In the 1960s, a select band of seconded General Duties officers flew for the Sultan's Air Force, getting in the kind of adventurous flying fast becoming legendary in the RAF. Later, in the 1970s, with active service in the RAF hard to come by, further successive batches of seconded RAF officers found some action with ‘SOAF’ (RAFO). In a particularly nasty counter-insurgency war, working with a RAFO acting as a small army-support air arm, RAF (and ex-RAF) fighter pilots, tactical transport and helicopter pilots – as well as some officers from ground branches – took a vital part in what became in effect the only victory in history over a Communist insurrection in its own territory in a sovereign state. Today, the RAF connection continues, albeit considerably reduced in influence by the natural advance or the national Omanization policy. Opportunities for Loan Service with RAFO still exist – for the chosen few!
On 1 March 1959, the Royal Air Force of Oman (until 1990 the Sultan of Oman's Air Force) became operational at Bayt al-Falaj, near Muscat, equipped with 3 Piston Provost and 2 Single Pioneer aeroplanes, manned by 7 GD pilots seconded from the RAF and maintained by Airwork Ltd., a commercial company under contract.
Since then, RAFO has grown to become an independent air force of over 50 modern combat aircraft and 3,500 personnel operating 5 key airfields and more than 50 rural airstrips – an air force which combines an efficient integrated air defence system with domestic air services supporting civil development.
Like all military developments, RAFO has grown to meet rising challenges to national security and peaceful development. Militarily, its history is most clearly seen as the forced growth of a flexible air power response to a proliferating cumulative threat. The threat has 3 overlapping growth stages. The first, from 1965, was the 10 year rural insurgency in Dhofar.
Then, once the war was won, there persisted the danger of resurgency and its escalation into a major regional conflict. The late 1970s and 1980s were the era or Soviet proxy influence and the threat persisted of a conventional invasion from the south by the Peoples Democratic Republic (PDR) of Yemen .
Finally, since about 1980, geopolitical antagonisms sharpened in the context of the worldwide dependence on the Gulf oil flow, the pressure from regional tensions and the various forms of power projection by both superpowers into the SW Asian region. Hence the strategic position of Oman placed global responsibilities on the Sultan's Government and his Air Force.
Oman today needs a compact and hard-hitting air force to guarantee Omani airspace, to deter aggression and to support regional stability. This is achieved by wielding a credible capability to intercept intruder aircraft, counter armoured incursion, give warning of dangerous incidents, discourage escalation of impending crisis and act as a trip-wire air deterrent force.
Each stage in this multiple, cumulative threat has been met over the period by a military response within which there have been corresponding increases and adjustments to the equipment, deployment and configuration of RAFO.
The war in Dhofar grew in 3 years from a tribal revolt into a major communist rural insurgency (PFLO) backed by the USSR and the Peoples Republic of China. The early plan to suppress the revolt gave way to a policy of containment. With the accession of HM Sultan Qaboos, and the direction or resources towards making the country safe for civil development, the Government was enabled to seize the initiative and go on the offensive.
The RAFO role was crucial to the success of the ground campaign. Only RAFO could in the last resort aid the survival of the Sultan's Armed Forces (SAF) infantry on the Jebel. RAFO engaged first in tactical support of SAF operations. Later, in line with national policy, RAFO played an equally crucial part in the widening aims of modernization and the dramatic material improvement of national life generally.
RAFO’s scope and configuration were increased to help achieve this central aim. Jet fighters were a vital step forward in operational capability. Much of the significant equipment added to the SOAF inventory in 1970-2 - notably transport aircraft – emphasized the civil role as well as the military: by protecting the Dhofari people against the guerillas and also by improving their lives by better communications and welfare projects. The addition of 3 Caribou and 8 Skyvan aircraft, with their STOL capability, emphasized civil and military transport and supply using short desert airstrips. The new AB 205 Iroquois and 206 Jetranger helicopters, initially 8 in all, also undertook rapid reinforcement, evacuation and airlift of personnel, supplies and equipment for small troop formations in inaccessible terrain, as well as the succour of stricken village settlements and isolated tribespeople caught between the 2 sides in the struggle.
Increased commitments in turn increased force levels, which again increased the RAFO workload. Therefore RAFO’s capability was further enhanced. The 6-fold SAF military increase in Dhofar within 3 years (1971-4) demanded north-south air mobility. RAFO received 5 Vickers Viscount airliners. The tactical support role was increased and complicated by the dual civil-military role British Army Training Teams (SAS) and the arrival or the 1,500 strong Imperial Iranian Battle Group. The Helicopter Squadron doubled. More pilots were engaged on secondment and contract. Selected Omani aircrew were trained as winchmen and airloadmasters, and a few began flying training.
