Armed Helicopters: How the Nigerian Army Fought its way into Attack Aviation.

The Nigerian Air Force and Nigerian Army have had a unique and turbulent relationship since 2013, when the campaign against the Boko Haram insurgency took a turn for the worse. Nigeria’s military leadership found it challenging to
embrace the evolution of combined arms warfare while an over zealous drive by aviation proponents within the Nigerian Army created a rift, but the Army continued to struggle for four years struggled to make its case for army aviation in lieu of the fact it bears the brunt of the Boko Haram insurgency much more than its sister components.

Inter-service rivalry with the Air Force in its infancy coupled with its overly strategic focus on relatively safe interdiction mission rather than close air support failed to meet the needs of maneuver commanders on the ground.

Fortunately for Buratai and ground commanders alike, the Commander-in-Chief had witnesses first hand the importance of air power when he led the attack against Chadian troops in the 80s saw potential where the Air Force saw competition, and they were able to bend the rules between the services and the bureaucracy enough to give the concept of armed helicopter technology and doctrine room to develop and take hold.

The truth is that the motivating factor was born out of necessity and interservice rivalry. The Nigerian Army adopted attack helicopter operations in response to an overwhelming requirement for integrated close air support (CAS) in a direct support relationship to the ground commander within the service.

November 2016. Hundreds of Boko Haram insurgents launched a sustained attack on the troops of Operation Lafiya Dole, at Malam Fatori, catching the unsuspecting soldiers off-guard. The communication officer got on the radio and called for an airstrike. None was forthcoming . As the battled raged on it dawned on the besieged troops there were not gonna get air support.

The legendary commanding officer of 272 Tank Battalion, Mr. Ali recognised an immediate need for reinforcement. But his team was met by another group of terrorists while making its way back to the battlefront. Abu-Ali was hit by several bullets as he tried to reinforce troops to repel an ongoing attack in the town.

This army was furious. The tangles over the army’s request for an independent air arm took up steam. Those tangles were defined by the Army insisting on greater CAS
capabilities, while the Air Force insisted upon its strategic and independent role on a grand scale that negated anything that might be construed as a subordinate relationship to the Army and its mission.

The evolution of Army following the creation of the Nigerian Army Aviation Corps was a mixture of political and military influences that resulted in years of indecision and turf wars in Abuja that frequently overlooked the needs of the commander on the ground. The Air Force had the backing of the Senate that unabashedly opposes increase funding for the military. The Army had the backing of the President.

Army Chief Tukur Buratai meets the first set of Nigerian Army pilots trained by the Nigerian Army Aviation School to fly combat aircrafts were decorated 13 December 2017.

This unprecedented development was critical to the modern identity of attack aviation within the Nigerian Army and Nigeria’s airpower capabilities as a whole. A clear understanding of why its role was so contested in bureaucracy instead of reacting to the operational needs of the force is essential to appreciating the magnitude of these seismic change in the Nigerian army.

The challenges facing the development of Nigerian Army attack aviation can be understood from three distinct lenses: the Air Force’s drive for institutional independence and legitimacy, the overemphasis of the services and the political leadership on strategic airpower, and the inability to accept newly defined roles to foster joint capabilities.

Newly delivered Mi-35 helicopter gunships.
Eurocopter helicopter.

From an airpower perspective among the service leadership, it is important not to get entrenched in the technology aspect to define the political influence in the situation. Now, lets back off for a minute. One must not collapse what airpower is with what it is about.

Each element in the familiar statement of the strategic function is essential: ends, ways, and means.”2. The resistance to attack aviation development within the Nigerian Army was not a turf war over who received which type of equipment, rather it was a contest of roles and responsibilities at a strategic level between the services.

The problem was one of cultural rhetoric that drove the Air Force to continue to try to legitimize its independence and focus less on its requirements to support the Army mission. No thanks to the dramatic drop in global oil prices and Obama’s economic retribution, the Nigerian economy tanked into a recession, the likes of which it had not seen in 35 years. The nation was nearly broke. Shrinking budgets forced a reexamination of roles where “matters of power, money, jobs, outlook, and identity, not technical ones, are crucial.

For the Army the newly created Aviation Corp is a force multiplier in various aspects. Though its primary assignment is to provide Close Air Support for ground troops, it can also be used for artillery observer support missions, by operating in close consert with field artillery units.

The creation of the Army Aviation Corp is a big win for the Nigerian army.





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