At one point the air force was well respected, having been credited with helping defend Kinshasa in 1998, but most planes of Western origin have been grounded in recent years for lack of spare parts due to the EU arms embargo. The air force has reduced its reliance on Western arms and has acquired Chinese K-8 trainers to replace the BAe Hawks. Testimony to the quality training of the AFZ in the past was the fact the South African Air Force had turned to Zimbabwean instructors to meet its needs in both flying and maintanance engineering.
The air force has Hawker Hunters, BAE Hawks, and Chinese Chengdu F-7 interceptors, as well as a variety of helicopters. Total personnel was estimated at about 5,000 in 1999, and there are three main airbases, Gweru-Thornhill, Manyame Air Base near Harare and Field Air Base near Chegutu. There are also several Forward Air Fields (FAF) like Grand Reef, Buffalo Range, Hwange and Kotwa around the country. They also have an underground armoury and other facilities in the mountain ranges around Darwendale.
In 1990 Defence and Foreign Affairs Weekly (February 19-25), reported that Zimbabwe was purchasing a complete air defence system from China, including radar arrays and complete command, control, and communications network. In 1992-93 the Ministry of Public Construction had entries for an "Air Defence Project," consisting of Command Centres in Harare and Gweru, a Command Maintenance Centre, and radars in Harare, Gweru, Chegutu, Chivhu, Hwange and four other sites, plus twelve communications positions.
The radar network was upgraded in 2006.
The No.2 AFZ Squadron was flying 12 BAe Hawk T.Mk.60/60As, which are used as strike-fighters – equipped with AIM-9B Sidewinder AAMs, Mk.82-series bombs, and Hunting BL.755 cluster-bomber units (CBUs), as well as launchers for unguided rockets. Only six or seven F-7s were fully mission-capable. At the time the war in Congo was to break out Zimbabwe was in the middle of negotiations with China for an additional batch of 12 F-7s.
For transport, the AFZ had the No.3 Squadron, flying 12 CASA C.212-200 and six Britten-Norman BN-2A Islander light transports which had already seen heavy service, and were to see even more of this in Congo. Transport and liaison were also duties of the No.7 Squadron, equipped with Aérospatiale SA.316B Alouette IIIs (including ex-Portuguese Air Force- and Romanian IAR-built examples), as well as of the No.8 Squadron, equipped with Agusta-Bell 412SPs which were later armed with rockets launchers for this war. However, the later unit was soon to play a significant role in the war in Congo, as it was only recently equipped with the most recent addition to the AFZ: six Mi-35 helicopters (including two Mi-35Ps). The first AFZ Mi-35-crews were trained at Thornhill AB, in Gweru, by Russian instructors. CO of this unit was Sqn.Ldr. Mukotekwa.
In mid-August 1998 the AFZ deployed between five and six F-7s, most of C.212s, and something like a dozen of helicopters – including Alouettes, Bell 412s and Mi-35s – to Congo. All were flown by Zimbabwean pilots. Later on, after receiving an urgent shipment of spares, the AFZ apparently deployed some of Hawks as well, which, at the start of the war, had been reported as not in flyable condition. It was therefore so that the AFZ contingent in Congo in August and September 1998 consisted of flights from No.3, No.5, No.7 and No.8 Squadrons, while a flight from No.2 Squadron was to follow later.
The first noted AFZ operation was when, on 26 August 1998, they destroyed a 5km armored column of rebels as they were approaching Kinshasa. After defeating the invaders in Kinshasa, the Zimbabweans in belief that Kabila's government was already safe – suggested that there was no need to continue the war, and peace should be negotiated. The result was that the rebels reinforced their efforts: the Rwandans and Ugandans were also rushing better-equipped units into the battle as well. Indeed, the garrisons in eastern Congo that remained loyal to Kabila were falling one after the other. They simultaneously attacked also the Ndigili airport, in Kibanseke Province, held by Zimbabwean troops, as well as Kitona. In both cases the AFZ responded with fierce air strikes, offering rebels the opportunity to claim that up to 100 civilians were killed by their bombs.
In a series of fierce battles fought between 4 and 13 September 1998, during which finally also the Angolan mechanised forces were able to deploy their full firepower. The Chadian contingent was meanwhile deployed in NE Congo, where it participated in re-capture of Lubutu. The AFZ and FAC were active in this area for several days, flying a number of strikes during which also cluster-bomb units (CBUs) were used. According to government reports 45 rebels were killed and 19 captured in this battle
On 13 September, when the Angolans attacked towards Kamina, while the Zimbabweans found themselves under fierce attacks by thousands of rebels in the Manono area. It was in this area that the AFZ suffered its first documented loss of this war: on 4 September the SF.260MC flown by Sqn.Ldr. Sharunga crashed in bad weather, killing the pilot. Nine days later also an Alouette III helicopter carrying several high officers – including Col. Kufa and Sqn.Ldr. Vundla – was shot down by rebels in eastern central Congo. Kufa and Vundla were killed, while Flt.Sgt. Sande was captured by RCD.
In late October 1998, the Zimbabweans launched an offensive – to a degree possible due to deployment of additional foreign troops in Congo, including some 2.000 Namibians – in SE Congo. This began with a series of air strikes, partially flown by BAe Hawk T.Mk.60s of the No.2 Squadron, newly deployed in Congo, and by F-7s of the No.5 Squadron. These first targeted airfields in Gbadolite, Dongo and Gmena, and then rebel and Rwandan communications and depots in Kisangani area, on 21 November. On the following day the No.2 Squadron prepared a special mission, launching a strike package of six aircraft, armed with Mk.82 bombs and Matra 155 rocket launchers for unguided rockets calibre 68mm: reaching out far over central Congo they appeared over the Lake Tanganyika and attacked ferries used to transport Burundi troops and supplies into the war in Congo. According to Zimbabwean reports their strike came as a complete surprise: with no other means of air defence but machine-guns and light infantry weapons, six ferries were sunk and 600 Burundi and Rwandan troops killed. In a similar attack, on 7 December 1998, Zimbabwean planes or helicopters sank two rebel boats on Lake Tanganyika some 40 km north of Moba.
There were only very few reports about the fighting in the next few days, probably because the Congolese, Zimbabwean and Angolan governments found themselves under heavy pressure from Western powers because of this offensive. The few reports released from sources close to the rebels indicated Zimbabwean and Congolese attacks on Nuyuzu, Kasinge and towards Manono, supported even by T-62 tanks and heavy artillery. According to Zimbabwean reports the Hawks and F-7s continued their operations by additional attacks against Kalemi, on 24 November, and a new round of strikes against different airfields in eastern Congo, two days later, during which the pilots of No.5 Squadron claimed destruction of an unidentified An-12 transport on the ground.