The SNA never recovered from its defeat in the Ogaden War. The battles to retake and then defend the Ogaden stripped the Somali armed forces of many troops, much of their equipment, and their Soviet patron. For the next decade, the SNA sought unsuccessfully to improve its capability by relying on a variety of foreign sources, including the United States. The Ogaden War therefore remains the best example of the SNA's ability to mount and sustain conventional military operations.
Before the Ogaden War, the most striking feature of the 23,000-man SNA had been its large armored force, which was equipped with about 250 T-34 and T-54/T-55 Soviet-built medium tanks and more than 300 armored personnel carriers. This equipment gave the SNA a tank force more than three times as large as Ethiopia's. The prewar SAF also was larger than Ethiopia's air force. In 1976 the SAF had fifty-two combat aircraft, twenty-four of which were Soviet-built supersonic MiG21s . Facing them was an Ethiopian Air Force (EAF) of thirty-five to forty aircraft. Ethiopia also was in the process of acquiring several United States-built Northrop F-5 fighters from Iran. At the outbreak of fighting, Ethiopia had approximately sixteen F5A /Es.
As chaos spread throughout Ethiopia after Haile Selassie's downfall, Mogadishu increased its support to several pro-Somali liberation groups in the Ogaden, the strongest of which was the WSLF. By late 1975, the WSLF had attacked many Ethiopian outposts in the Ogaden. In June 1977, Addis Ababa accused Mogadishu of committing SNA units to the fighting. Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, Somalia denied this charge and insisted that only "volunteers" had been given leave from the SNA to fight with the WSLF. By late 1977, the combined WSLF-SNA strength in the Ogaden probably approached 50,000, of which 15,000 appeared to be irregulars.
After the Somali government committed the SNA to the Ogaden, the conflict ceased to be a guerrilla action and assumed the form of a conventional war in which armor, mechanized infantry, and air power played decisive roles. The SNA quickly adapted its organization to battlefield realities. The centralized Somali logistics system controlled supplies at battalion level (600- to 1,000-man units) from Mogadishu, an unwieldy arrangement given Somalia's limited transportation and communications network. To facilitate operations, the logistics center and headquarters for forces fighting in the northern Ogaden moved to Hargeysa, the SNA's northern sector headquarters. Before the war, all Somali ground forces had been organized into battalions. After the conflict started, however, the standard infantry and mechanized infantry unit became the brigade, composed of two to four battalions and having a total strength of 1,200 to 2,000 personnel.
During the summer of 1977, the SNA-WSLF force achieved several victories but also endured some significant defeats. In July 1977, it captured Gode, on the Shabeelle River about 550 kilometers inside Ethiopia, and won control of 60 percent of the Ogaden. By mid-September 1977, Ethiopia conceded that 90 percent of the Ogaden was in Somali hands. The SNA suffered two setbacks in August when it tried to capture Dire Dawa and Jijiga. The Ethiopian army inflicted heavy losses on the SNA at Dire Dawa after a Somali attack by one tank battalion and a mechanized infantry brigade supported by artillery units. At Jijiga the Somalis lost more than half of their attacking force of three tank battalions, each of which included more than thirty tanks.
Somalia's greatest victory occurred in mid-September 1977 in the second attempt to take Jijiga, when three tank battalions overwhelmed the Ethiopian garrison. After inflicting some heavy losses on Somali armor, Ethiopian troops mutinied and withdrew from the town, leaving its defense to the militia, which was incapable of slowing the Somali advance. The Ethiopians retreated beyond the strategic Marda Pass, the strongest defensive position between Jijiga and Harer, leaving the SNA in a commanding position within the region. Despite this success, several factors prevented a Somali victory. Somali tank losses had been heavy in the battles around Dire Dawa and Jijiga. Moreover, because the EAF had established air superiority over the SAF, it could harass overextended Somali supply lines with impunity. The onset of the rainy season hampered such air attacks; however, the bad weather also bogged down Somali reinforcements on the dirt roads.
The Soviet Union's decision to abandon Somalia in favor of Ethiopia eventually turned the tide of battle in the Ogaden. From October 1977 through January 1978, about 20,000 WSLF guerrillas and SNA forces pressed attacks on Harer, where nearly 50,000 Ethiopians had regrouped, backed by Soviet-supplied armor and artillery and gradually reinforced by 11,000 Cubans and 1,500 Soviet advisers. Although it fought its way into Harer in November 1977, the SNA lacked the supplies and manpower to capture the city. Subsequently, the Somalis regrouped outside Harer and awaited an Ethiopian counterattack.
As expected, in early February 1978 Ethiopian and Cuban forces launched a two-stage counterattack toward Jijiga. Unexpectedly, however, a column of Cubans and Ethiopians moving north and east crossed the highlands between Jijiga and the Somali border, bypassing Somali troops dug in around the Marda Pass. Thus, the attacking force was able to assault the Somalis from two sides and recapture Jijiga after two days of fighting in which 3,000 Somali troops lost their lives. Within a week, Ethiopia had retaken all of the Ogaden's major towns. On March 9, 1978, Siad Barre recalled the SNA from Ethiopia.
After the SNA withdrawal, the WSLF reverted to guerrilla tactics. By May 1980, the rebels had established control over a significant portion of the Ogaden. Eventually, Ethiopia defeated the WSLF and the few small SNA units that remained in the region after the Somali pullout. In late 1981, however, reports indicated that the WSLF continued to conduct occasional hit-and-run attacks against Ethiopian targets.
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