Detail from the Flag of Oman Ultimately, changes in command put RAFO on a firmer basis and on course for the future. As a result an integrated air defence system was planned, and the whole organisation of command, control and communications began re-structuring. Hastily born in conflict, SOAF was rapidly becoming of age.
At each successive phase in the campaign, RAFO mastery of the air was crucial. Despite the PFLO acquisition of SAM 7 missiles, which exacted their toll, RAFO held air superiority. Moreover, from perilous re-supply of forward frontier garrisons, such as Sarfait, to helicopter borne re-inforcement and Strikemaster ground attack at critical pitched battles such as Mirbat, the RAFO tactical contribution proved decisive. Soon, by a courageous decision by HM the Sultan, RAFO would also provide the strategic key to victory.
This took the form of a 5-week offensive across the Yemen border by newly acquired Hawker Hunter fighter-bombers against supply routes and gun positions. The more RAFO strike aircraft exposed Yemeni vulnerability, the less was Yemeni support for the PFLO. Omani diplomatic moves assured the support of Arab neighbours. SAF operations followed up and the PFLO armed struggle lost all coherence. In December 1975, the Sultan was able to declare the southern region ‘safe for civil development.’
In many ways, this had been the ‘Secret War’; Oman was closed to foreign media men and scant press coverage in the West avoided imponderable embarrassments. Hence it is usually forgotten that this is the only time a sovereign state – with a little help from its friends – vanquished a full-blown Communist insurgency in the field.
Ironically, the postwar threat against Oman security became more acute. To the possibility of resurgency was added the worse danger of a Soviet-backed armoured invasion form PDR Yemen. In the air the intrusion of Soviet surveillance aircraft had to be dealt with.
To counter the threat of insurgency, RAFO supported the Sultan's Land Forces (SOLF) garrison presence in the southern region and also made possible the progress of civil development – construction of roads, schools, hospitals and industrial installations. New fixed-wing aircraft (Skyvan and Defender) and Helicopter squadrons (AB 205, AB 206, AB 214 and AB 212) were formed and deployed in the south (Salalah) and the north (Seeb), providing heavy lift, troop transport, recce, medevac, and other support. Later (1981-83) 3 Lockheed C-130 aircraft were added at Seeb to become the main tactical transport squadron, best combining military and civil roles in airborne assault, paradrop, ambulance and re-supply as well as transport of passengers and freight.
The civil role in economic and social development is also, of course, a vital part of encouraging popular support and prosperity. Throughout the country, RAFO tactical transport aircraft of all types provided heavy lift for contractors’ equipment and materials, earth moving vehicles in C130s and flying doctors in Jetranger helicopters. All Omani settlements continue to benefit from RAFO civil air power. In the passenger role, by 1976 the Viscounts had been replaced by 3 BAC 1-11 airliners, providing free scheduled passenger services as a nationwide domestic airline as well as sustaining a worldwide airmobile capability. In fact the workload of all 6 transport squadrons throughout the 1980s was well over 60% dedicated to civil aid tasks.
To the threat of proxy conventional warfare from the south, RAFO mounts a deterrent response. The RAFO deterrent force in the southern sector is embodied in the forward strike/air defence base of Thumrait. Before the end of the Dhofar war, this former oil depot began to be fortified as the guarantor of Omani airspace in the south of the country. At first, Hunter FG9 aircraft constituted a deterrent force with ground attack and anti-armour capability as well as potential for interception of hostile aircraft. In 1977-78, the strike interception capability was enhanced by the addition of 12 new Jaguar aircraft raised as 8 Squadron. Then, late in 1978, the air defence role was augmented at low level by raising 10 (Rapier) Squadron – an extension of the capability already mounted at the new northern HQ base at SOAF Seeb with 12 Rapier Squadron and a Rapier SAM training unit. Over the years, SOAF Thumrait was consistently hardened and exercised alongside other SOAF and allied formations and, on a nationwide and regional scale, continues to be so. Ancillary roles include aerial intelligence and photo recce – combined with aerial photography for civil development – but the paramount requirement is always to intercept foreign probe aircraft or any other infringes of Omani airspace.
Today this role is still the main air defence requirement and has long been extended to cover the entire country and its territorial waters, to counter aggression from any quarter. All these developments were part of the Integrated Air Defence System (IADS) begun by British Aerospace as long ago as 1974. Although much improved in the 1980s, the IADS was complete to its original specification by 1978; existing airfields were extended and linked by a communication system under central control; an early warning radar control and reporting network was established, with aircraft for ground attack, interdiction, close air support and counter-air, as well as surface-to-air defence missiles, all in position and capable of deployment throughout the country. The development of the IADS is the central thrust which has transformed RAFO into a modern air force of regional significance and strategic potential.
