Nigeria’s Capital is Guarded by 1964 Era Air Defense Systems.

Every few years the Defense HQ pounds their chest about their latest and greatest in weapons system, and how it’s ready to protect the nation. Latest of which is the Super Mushank trainer aircraft from Pakistan, Mi-35M variant helicopter gunships from Russia and Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles from China. Yet even after a decade of a terrible war of attrition that has exposed how hollow the Nigerian Military has become,we really don’t hear much about Nigeria’s air defense capabilities. That’s because we mostly don’t have any.

Once upon a time the Nigerian airspace was the most protected in the region. There were short-range anti-aircraft missiles, Man Portable Air Defense Systems, lots of interceptor jets and lots of Tripple A guns.

Fast forward today, the skies over Nigeria is no mans airspace. Nigeria has one of the least defended airspace in the world, relying on relics of the Soviet Union to protect Africa’s wealthiest state.

Anti Aircraft Cannons.

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ZSU-23 anti aircraft artillery cannon paraded on the streets of Abuja, Nigeria’s capital.



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Troops from the Air Defence Group duting a training session with the ZSU-23 AA gun.

The anti-aircraft artillery, or triple A has to be among the most outdated piece of equipment in the Nigerian army and has no place in the air defence inventory of a modern army, unless for use on a depressed trajectory, like is often the case in the armies of our French-speaking neighbors.

Most Triple A’s have a maximum effective ceiling of about 30,000 feet, and it will take a shell cannon shell 15 to 20 seconds to reach that speed. By that time a supersonic aircraft like the Mig-29 Fulcrum would have traveled a few kilometers from when the shell was fired. This limits the tripple A’s to most short-range roles.

A country that takes the defense of its airspace seriously should have surface to air missile for every occasion. Short range, medium range and long-range against aircrafts and with the growing presence of U.S and French forces operating in Nigeria’s backyard, cruise missiles.

Nigeria’s major security foe, and the only country that was brave enough to invade Nigerian territory and occupied 19 Islands until pushed out by the 21 armoured division – CHAD, has made air defense a major priority after facing massive scale bombings at the hands of the Libyan air force during the Toyota War.

Its most formidable threat however was Nigeria. In the 1980s, drawing on its oil wealth, Nigeria had built a substantial military. Nigeria’s military had acquired a squadron of the Jaguar fighter jets and was in serious negotiations with BAE for air refueling capabilities, which would give Nigerian strike aircrafts unlimited range in the entire region.The Chadians decided they need a system to defend against powerful states like Libya and Nigeria.

The first system deployed was American supplied 24 Stinger missiles and 7 launchers in 1987., making Chad the first African nation to receive what was then the most sophisticated anti-aircraft missile system in the world. Until then, France, which provides an air shield for most of Chad, has been the main supplier of arms to the Government in Ndjamena.

The weapon was expected to enhance significantly Chad’s military strength at a time when Chad has expressed frustration at France’s reluctance to provide support during its military adventure into Nigerian territory like it did against Libya.

France formally protested the American sale, and expressed concern to Washington that the heat-seeking missile, a symbol of covert American support for an irresponsible nation that could substantially step up the conflict between Chad and Libya or Nigeria again. A conflict France was not all too enthused to entangle itself again.

France has supported Chad in its war Libya because Libya in that instance was the aggressor. France was not pleased with Chadian President Hissene Habre when he invaded and seized 19 islands on Lake Chad, inside Nigerian territory without notifying France. Chad was not strategically important enough to risk war with what was then the most powerful country in black Africa.

The American sale sent a strong signal to Chad that the United States supports Chad’s military goal from the area. This caused grave concern in Nigeria. In response Nigeria acquired 200 Strela 2 Man Portable Air Defence Systems (MANPAD) from Russia.

Fearing Nigeria’s intent, Paris exerted pressure on the British company against giving Nigerian aircraft’s aerial refueling capabilities for fear the Nigerian army would invade other countries and use the extended range of its aircraft’s to defend invading Nigerian forces.

