración de Itamaraty was signed. Negotiations continued resulting in a more permanent treaty, which was signed in October 1998.
For a period of time domestic political problems within Peru formed a serious threat to the continuation of the agreement. Ecuador's two direct neighbors as well as nearby Bolivia, belong to the major drugs producing countries in the world. Consequently, its airspace is regularly violated for the transportation of narcotics. Colombian forces are constantly fighting against different guerrilla organisations. These guerrillas cross the border with Ecuador to reorganize themselves before continuing the fight. It is believed that in same cases Colombian forces cross into Ecuador in an attempt to hit the guerillas. So despite the peace with Peru, there are still enough reasons for Ecuador to keep its defence forces well trained and well equipped. This is a tough mission considering the country's political and financial situation. But the above has made it clear that it is a job that is not impossible to accomplish. One of Ecuador's' strongest weapons is the motivation and professional attitude of its forces. It is not without reason that Ecuador's success in 1995 is kept alive. With most of the FAE's operations one thing is always in the mind of its personnel: "You fight in war as you train in peace."
The author wishes to thank Comandante General de la Fuerza Aérea Ten. Gen. Jorge Moreno Artieda, Director Comunicación Social de la FAE TCrn. Juan Francisco Vivero, Jefe del Dpto. de Relaciones Publicas Mayo. Diego Bastidas and of course all the staff and personnel for their hospitality and for providing excellent photographic facilities.
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