Nigeria’s airpower will overtake the South African Air Force by 2020

Nigeria might overtake South Africa as the premier Air Power in Sub Sahara Africa by 2020 if current trajectory is maintained by both nations. As of this writing the South African Air Force  (SAAF) has a dozen or more fixed wing combat aircraft than the Nigerian Air Force.

In terms of personnel the NAF is larger than the SAAF by as much as 7,000 men, and that size will be represented by the number of aircraft Nigeria has in the coming years. Taken into account the acquisition rate (albeit snail paced) and class of weapons to be fielded, in as little as two or three years, Nigeria would have made up that two dozen aircraft gap and will in every other aspect of Air Power be nearly twice as big.

South African Air Force  (SAAF)



JAS Gripen Multirole (4th generation) : 17

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A SAAF Gripen Multirole Fighter taking off..

Hawk Mk.120 Trainer/Light Attack: 24

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SAAF Hawk trainers flying in echelon formation.


Attack Helicopters

Dennel AH-2 Rooiviak Helicopter Gunship : 15

SAAF AH-2 Rooviake helicopter gunship.

Utility/Multirole Helicopters

Atlas Oryx meduim sized Utility Helicopter : 38

Augusta Westland Utility Helicopter : 29


Lockheed C-130 Hercules : 5

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SAAF Hercules C-130 transport plane.


Beechcraft A 200/300 Transport Plane : 4

Nigerian Air Force (NAF)


F-7Ni Interceptor (2nd generation +) : 9

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F-7Ni fighters taxi the runway for take off.

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The 55 km range Grifo-7 radar.

Alpha Jet Trainer/Light Attack : 16

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NAF Alpha jet.

Aero L-39 Albatros : 22

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Aero L-39’s flying in diamond formation.
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L-39 pilot takes a selfie.

JF -17 Multirole Fighter.


Attack Helicopters

Mi-24 Hind Helicopter Gunship : 16

Mi-35 Hind Helicopter Gunship : 6 (12 on order, 4 delivered so far)

12 Embrae Super Tucano aircraft  (12 on order)

More important than just the number of aircraft, is Nigeria’s trend of acquiring and successfully fielding more and more specialised weapons system. This will also shrink South Africa’s technological advantage South Africa currently holds over Nigeria, especially if it continues with its ISR/unmanned drone modernization programmes.

South Africa has some of the world’s most advanced defence industries, but its inability to harness on its strong technological base and produce weapons on scale, seriously limits the growth potential of the SAAF.

With Nigeria the case is quite the opposite. The lack of an indigenous arms manufacturing industry means Nigeria has no choice but to acquire weapons in the Chinese and Russian arms market. This comes with some level of technology transfer to some extent, allowing Nigeria to build systems that are specifically tailored to meet Nigeria’s mission sets . For example Nigeria is making quick developmental progress in Unmanned systems. It’s already fielded and deployed two locally made drones.

Additionally, Nigeria has acquired five armed drones from China and is currently developing an armed prototype for the Tsaigumi drone. All these measures taken together will cumulatively make Nigeria a significant player in the building and application of military drone technology.



For a country with a 2,500mile (4,000km) coastline, South Africa has little maritime surveillance capability. It’s C-47TP maritime patrol plane for example is more than 70 years old. They are operated by the South African Air Force (SAAF) 35 Squadron at Air Force Base Ysterplaat, to provide any airborne maritime surveillance requirements – with no electro optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensors.

Again, South Africa has the technological base, but it always seems to boil down to funding issues with the SAAF. For several years now, the SAAF has assembled teams to find solutions to the gap in their air and maritime surveilance system, but they always tend to fail because of funding issues. Several companies have been to South Africa marketing their solutions, offering a myriad of differing sensor solutions.


Nigeria is doing more than most to quell its maritime issues, which is not surprising given the massive problems it endures along its 500mile (800kms) coastline. In June 2016, the Nigerian Navy finally began operating the Falcon Eye mass surveillance system for operations across the Gulf of Guinea.

Falcon Eye’s six electro-optical stations monitor aircraft, vessels and offshore oil infrastructure. Through its integral radar, camera and automatic identification system (AIS), the RMAC provides round-the–clock surveillance of the maritime environment up to 35 nautical miles from the coast. Two Nigerian Air Force ATR-42 maritime patrol plane plug into the new system.

At the heart of arguably the most modern maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) in Africa is the Leonardo airborne tactical observation and surveillance (ATOS) system with the  Sea Spray 7000E active electronically scanned array (AESA) multi-mode surveillance radar being the jewel of the aircraft’s crown. The ATR-42 MPA’s are also equipped with flight-operable doors to drop emergency kits, plus large observation windows and fuselage pylons to carry a night searchlight or other equipment. Both flew to Edinburgh, Scotland in 2013, apparently so their systems could be upgraded for overland operations.

With such a vast radar range, some say 115 miles (185kms), both aircraft could search, track or locate any ship or vessel in Nigeria’s territorial waters within 15 minutes of departure from their base at Port Harcourt.

The ATR-42’s were acquired as part of a chain of surveillance structure to protect Nigeria’s maritime domain and oil and gas installations. Nigeria has installed along Nigeria’s coast, surveillance radars. The Nigerian Air Force is considering the acquisition of more aircraft for maritime domain awareness purposes.







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