The Nigerian Air Force (NAF) has acquitted itself very well in the current counter insurgency (COIN ) operation in the north east against Boko Haram.
However, when the campaign started, the NAF was facing a capability gap of fighting COIN without a dedicated COIN aircraft. Its aging Alpha Jets (no longer in production since early 90s) and the Chinese F7 are not really dedicated COIN but fast jet-engine aircrafts.
These are too fast and with very short endurance that prohibit adequate loiter time on station for support to ground forces.
Moreover these faster (ranging from 1,000 km/h – 2,200 km/h) and higher-flying jets (generally operate at 10-15000 feet) offer reduced ability to accurately identify and discriminate targets from the air (the unfortunate and disastrous consequences of the accidental bombing of the Rann IDP Camp comes to mind).
These limitations forced the NAF to revert to ingenuity and improvisation in order to provide support to ground troops. But creative thinking and innovation have their limit when the appropriate equipment is lacking.
President Buhari on arrival in 2015, observed that “[T]he air force is virtually non-existent. The fixed wing aircraft are not very serviceable. The helicopters are not serviceable, and they are too few”.
The ideal COIN fixed wing aircraft is one that is piston-engine, built as a dedicated COIN aircraft, that flies relatively slow and low, is cheap, easy/cheap to maintain, night capable, battle tested/COIN proven and readily available in the market.
NAF leaders identified the Brazilian Super Tucano. However, due to US sanctions based on alleged human rights abuses, and corruption against the Nigerian military , all efforts to acquire the A-29 were blocked by the United States Government.
Good enough, due to improvements in both corruption, an agreement was reached in February 2018 with Nigeria making a down payment of $496 million for the supply 12 X A-29 with associated equipment and training.
Probably due to poor communication, some, erroneously believed Nigeria bought the A-29 at an inflated unit price of over $40 million, (with online unit price at between $9 and $30 million depending on configuration).
What this argument ignores however, is the fact that the $496 million (possibly more) is not for the 12 aircraft alone but includes other goods and services. Independent research (including Freedom of Information Request filed in the US) , shows under a Total Package Approach (TPA), NAF would get a comprehensive value throughout the programme life-cycle to include programme management, systems engineering and certification.
Apart from the 12 Super Tucano warplanes, the TPA includes: 2 spare engines per aircraft, thousands of bombs and rockets, 20,000 rounds of machine gun ammunition, flight simulators, 18-month training for crew/engineers, construction of infrastructures such as hangars and ammunition dump, aircraft manuals, ferrying of the aircraft to
Nigeria, freight/ shipping costs, 2 years of contractor logistics support, spare parts, required ground equipment, and required aviation flight crew equipment.
To allay the fears of collateral damage and human rights violations, the contract also includes a training package on humanitarian law, human rights, targeting, Collateral Damage Estimation and Air-Ground Integration.
On the delivery date of 2020, investigations revealed that 2 years seems to be the standard timeline from order to delivery. For example, Philippines and Angola got theirs 2 years after orders.
A good question to ask when acquiring a new COIN combat aircraft is “How has it performed in battle in other COIN environments? The A-29 has performed as advertised in COIN operations especially in Colombia where it was credited with the precision-guided strikes that killed FARC leader Alfonso Cano, his second-in-command Raúl Reyes as well as other commanders.
The A-29 is in service with 14 air forces around the world, with more than 320,000 flight hours and more than 40,000 combat hours.
Its array of weapon systems include guns, rockets, missiles, general/purpose, incendiary and cluster bombs. Good sensor suites are a key requirement for a COIN aircraft as correctly identifying and accurately engaging targets have always been fundamental in COIN.
The A-29 has a good sensor suite to help militate against the risk of collateral damage, allowing correct identification of targets and accurate engagement. The A-29s Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS) has a lower yield more suitable for avoiding collateral damage, and takes a very short time for ordnance personnel to load and unload.
With an impressive endurance and loiter time of 6 hours 30 minutes, ( against Alpha Jets 3 hours and F-7’s 45 minutes) , the A-29 has been variously described as “A lower cost alternative for fighting in permissive environments, including insurgencies”, and as, “The Best Example Of Economical Simplicity”.
Low operating costs is another highly attractive feature of the Super Tucano as cost-per-flight-hour is $430 – 500 many times cheaper than even the smallest jet aircraft which flies at $3000/hour. Its fuel consumption of 107 ltrs/hr is a fraction of Alpha Jets’ 908 ltr/hr.
The A-29 is night-capable. Boko Haram currently cashes in on NAF’s limited night attack capability with the insurgents using the cover of darkness and bad weather to conceal their movements, rest and launch surprise attacks. This would no longer be the case as the A-29 with its Night Vision Device (NVD), would enable NAF pilots to “own the night” and conduct persistent aerial surveillance and strike missions at night.
The low- and slow-flying night-capable A-29 using precision laser-guided bombs, would certainly have a better chance of identifying targets and engaging them than the current higher and faster-flying combat aircraft that the NAF uses.
In today’s world that is intolerant of imprecise weapons, the A-29 Super Tucano is the ultimate low-risk solution required where time is short and the need is urgent providing a vital battlefield advantage.
–Shehu, a retired Air Force Group Captain, writes from Kaduna.