By 1980, this modernisation was well advanced. The general configuration remains similar today, greatly expanded and enhanced throughout the decade of the 1980s. Thumrait, with 6 Squadron Hunters and 8 Squadron Jaguars, was the sharp end. Salalah, taken over from the RAF, became the southern logistic base supporting the SAF presence with 3 Squadron (Skyvan and Defender) and 5 Squadron (helicopters). In the north, Seeb mounted the major transport effort with 4 Squadron BAC 1-11, 16 Squadron C-130, 14 Squadron Helicopters and 2 Squadron Skyvan – the latter 2 forming detachments to the Musandam Peninsula enclave base at Khasab. Masirah, the island base off the east coast, also in March 1977 inherited from the RAF, received 1 Strikemaster Squadron from Salalah in its new flying training role. Rapier SAM squadrons were added to all key bases.
The ‘Carter Doctrine’ (US Presidential Directive No.18: August 1977) proclaimed Gulf Oil as a central issue of global strategy. The Shia Imam revolution (1978), the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979) and the Iran-Iraq War (1981-88) – answered by the Oman/USA Access Agreement (1980) and the inauguration of the Gulf Co-operation Council (1982) – faces Oman with a geopolitical responsibility in the cause of regional security. As sentinel of the Gulf, Oman now accepts a multiple challenge in diplomacy as well as defence.
Briefly, since the beginning of the decade, there have developed better technology, improved weaponry and more aeroplanes. The IADS have been continuously enhanced. Several ground-based radars have been commissioned or upgraded since 1982. Apart from a new control and reporting centre (CRC), existing CRCs and sector Operations Centres at mainstay airfields have been improved. New radars include Martello 5713 long-range 3D radars and their associated MACE display and data-handling systems. In 1983, another squadron of 12 Jaguar jets (20 Squadron) was raised at Masirah. The Jaguar squadrons were later retrofitted with the FIN 1064 inertial navigation system to improve navigation, weapon delivery and mission management. The two Rapier low-level SAM squadrons have been equipped with Blindfire radars.
Since 1981, there has been a rolling programme to harden and upgrade all 4 key air defence airfields, including the construction of hardened aircraft shelters (HAS), the lengthening and strengthening of runways, and the laying down of extensive support facilities, ordnance depots and fuel dumps. Significantly, it is the northern bases, Seeb, Masirah and Khasab, which have most benefited from the recent projects. Seeb is the main transport and logistic base, collocated with the international airport. Masirah projects wide-ranging air defence and strike/interdiction. Both mount high-profile airborne surveillance over land and ocean approaches. Khasab, tucked away on the Musandam Peninsula enclave territory, exercises total radar control over the Straights of Hormuz.
Alongside the many other stresses and strains of modernisation, continued RAFO expansion faces fundamental problems. Up to now the answer has been to force growth through training and to invest in quality equipment and manpower to ensure satisfactory recruitment.
After such a sustained period of expansion, consolidation is the keynote of the near future. RAFO strikes a functional balance between training and operations. Airman training takes place at the Air Force Technical College (AFTC) at RAFO Seeb and then ‘out in the field’ on stations and officer training at the Sultan Qaboos Air Academy (SQAA) RAFO Ghalla. Training in all air forces branches and trades takes place in Oman and later often abroad in the West and in parts of the Arab world. Increasingly, training will take place ‘in-country’.
The AFTC claims the most thorough approach to air force trade training in the region. The SQAA maintains standards of airmanship and flying skill envied by Gulf neighbours. The performance of RAFO trainees in a variety of advanced training schemes abroad – RAF Halton, Cosford and Locking, as well as RAFC Cranwell for example – well testifies the effectiveness of both RAFO training institutions.
From the onset it was intended that RAFO should be run entirely by Omani Nationals. A successful programme of Omanization has been well advanced and gains increasing momentum. Senior Omani officers assume all key command appointments. RAFO personnel – mechanics, operations, air traffic and fighter control assistants, suppliers and other key tradesmen – take their places in hangars, control towers, operations centres, offices and workshops. Omani officers fly the aircraft and manage the ground installations.
In large-scale war games, RAFO exercises regularly with US Naval forces in the region and with rapid deployment forces from US Centcom. In late 1986, RAFO played a leading part in the Saif Seria (Swift Sword) exercise with British quick reaction forces. RAFO Headquarters is generously decorated with trophies and plaques from the commanders of friendly forces – tributes to the quality of the RAFO contribution.
RAFO’s investment in quality lends it the versatility to meet a wide range of contingencies. This policy is best seen in Oman's order for the BAe Hawk 200 and 100 series aircraft. The Hawk is due to replace the Hunter in late 1993. This acquisition will be the most significant development of recent years.
Thus, in 30 years, RAFO grew up with the country, both a symbol and a source of National success. As part of the present mainstay of national defence, or as the future leading edge of regional allied deterrence, RAFO faces the future with confidence.