One of the eye-opening features of Nigeria’s air campaign in the Boko Haram insurgency is the hollowness of what was once the premier air power in the region. Let’s be honest, this is not a major conventional war against a capable adversary. It is sad that despite the billions invested in the air component of the Nigerian military, hundreds of Boko Haram mustering Toyota pickup trucks stage attacks in broad day light with impunity without fear of being intercepted by air raids.
The NAF publishes daily statistics of sorties flown and strike missions conducted. With what platforms? one might ask.
The Nigerian military priorities ground forces, and for good reasons, the army bears the brunt of the Boko Haram insurgency. But the Nigerian government is playing a dangerous game of willful negligence by refusing to learn from past mistakes.
In 1983 when the invading Chadian army staged a surprise and unexpected attack and seized a couple of Nigerian Islands in the Lake Chad region and parts of Borno state, Nigeria was fortunate to have a functioning Air Force. NAF Migs harassed the invading army ,stalling their advance towards Maiduguri and forcing them to build defences, given the Nigerian army 21 armoured division, led by General Buhari enough time to mobilize and route the invading army, driving them out of Nigerian territory.
Today the Nigeria faces a much graver threat than it did 35 years ago, and without significant air power Nigeria will not be able to defend the nation’s territory, much less initiate the air campaign, and Nigeria’s massive army would be at the mercy of enemy airpower. It’s not gonna be a pretty sight.
In 2014-2015 the Nigerian Air Force provided nearly 70 percent of ISR capability in the entire sub-region. This is not just a matter of numbers of sensor platforms. The NAF deploys a range of unique capabilities for which there is no counterparts :
ATR-42 maritime patrol aircraft
Super King 350i Target Attack Radar System ground surveillance aircraft,
Diamond Sensor/ISTAR plane.
CH-3H Rainbow armed drone.
Today that capability had not only been matched, but exceeded. Nontheless It would seem the NAF recognises that without ISR assets Nigeria would be conducting its air operations in the blind. Against this backdrop it’s almost hard to comprehend the reasons behind Nigeria’s refusal or failure to invest wisely and strategically in the capabilities any modern air force needs to effectively carry out its mission. Of what use is having a superb SIR capability if you lack the tactical strike assets to make good use of the intelligence gathered?
Strike assets are lacking that would allow Nigeria’s impressive capability in ISR make an impact. The workhorse of the Nigerian Air Force, the Alpha jet/trainer light aircraft will be of little use even in a limited contested environment, as they do not have the means to identify, process, and strike targets as part of an integrated campaign.
We have the spectacle of one of the largest air force in Africa entering its 10th year into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated area, yet three years into the war was beginning to run combat planes, requiring Nigeria to make up the difference by reconfiguring its trainer aircrafts to carry weapons, a “just in time” infusion of planes that may not always be available in future contingencies against an enemy with a credible air force
In 2013 the NAF announced plans by the service to plug its capability gap by replacing its fleet of F-7Ni fighters ( which as for acquired for $360 million as a stop-gap measure following the retirement of the MiG-21’s) with 40 JF-17 multi role-fighters.
Nigeria’s defense enthusiasts were elated as this was long overdue. Then the number was revised from 40 to just three JF-17 fighters. Well better than nothing. In 2015 it was announced negotiations have been finalised.
It’s been five long years since Nigeria signified interest, negotiators are “still ongoing”.
In January the government announced its payed a staggering $600 million for 12 P-51 Mustang (Super Tucano) from the United States. A plane no different from a trainer aircraft and of little relevance. In a contested environment even the most elementary arms will pick them out of the sky like sitting ducks.
And just when you think it couldn’t get any worse, the Nigerian government today made a disclosure that the 12 propeller driven Super Tucano plane will be delivered by 2020. Which simply means by 2022 or 2025. The president withdrew $600 million from the nation’s Excess Crude Account to pay for a propeller driven aircraft that may not be delivered until 2022 or 2025, nobody really knows.
This means that until 2020, all that stands between a hostile power and Nigeria is a couple of Alpha jet trainers, seven F-7Ni and a handful of L-39 trainers.
Is this a country?
Only a handful of countries other than South Africa have the financial capacity of Nigeria to fund its military, and even at that, Nigeria can afford keep its foreign reserve and pay by commodity.
Meaning, Nigeria is in a league of its own in economic power. No country in Africa comes close. Yet countries such as Angola, Cameroon, Chad, Uganda etc, have been able to punch above their weight by focusing their limited resources on the right platforms capable of defending their countries. That is not an option for Nigeria it would seem.