Awesome tanks and jets of the Border War

Beginning as what was essentially a war for independence for Namibia and Angola, the South African Border War started in 1966.

The South African Defence Force (SADF), entered the war on the side of Portugal, and saw 4 movements uniting against it:

  • South-West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO), with its military wing, the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN).
  • People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA)
  • National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA)
  • National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA)

In 1975, a new Portuguese government announced it would grant Angola its independence on 11 November, at which point a civil war broke out in the former colony.

The MPLA formed the Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola (FAPLA), which came in conflict with its former allies, the FNLA and UNITA.

The South African Defence Force joined the side of UNITA and the FNLA, while the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and Cuba fought on the side of FAPLA and SWAPO.

These are some of the armoured vehicles and aircraft used on the two sides of the war.

MiG-21 fighter/bomber

Angolan Mikoyan Gurevich (MiG)-21bis
Angolan Mikoyan Gurevich (MiG)-21bis

Little is known about the combat record of Angolan and Cuban MiG-21 fighters in the Border War, except for their losses against Mirage F1s and Cheetahs which were recorded by the SADF.


FAPA-DAA MiG-23ML from

Cuba entered the war on MPLA/FAPLA side, where its MiG-23ML fighters engaged with SADF Mirage F1 aircraft frequently.

Air combat writers have said that the variable geometry MiG-23ML outgunned the SADF’s Mirage III and Mirage F1, and had both aircraft beat in power and acceleration as well as radar and avionics.

Dassault Mirage F1AZ and F1CZ

Dassault Mirage F1AZ
Dassault Mirage F1AZ

The SADF began looking for a replacement for the Mirage III in 1971, and bought a number of Mirage F1AC and F1CZ aircraft when the 1977 arms embargo caused its Mirage F1 licence to be cancelled.

Deliveries started in 1975, before the embargo was implemented.

Dassault Mirage III

Mirage IIIBZ, by DanieB52 on the English Wikipedia
Mirage IIIBZ, by DanieB52 from the English Wikipedia

Although the SADF started to withdraw Mirage IIIs from its fleet in 1983 for Atlas (later Denel Aviation) Cheetah fighters, the Cheetah was never tested against the MiG-23.

Instead, non-upgraded Mirage III aircraft remained in service until the end of the Border War, with Cheetahs stationed at airbases in South Africa as interceptors.

T–62 main battle tank

Cuban T62 at the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale
Cuban T62 at the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale

The T-62 was an iteration on the Soviet T-55, which FAPLA also used during the war.

It is believed that the delivery of FAPLA’s T-62s was accelerated in the wake of Operation Askari during 1983, which saw T-54 and T-55 main battle tanks bested by SADF Eland and Ratel-90 armoured cars.

The T-62 boasted the first 115mm smoothbore tank gun, while the T-55 had a 100mm rifled main gun.

Both the T-55 and T-62 could sustain multiple hits to weak points in their armour from a Ratel–90 before they were disabled.

Ratel infantry and fire support vehicle

Ratel-90 by Alain Serveas

“Honey badger” in Afrikaans, the name of this infantry fighting vehicle proved to be well selected over the course of the war.

It was completely outgunned and under-armoured compared to the Soviet T-54, T-55, and T-62, forcing the SADF to use the Ratel-90’s superior manoeuvrability and superior numbers to disable FAPLA tanks.

Olifant Mk1A main battle tank

Olifant Mk 1 main battle tank
Olifant Mk1A main battle tank

From the Afrikaans for “elephant”, the Olifant Mk1A was the result of an ambitious SADF programme to upgrade the Centurion – an old British main battle tank.

It later received another upgrade when the SADF discovered that its 20-pounder main gun was no match for the T-55.

The Olifant Mk1A had a 105mm rifled main gun, and 8 smoke grenade dischargers on either side of the turret.

It also got a new engine, had its armour improved, the laser range-finder incorporated into the gunner’s sight, and its night vision equipment upgraded.

Mi-24 and Mi-35 Hind gunship and attack helicopters

FAPA-DAA Mi-35 from the Tom Cooper collection
FAPA-DAA Mi-35 from the Tom Cooper collection

Called the flying tank, the Hind is a large gunship, attack helicopter, and low-capacity troop transport which was developed for the Soviet Air Force.

While they were initially only flown by Cuban and Soviet pilots, FAPLA’s air force had trained pilots in Hind cockpits by the 1980s.

Atlas Oryx

Atlas Oryx by John Stupart
Atlas Oryx by John Stupart

Named after an antelope with long, straight horns, the Oryx is a medium-sized upgraded and remanufactured version of the Aérospatiale SA 330 Puma, which the SADF also used in the war.

BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launcher

BM-21 by Dmitry A. Mottl
BM-21 by Dmitry A. Mottl

The BM-21 Grad was built for the Soviet Union’s army in 1963 to replace the BM-14, a variant of the Katyusha rocket launcher – also called Stalin’s Organ.

The Grad (which means “hail” in Russian) is a 122mm multiple rocket launcher system mounted atop a Ural-375D 6×6 truck chassis.

It devastated the SADF’s armoured cars in Operation Savannah, a series of covert missions from 1975-1976 which marked the start of South Africa’s involvement in the Angolan Civil War.


Valkiri-22 Mk 1 MRLS launching rockets
Valkiri-22 Mk 1 MRLS launching rockets

After facing the BM–21 and not being able to counter it with its antiquated artillery, the SADF was forced to develop its own multiple rocket launcher system.

It was named after the valkyrie, warrior-like female figures from Norse mythology which decide who may die and who may live in a battle.

The SADF based the Valkiri’s design on the Grad, and designed it specifically to function as a counter-battery to FAPLA artillery.

G5 towed howitzer

G5 towed howitzer in the bush
G5 towed howitzer in the bush

Also built in response to being outgunned by the Grad rocket launcher at the start of the war, the SADF’s G5 Howitzer entered service between 1982 and 1983.

It was based on the Canadian GC–45, and wielded a 155mm calibre gun.

The United States military’s most expensive war machine

What it takes to get into the South African army’s Special Forces

The most awesome guns in the world

Awesome weapons made in South Africa

Latest news

Partner Content

Show comments


Share this article
Awesome tanks and jets of the Border War