In 1989 Chad acquired 12 SA-6 “Gainful mobile surface-to-air missile system from the Soviet Union .The SA-6 is a Soviet low to medium-level air defence system designed to protect ground forces from air attack. The SA-6 was quickly setup in two rings surrounding the Capital N’djamena. The system was followed up by the 4 SA-13 Gopher SAM system and 16 ZSU-23 anti-aircraft cannons

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Chadian Army SA-6 SAM system.
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Chadian Army SA-6 SAM system.


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Chadian Army SA-6 SAM system.

The failure to reach an agreement with BAE systems over aerial refueling capabilities and modern smart weaponry, limiting it to free fall bombs, coupled with the acquisition of more SAM systems by its French-speaking neighbor to counter Nigerian air power, caused concern from the Nigerian government . Nigeria thereafter bolstered its air defence assets with the following :

30 ZSU-23-4 Self Propelled Anti Aircraft Guns.

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ZSU-23-4 (Shilka) radar guideded self propelled anti aircraft gun.
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ZSU-23-4 (Shilka) radar guideded self propelled anti aircraft gun.

350 23mm ZU-23 anti-aircraft twin barreled auto cannon.

48 Blowpipe Surface to Air Missiles.

16 Roland Surface to Air Missiles System.

Today Nigeria’s french speaking neighbor has a vast, highly mobile layered air defense system protecting the capital and military installations. The system utilised for long-range air defence is the SA-6 and SA-6 surface to air missiles. There are currently around 20 fixed sites spread across the capital protecting important national assets.

These systems are highly mobile, meaning that in a time of war they can be relocated, setup and ready to fire very quickly. These systems alone are a game changer and completely negates Nigeria;s air dominance in its entirety. This SA-6 uses two types of radars, a search and surveillance radar which searches for possible threats, and a tracking and engagement radar which will provide precise targeting information to the missile to guard it to its target.

This combination allows the system to engage several targets at once, while simultaneously searching for more targets. For medium range defence Chad utilises the  SA-13. Like the SA-6, this system can be rapidly deployed to any area due to their high mobility.

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SA-13 meduim range Surface to air missile system.

The SA-13 is designed to defend troops on the march from low-level aircraft and helicopters, precision-guided munitions and reconnaissance RPVs. This system has a maximum range of about 0.3 miles.

And finally for short-range and point defense Chad uses a few different systems. These include the shoulder launched anti- aircraft missiles, like the Stinger missiles, SA-7 Grail, Panhard AML-30 and Strela-2 MANPADS.


Nigeria also turned its attention to surface to air missiles in the 80s and early 90s. The first systems operable was the Roland SHORAD (short-range air defence), making it Nigeria’s first ever operational surface to air missile system.Today the Nigerian military uses the Strela-2 MANPADS and ZSU-23-4 Shilka anti-aircraft guns as its main tactical air defense system, and the Roland SAM as its main long and medium range surface to air missile defense system.

The ROLAND was first deployed in the mid 1980s. There has been no major upgrades, neither has the Nigerian military bolstered its fleet of 16 ROLAND systems.

A soldier assigned to the Nigerian Army Air Defence Groups sits atop a Roland Short Range Air Defence Missile System.
A soldier assigned to the Nigerian Army Air Defence Groups sits atop a Roland Short Range Air Defence Missile System.
Strela-2 Manpad.
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Strela-2 Manpad.

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Like the SA-6, the ROLAND is a highly capable system, although it does have some limitations, the main drawback being its limited range. Despite being used as a long-range system, the ROLAND is actually a short-range tactical air defense system designed to protect active air defense for troops on the ground.

As far as coverage is concerned, the Nigerian military has over the years refused to invest modern advanced air defense systems, leaving Nigeria with just 16 ROLAND system and a few hundred Strela MANPADS for air defense.

Nigeria has virtually no active surface to air missile defense system on duty, with the exception of a few Blowpipe missiles guarding the Presidential complex in Abuja. So why is there such a gap between Nigerian and Chadian surface to air missile system. How can Nigeria spend ten times more on defense yet be so far behind her French-speaking neighbors in those aspect.? It comes down to a fundamental air defense doctrine.

