If you were asked to rate the readiness levels of Nigeria’s air defence capacity, what would you say? Taking a detailed look at all the facts and platforms available, it’s a sobering revelation.
For years now, we’ve been asking our military to do more with less. They’ve taken on more and more COIN missions and have completely ignored other aspect of the military, eating into their ability modernize and equip themselves properly. The result is force degradation, resulting from many years of under-investment in critical areas, over investing in platforms that gives Nigeria only short-term benefits, leading to poor execution of modernization programs, and the negative effects of on readiness and capacity.
The military’s policy of secrecy has not only encouraged graft, it’s also why readiness issues rarely become apparent to the Nigerian public, until it’s too late. It’s like a household living paycheck to paycheck with no savings or line of credit. Everything seems okay until an emergency comes along.
Such an emergency is hardly a remote possibility when you look at what is going on, the threat level to Nigeria’s sovereignty has multiplied exponentially in recent years. As the saying goes, weakness encourages provocation. The more apparent this weakness becomes to our potential geopolitical rivals, the more encouraged they are to use this situation as a target of opportunity and maximise it to the fullest before the Nigerian government wakes up from slumber and start taking steps to redress the nation’s vulnerability.
The defense posture of Nigeria’s neighbours is “most worrisome”. Even though they are technically not at war in any capacity. They are not particularly adopted the fire brigade approach to their national security apparently. Both are modernizing and expanding their offensive military capabilities in ways that indicate it won’t be long before they could pose a more serious threat than they already do. There is some troubling storm clouds on the horizon.
I hardly need to remind every one of ECOWAS member states lining up for military cooperation with certain powers. In short, the region is becoming more fractured and dangerous, even as Nigeria’s ability to counter that danger continues to degrade.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. There’s still time for the Nigerian government or whoever wins the 2019 Presidential Election to turn the ship before it hits an iceberg.
Yes, they have taken some positive steps, especially recently the extra emergency $1 billion to fund readiness more robustly. But there has been no corresponding visible impact for us to see. All we can see is the President requesting for an extra budgetary $1 billion as emergency funds for the military. And less than two months later another $600 million (annual defence budget of Cameroon, Chad and Ghana combined ) is taken from Nigeria’s external reserve to buy 12 propeller planes that will not be delivered until 2021-2022. They haven’t yet shown a real commitment to funding the military at levels necessary to modernize aging equipment and make the military capable of meeting its many obligations.
The former American President Ronald Reagan often spoke of “peace through strength.” Our strength is clearly ebbing. Will peace soon follow?, because the weaker we’ve become, the more bold our enemy has become. A decade ago it was virtually unthinkable to have Cameroon’s elite BIR kidnap the leader of the Ambazonian separatists movement from his hotel in Abuja, bundle him into a van back to Cameroon, where he is locked up, tortured and remain in detention till this day. We are not talking about dozens of unauthorized incursion into Nigeria, burn whole villages, kill dozens of Nigerian civilians in Nigerian soil and stroll back across the border without a care.
They treat the Nigerian government dismissively, showing they have the balance of power. And they do. Nigeria seems to have no semblance of a response. This is what strategic diplomacy can do. Having a defence treaty with a world power comes with lots of goodies. Their military is subsidized, joint training exercises, and of course it will not be wise to carry out attacks regardless of provocateur where thousands of U.S military personnel and billions of dollars of military equipment are stationed. Should we be unwise to do this they will gladly carry out their treaty obligation..
Nigeria in the future will have to devote increasing attention to air defense if it hopes to be able to deter aggression and successfully deploy forces. Nigeria has an active duty force of 200,000 men, a reserve force of 32,000 and a paramilitary 180,000 strong. No country will launch a ground attack on Nigerian soil. Not even the French. Yes the invasion will be successful, and even probe several miles deeper, but then they will have to face a counter attack carried out with unprecedented violence by an enraged population of the size if Britain and France combined.
Any attack on Nigeria’s will start from the air. Their ability to invade will depend upon how successful they are in degrading Nigeria’s ground forces from the air. This is where complacency and weakness constitute a threat on its own to the Nigeria. So long our air defence remains non-existent, an air strike remains a legitimate option for a potential adversary. A robust air defence will serve as a deterrence if the provocateur knows half their attacking planes will likely be shot out of the sky.
Nigeria has historically invested less on air defense than other mission areas. And where it did invest in air defense, such as the Roland SHORAD , this was focused on point defense of high value assets.
