In 2014 the Nigerian Air Force took delivery of five CH-3 Rainbow armed drones from China In a secrete deal. Four of the attack drones are currently used for intelligence, surveillance and targeted strike missions and as artillery spotters in support of Nigerian ground forces. As of this writing Angolam Algeria and Nigeria at the only operators of attack drones and Nigeria is the only country in Africa to have employed the use of armed drones in combat.
The presence of French and American Reaper drone bases in Niger, Chad and of recent Cameroon negates at a stroke Nigeria’s monopoly and advantage in the use of armed drones in the region. With its lacklustre approach to acquiring 4th generation manned aircrafts, the NAF has a unique opportunity to compensate for this with unmanned vehicles. It makes economic and strategic sense to say the least.
UAV air combat is the future. Compared to manned strike aircrafts its cheap, requires no physical fitness to operate, it can execute tight manoeuvres without risking the lives of expensive pilots. The Boko Haram threat might have greatly diminished but Nigeria must not revert to its “buy & develop it when you me it” approach to national security, if any thing the Boko Haram conflict should be a reminder of the dangers of security complacency.
There are ways for Nigeria to reap the strategic benefits of armed drones in West Africa while avoiding the diplomatic fallout from neighbouring States wary of “perceived Nigerian economic, cultural and military hegemony” in the region.
Nigeria already have the largest drone fleet in West Africa, and trails only Egypt and Algeria in the application of drones in Africa. Nigeria currently uses armed and unarmed drones of all sizes in both domestic and foreign operations.
The first drone to be used in foreign operations is the medium altitude long endurance CH-3 Rainbow armed drone operated by the Nigerian Air Force. Nigeria has four CH-3 Rainbows, three of which are deployed for operations in Nigeria’s northeast. A total of five was delivered to the NAF sometime in 2014. One was lost when it crashed in a training accident.
In January 2017 Nigeria deployed one CH-3 Rainbow armed drone to the Gambia, as part of the air asset deployed by Nigeria to privide close air support and surveillance in support of ground troops should the use of force be necesaary to unseat Yahya Jammeh. The drone loittered over the Presidential palace in Banjul for hours, a move that unnerved Yahya Jammmehs presidential guards.
The CH-3 is is armed with two laser guided AR-1 air to ground missiles, a knock off of the American Hellfire missile. Performance wise it has a 12 endurance window and has a range of 2,400 kilometres.
Why Armed Drones?
The primary motivation for Nigeria’s acquisition of combat UAV’s was to fill the capability gap in the NAF in the quickest, cheapest and fastest time span. A decade’s of neglect coupled with under-funding has driven the NAF strike fleet to the brink of extinction. The lack of a comparable peer or rival in the air domain in West Africa gave Nigeria little incentive to invest heavily on its air force.
With an economy still reeling from the effect of drop in global oil prices, barely just getting out of recession, Unmanned strike assets is a force multiplier for the NAF in the least expensive way. With five sattelites in orbit and advanced surveillance aircrafts like the Allenia ATR-42 and Beechcraft King Air 350i, Nigeria has an overwhelming advantave in ISR and Reconnaissance capabilities.
But with antiquated strike platforms Nigeria is unable to translate this advantage into combat effectiveness. The surveilance planes are not armed. The Alpha Jets is armed but has an abysmally small payload of 50 kilograms. Too light to make any significant impact on the modern battlefield. The F-7N has a relatively bigger payload but lacks modern avionics and data-link capability.
Armed drones like the CH-3 carry out both sensor and effector functions, thereby freeing much needed aircrafts to conduct other operations. It’s a no brainer that an armed drone can cover the entire kill chain ( find, fix, track, engage, assess) for twelve straight hours.
Why the Nigerian Air Force leadership is yet to consolidate on its early monopoly in the combat UAV domain is bewildering to say the least. In Operation Lafya Dole (final offensive by the Nigerian Army dislodge Boko Haram from the Sambisa) less than 6,000 Nigerian soldiers drawn from the 7th Infantry Division were tasked to fight Boko Haram insurgents scattered in an extremely vast and hostile area covering 66,000 square kilometres- that’s an area 18 times the size of Lagos. Having a chance for success requires persistence in flight – which only drones can offer, and an extreme reactivity when targets of opportunity appear- which only armed drones can offer.
The Alpha Jets and the loud Mi-24/35 helicopter gunships vectored by a surveillance aircraft that has spotted a high value target of opportunity will take between 30 to 1 hour to arrive in location. This delay and the lesser discretion of these aircrafts increases the chances of losing the target.
While Nigeria’s aquisition of five armed CH-3 Rainbow UAV from China commendable, it is nary enough given Nigeria’s lack of modern strike aircrafts. The Nigerian Air Force should acquire at least a squadron of armed UAV’s to give the Nigerian Air Force bite. The more advanced Yahbon MALE UAV should be procured because of its strategic and tactical mission capability. It can stay airborne for 120 hours and has a payola in excess of 550kg.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles is the future of air warfare and for the first time Nigeria has a unique opportunity to be at the forefront of combat UAV technology.