Two Nigerian Air Force F-7Ni fighter jets crashed after a mid-air collision in the Katampe area of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, on Friday. This incident reduces the Nigerian Air Force fighter jet fleet to seven. Yes, seven fighter jets. In 2005 the Nigerian Air Force retired its fleet of 22 Mig-21 fighter jets and acquired 15 Chinese Chengdu F-7Ni Airguard fighter as a stop-gap measure in the interim, while the service deliberates on new fighter aircraft for its frontline role.
Thirteen years later no such acquisition has been made. Thu F-7Ni fighter fleet has reduced from 15 aircraft in 2005 to just 7 today. Financing has been the bane as the dramatic drop it oil prices sent the Nigerian economy spiralling into its worse economic crises in 25 years. As it stands the Nigerian Army is the only service able to perform its statutory role of defending the nation’s territorial integrity. But as capable as it may be, it could be seriously hamstrung by a failing Air Force. In today’s evolved battlefield you cannot isolate air power from ground forces.
The workhorse of the Nigerian Air Force remains 13 Alpha jet trainer aircraft and a few Aero L-29 trainer aircraft. The cash crunch has seen Nigeria reconfigure both trainers for ground attack duties. Lacking in air to air capability Nigeria effectively have just 5 or 6 attack jets to provide air defence for Nigeria’s 937,000 square kilometres of territory.
Finance must drive the defence establishment towards rationalisation. If sacred cows must be killed for the sake of efficiency, would not the disbandment of the NAF and the transfer of its air defence responsibilities to the Nigerian Army deliver greater savings and far greater efficiency?
There is no shame in admitting that the single-function service has had its day in Nigeria and to return military flying to the Army. The bloated higher command structures and stultifying bureaucracy, especially when compared to the Army and Navy has made the Air Force the weak link in the Nigerian armed forces and hinders the achievement of its airmen’s potential by limiting the available number of platforms to fly and hon their skills.
How does one setup a flight training school and spend millions in training for a service that has basically 4 fighter jets able to scramble in an instance. The Army’s request for an Army Air Arm independent of the NAF reflects the lack of confidence the service has for the NAF providing critical Close Air Support for ground troops.
The death of so many Nigerian soldiers could have been avoided if the Air Force had been proficient in its support missions. To put things into perspective, just last year in September or October, the Army received credible intelligence that Boko Haram terrorists were planning a major attack on troops of the 233 Battalion stationed at the forwarding base in Sassawa, 35 kilometers East of Damaturu. Members of the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) affiliated to the Army and villagers had informed the troops after discovering that Boko Haram members were congregating in the area.
Following the receipt of the information, Army Intelligence officers notified the Nigerian Air Force and requested for air cover. Curiously, however, the request was not acted upon until the terrorists struck, killing Lieutenant Shuaibu, eight soldiers and seriously injuring 3 others. Every deployable aircraft was engaged. There were simply not enough aircraft.
The situation report showed that the Army only managed to send a few gun trucks to fortify the base after learning of the impending attack. Boko Haram terrorists arrived the base in with seven gun trucks and a platoon of fighters armed with machine guns and other high-grade military weapons. After ransacking the base and killing the nine soldiers, they blew up the facility. It took the dislocated troops and hurriedly assembled reinforcements about one hour to dislodge the terrorists.
Sending soldiers into combat without a %100 guarantee of air cover saps the morale of soldiers on the ground and seriously affects performance. These complaints became prominent in 2016 and was brought to the Military High Command. The Nigerian army as losing men due to the Air Force’s inaction, an inaction caused by inadequate and antiquated platforms.
Military sources in Abuja say the Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Tukur Yusuf Buratai and the Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshall Sadique Abubakar are intensely jostling for the position of the chief Defense Staff after Buhari confided in aides that the position of the Chief of Army Staff will go next to the Southwest region.
Hence no surprise when the NAF’s response to Army’s complaint was to create its absurd “Special Forces Units” scheme in which the tactical map was altered to convince the politicians of its importance. The result of this chicanery was that the service abandoned its primary role in the war, which was to provide CAS for troops and began competing with the army for combat roles.
What little money “very poor Nigeria” can afford should be allocated to the Nigerian Army bearing the brunt of the Boko Haram insurgency to fly and operate all aircraft. It is worth mentioning that the Nigerian Army already have an Aviation Corp. Integrating pilots and other structures shouldn’t be too hard.
A Nigerian Army Air Force will be run with rather fewer people per aircraft than the NAF. Since money is the excuse given by the service for the abysmal state of the Air Force then we have to kill some sacred cows” in the defence industry.
I have long held the view that the $600 million deal for 12 Super Tucano planes is ridiculous, prohibitively expensive and unaffordable for a nation that can barely field 10 fighter jets; after all, Nigeria is broke.
Absorbing the roles of the NAF, its aircraft, and the people required to fly and service them, into the Army would bring huge cost-savings while offering much improved co-operation and integration. The resulting two armed services, with their embedded air-power expertise, would allow a reduction of around 10,000 people, and provide the 30 per cent savings in defence.