State of the Nigerian Army : Air Defence Capability.

The Nigerian military is gravely deficient in air defence and electronics warfare. The existing very short and short-range air defence capabilities fall short in providing a credible air defence structure and there had never really been plans to rebuild or modernize the nation’s air defense capability. The Air Force’s sole air defence wing has only 4 stationary F-7Ni fighter/interceptor  to protect military bases.

Such limited capabilities are the fallout of the changing assessments of the security environment over the last decade that focuses primarily in asymmetric warfare while other areas are allowed to atrophy. The very short and short-range air defence systems dating back to the Cold War era should be  gradually decommissioned or augmented with modern longer range more capable systems. The objective of this modernisation program should be in three phases.

The first phase should be to create a stationary system for the protection of military bases against both asymmetric and symmetric threats.

In the second and third phase, should be to purchase mobile platforms integrated with weapon station to counter threats such as 4th gen fighters, drones and missile launchers for short-range air defence to protect mobile forces from greater distances.

No one is concerned or talking about the need for an integrated air defense system because of the perceived absence of any conventional threat. Most countries in Africa, even countries with less security imperatives are currently rebuilding their potential in this regard. Nigeria is very much amongst the laggards and needs to catch up quickly.  As the army expands to a force of 200,000 active duty personnel, Nigeria is going to need around 6 batteries of very short and short-range air defence to protect the brigades and headquarters. In a hypothetical war scenario strategic assets such as these will be targeted first by air strikes.

To protect assets like this, short-range air defence (range up to 6 km, altitude to 4.5 km) on wheeled platforms will suffice. The 23mm ZSU-23-4 currently fills that task but will be no match for fast flying aircraft and a track helicopters that can fire projectiles far beyond the range of the obsolete “Shilka” system.

To its credit the Nigerian army has spent millions of dollars in the last few years on modern platforms. But in todays modern battlefield millions of dollars worth of equipments can go up in smoke within hours. To protect its investments Nigeria will need twice the performance in terms of range, altitude and combat effectiveness of the ZSU-23-4 Shilka.

For about $11 million Nigeria can replace or augment the ZSU-23-4 with the SA-19 “Grison” SAM system.  The “Shilka’s”short comings are its short-range and no early warning. In a hot war the crew’s will probably not survive against an aircraft even as crude as the SU-25 frogfoot. A potent tank killer which is designed to be highly resistant to 23mm cannons.

SA-19 “Tunguska” anti-aircraft system.

The SA-19 is designed to provide day and night protection for infantry and tank regiments against low-flying aircraft, helicopters, and cruise missiles in all weather conditions. It’s 30mm cannon carriers twice the kinetic punch of the Shilka with an increased maximum engagement altitude from 2,000 to 4,000 m. The Shilka is potent against ground targets when used on a depressed trajectory, imagine what this system to do to lightly armoured ground targets.  Additionally the systems reaction time of no greater than 10 seconds adds as a force multiplier. 

Perhaps what makes the SA-19 the best choice for the replacement of the ZSU-23-4 is the similarities in the fire control system, making it easier for crews to transit to the newer system. Also its combined gun and missile system makes it far more effective than the ZSU-23-4, engaging targets at long-range with missiles, and shorter range targets with guns.

The Nigerian army is committed to increasing the size of its modernized brigade. The army has spent million of dollars on replacing Vickers Mk.3 Main Battle Tank with 77 T-72M1 Main Battle Tanks. In this same time period Nigeria has invested millions of dollars in amassing what is now one of the largest number of armoured Infantry Vehicles and Amoured  Personnel Carriers in Africa. This means that its mobile troops need air defence protection against drones, low-flying helicopters and aircraft that are in abundance in the arsenal of Nigeria’s historic and potential adversaries.


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Nigerian army Roland SHORAD.
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A soldier from the Nigerian army Air Defence Regiment sits atop a ROLAND system.

Nigeria is the only country that still has the ROLAND air defence system in operation. France, Germany, Argentina and Morocco have since retired theirs from service.  It’s short-range of just 14km doesn’t make it survivable against even helicopter gunships.