Countries like Chad already has enough air defence systems in place of such quality it renders our air force useless. These are the ADS in operation with the Chadian military Nigeria has to worry about:
SA 6 Gainful
This mobile surface-to-air missile system is a medium range air defence system designed to protect ground forces from air attack. It puts the ROLAND (Nigeria’s most potent ADS) to shame. In the 80s Nigeria’s SEPECAT Jaguars armed with anti-radiation could make mincemeat out of these. But the Jaguars has since been decommissioned, leaving a gap in Nigeria’s air defence capability.
The Chadian Air Defence Forces have 12 of these lethal SAM’s in operation.
FIM 92 Stinger and FIM 42 Redeye Stinger
These does not include hundreds of MANPADs such as the Strela and anti-aircraft guns such as the ZSU-23-4 and quad-barelled ZPU-4 anti-aircraft guns.
Nigeria does have more air defence assets numerically than the next 14 countries combined. But how do they stack up qualitatively? and are they numerous enough to compensate for technical deficiency? Lets take a look.
The most potent aspect of Nigeria’s air defense assets are its F-7Ni interceptors. These are relatively single engine light weight dedicated aircraft built for high performance designed to fly in adverse weather and operate over longer ranges.
A dedicated interceptor aircraft sacrifices the capabilities of the air superiority fighter and multirole fighters by tuning their performance for either fast climbs and/or high speeds. With top speeds at over Mach 2 ( twice the speed of sound) it is the fastest aircraft in the region. Like the United States Nigeria relies primarily on fighter interceptors for air defence. But there is a problem.
Nigeria has only eight F-7Ni interceptors in service. This makes comprehensive air defence virtually impossible. This limited number relegates the F-7Ni interceptor to point defence. About three or four aircraft are deployed to the northeast to help with the fight against Boko Ha ram. This leaves about four F-7Ni fighters, which spend most of its time on the ground located at the defended target, able to launch on demand, climb to altitude, manoeuvre and then attack enemy aircraft or subsonic cruise missiles in a very short time.
To achieve this performance the engine allows for only a powered flight of about 25 minutes. With only 4 aircraft this makes it impossible to compensate for this by rotating these aircrafts. Making them in essence useless as a credible air defence platform.
ZSU-23-4 “Shilka” radar guided AAG
The ZSU-23-4 “Shilka“ is a lightly armored self-propelled, radar guided anti-aircraftweapon system (SPAAG).
It’s quad-barelled 23 mm (0.90″) auto-cannons is extremely effective against aircraft’s and helicopters under any weather condition. The ZSU-23-4 has a very high density, rate and accuracy of fire, as well as the capability for each of the four 23mm cannon to fire its own type of projectile from separate belts. While a good system it is still more or less tactical point defence system.
It is used primarily in the northeast where the Nigerian army uses it on a depressed trajectory, pulverizing Boko Harams armoured vehicles, fighters. It is also used an infantry-support vehicle. With its high velocity cannons, the ZSU-23-4 can even neutralize tanks by destroying their gun sights, radio antennas, or other vulnerable parts.
ROLAND SHORAD (short-range air defence)
The ROLAND is not a bad system, it’s actually a pretty decent system. The system is designed to engage enemy air targets flying at speeds of up to Mach 1.3 at altitudes between 20 meters and 5,500 meters with a minimum effective range of 500 meters and a maximum of 6,300 meters.
Only problem is that its pulse-doppler search radar has a detection range of 15–18 km. Again this means it can only be used for point defence, (fixed sites ) such as airfields or critical infrastructure.
During tensions with Cameroon over the disputed Bakassi Peninsula the Nigerian army deployed six Roland SAM systems near the border. During the Falkland war between Great Britain and Argentina, a Roland system is credited to have shot down a British Sea Harrier jet and one two 1000lb General-purpose bombs. In Iraq an A-10 Tank Buster jet was shot down by a Roland SAM system.
It’s a good platform but severely limited by range. Most Roland operators have since retired the system from servuce in favour of more modern systems. Nigeria has only 16 ROLAND in service. Other systems include Strela-2 MANPADs and 40mm anti-aircraft guns.
All falling short of medium and long-range capability, and without a credible interceptor aircraft fleet Nigeria has the least defended airspace of any large country.
It doesn’t have to be this way. $100 million can at stroke plug the hole in Nigerian air defence capability.