Instead of relying on surface to air missiles, Nigeria used its vast number of combat aircraft to defend its territory and forces. The use of aircraft instead of ground based air defense systems offers much more flexibility. Surface to air missile sites are vulnerable to artillery and missile strikes. With the growing number of missiles, strike aircraft can simply launch an attack while staying out of the range of the SAM site. So a strike aircraft can attack from an advantageous position, while sometimes completely avoid the SAM site all together by flying around them.

Whereas using fighter aircraft to intercept an enemy aircraft gives you much more flexibility, longer range and also a better radar coverage, as airborne radars are not limited by the horizon as ground based radars. As for defending the homeland, Nigeria was half a world away from any nation it can consider itself hostile in the region, therefore the threat from bombers and strike aircraft is significantly lower,than vice versa.

Nigerian operated one Squadron of Jaguar fighter jets, two squadron of Mig-21 interceptors, the fastest interceptor in the world at Mach 2. Jet trainers like the Alpha Jet, which had secondary light attack capability could be called upon when needed. This is compared to just under 20 aircraft’s between the air forces of Chad and Cameroon combined. Hence Nigeria’s unwillingness to invest in air defense system is completely justifiable, except,


The Nigerian Air Force is no where near as powerful as it used to be. In the 80s Nigeria’s fleet of strike aircraft’s consisted of One squadron of the  Sepecat Jaguar fighter jet. Nigeria’s Jaguar fighter jet was designed air interdiction and strike roles and could shoot down anything the Nigeria’s French-speaking neighbors to throw at it. Nigeria also had the MiG-21 interceptors, which pummeled the invading Chadian army retreating as Nigerian ground forces gave chase.

NAF frontline fighter 1985

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NAF Sepecat Jaguar and its weapons suit on display in the UK.
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NAF Sepecat Jaguar 1985.
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NAF Sepecat Jaguar 1985

NAF frontline fighter 2018

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NAF Alpha Jets being deployed to the Gambia to enforce an ECOWAS mandate.
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Four Alpha jets line up the runway for takeoff during combat operations in Nigeria’s northeast.

The strategic balance on the ground today is the polar opposite. Today resource poor Chad enjoys technical and numerical superiority over Nigeria in the employment of air power and surface to air missile systems, while Nigeria languishes behind.

The Nigerian Air Force that was once tasked to secure the skies of the country is on the verge of extinction. Its laughable the platforms the NAF currently fields. It is incapable of carrying out even basic point defence much less defend the nations airspace. This has left a gap in the Nigeria’s air defense capability that has been exploited by external players.

How Did the Air Force Arrive in This State? A number of factors have led the Nigerian  Air Force into its current state described by some as “geriatric.” The size of the Air Force had declined in tandem with the perceived threat and as a result of a decade-long concentration on peacekeeping operations and against irregular forces.

Without new aircraft to replace the existing fleet, the Air Force was required to keep its aging aircraft flying, creating a “death spiral”, spending funds on maintenance, repair, and overhaul of obsolescent airframes instead of acquiring new aircraft. Moreover, the Air Force has engaged in nearly continuous combat operations for 15 years.

The “long hard slog” of counterinsurgency that occupied the Nigeria’s armed forces over the past decade emphasized a manpower-intensive doctrine that sought to find and fix an elusive, asymmetric adversary in unconventional armed conflict at the expense of the core Air Force missions of air superiority and long-range strike. So here we have the Nigerian Air Force creating Special Forces Groups, priotizing ground operations over air combat. In the last five years the NAF has created two Special Forces units :

NAF Special Forces Regiment

NAF Quick Response Group

Yet the service van barely field 10 interceptor jets, relying on trainer aircraft with light attack capabilities.

The Principal Security Challenges Facing the Nigerian Military and the Air Force. The principal military challenges driving the need for improvements in the Air Force are: deterring hostile actions by Nigeria’s increasingly confrontational French-speaking neighbors, and overcoming the anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) military capabilities being fielded by that country; preventing the aggression of regional rogue states, such as Chad and Cameroon, whose militaries are being armed by France and the United States; and prevailing against the varied brands of violent Islamist radicalism that threaten terrorist acts against the Nigerian Federation.





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