A proposal for a medium-range air defence programme is the highly mobile low altitude SA-8 “GECKO SAM system. It’s launcher configuration, carries six missiles in ribbed containers.

SA-8 “GECKO SAM system

It’s elliptical rotating surveillance antenna mounted on top of the array has a 30 km acquisition range against most targets. The large pulsed J band (14.5 GHz) engagement antenna is mounted below it in the centre of the array and has a maximum tracking range of about 20 km.

This twin antenna radar system allows it to control up to two missiles simultaneously against a single target. Furthermore, the two missiles can be guided on different frequencies to further complicate Electronic Counter Measures. There is also a tubular device fitted to and above the tracking radar; this is a 9Sh33 electro-optical tracker. It can be used to track the target when the main tracking radar is jammed by ECM.

The most impressive thing about this system, apart from its $8 million price tag is the engagement range of the missile. It has an altitude engagement envelope to 10–12,000 m (33–42,500 ft), and as such are also able to fly further (about 15 km/9 miles). The system is designed for use primarily against jet aircraft and helicopters in any kind of weather with a maximum target engagement speed of Mach.3 with infra-red and semi-active radar terminal homing seekers.

With a $100 million investment Nigeria can address the deficiency in its Air defence capability and compensate for the lack of interceptor aircraft, Nigeria’s primary air defence platform.

Modern options for the weaponisation of the ZSU-23-4 “Shilka”

ZSU-23-4 “Shilka self propelled anti-aircraft gun.

Nigerian military engineers have shown a knack for modifying weapons system to suit particular needs.  Utility helicopters like the Super Puma have been retrofitted with gunpods for Special Forces insertion operations. Engineers have also locally weaponized Alpha jets acquired from an American company that was delivered without weapons configuration.

That ability to modify systems can be used to significantly increase the combat potential of outdated equipment and extend its service life. Old anti-aircraft self-propelled gun systems like the Shilka system is a prime candidate for such modifications.

The ZSU 23-4 is part of the Nigeria’s air defense units of ground forces of the regimental level. Its armed with a quad automatic 23-mm cannon with a rate of fire of 3400 rounds per minute.

The ZSU 23-4 is a legend among anti-aircraft guns. A Soviet era self-propelled anti-aircraft gun designed to directly cover ground forces, defeat various low-flying aerial targets (helicopters, airplanes, UAVs, cruise missiles), as well as ground targets. In Nigeria the”Shilka” is used not as an air defense system, but as an infantry support fighting vehicle, inducing real horror to the souls of Boko Haram fighters.

In the absence of a real threat from the air, the is used to fire at various ground targets, including Boko Haram “technicals” (Toyota Hillux truck), at a distance of up to 2-2.5 km. It can easily suppress any enemy fortifications with fire. For the colossal combat power of four automatic guns, which have a huge rate of fire makes it the most feared infantry weapon in the Nigerian army arsenal.

Guided missiles will greatly increase the combat effectiveness of the ZSU-23-4 if it can be modified to carry several Strela-2 MANPADS, mounted on two “Strelets” launchers, or ATAKA anti tank missiles that are used on the Mi-35M helicopter gunship if the problem of guidance and integration can be solved.

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So while the ZSU-23-4 retains the old artillery armament in the form of a quadruple 2A7M caliber 23 mm, a new modification and radio-electronic equipment will allow the Shilka to detect, track and takeout targets at distances up to 10 km  if the engineering hurdles can be overcomed.

If the combat vehicle is integrated into the system of military air defense, this parameter increases significantly. When working together with the battery command post and third-party detection tools like surveillance aircraft or drones, the range at which the target is detected increases to 34 km.

When using the ATAKA anti-tank missile of the Mi-35 helicopter gunship, the maximum target destruction range is increased to 5-5.2 km, and the height to 3-3.5 km. The target is hit with a high-explosive fragmentation warhead. On the two launchers of the tower are four containers with ATAKA missiles.


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