…When The Nigerian Air Force Unleashes Air Power In A Low Intensity Conflict

While the deadly effect of airpower in conventional warfare is known, what many did not know however , especially in Nigeria , is the lethal role that airpower can play in what is called Low Intensity Conflict (LIC) , the type of conflicts we currently have in Zamfara and Birnin Gwari. In the past two weeks, Nigerian tax payers and especially the citizens of Zamfara State, had a glimpse (just a glimpse) of what the Nigerian Air Force can achieve when it unleashed airpower, on the bandits in Zamfara. In three airstrikes lasting only a few minutes, hundreds of bandits were neutralized.

      Although the NAF characteristically did not give an official number of bandits killed, my inquiries in the area confirmed that in the air attack at Mashema, about 300 bandits were killed. Another airstrike in Sububu Forest killed an unspecified number of bandits using Alpha-Jets and Mi-35 attack helicopters armed with cannons, and guns (no bombs were used to avoid collateral damage as guns and cannons are more accurate and precise).

LIC refers to the wide range of activities and operations on the lower end of the conflict spectrum involving the use of military forces aimed at accomplishing limited political and military objectives without resorting to a declaration of war or committing large-scale military forces to the fray. LIC are limited in geographic area, participants, and duration , usually accomplished by small, specialised units–a company, at most a battalion of ground forces supported from the air by a flight or a squadron of aircraft.

Traditionally in Nigeria, government has relied solely on the ground forces (Army) for LIC operations. However, due to so many operations in both the North East and other over 30 IS operation in 33 states of the federation, the ground forces deployed by the Nigerian Army are heavily overstretched. Also some terrains may be difficult or inaccessible to ground forces due to natural obstacles.

The Zamfara and Birnin Gwari operational environments present several operational challenges; the vast thick forest stretching through several states and into Niger Republic, dispersed operations areas, unfamiliar terrain, water bodies, ungoverned spaces and urban warfare which together present a difficult targeting problem for land-based fires.

On the other hand , there is no area that is not covered or accessible by air, so in all, LIC airpower would be required either for kinetic attack or support operations role. Airpower is relatively faster in reaction, it is ubiquitous and can reach any AOR. Airpower operating in the third dimension is the only fire support element that can negate these terrain challenges and provide fire support where land-based fires cannot and where airpower’s range, flexibility, lethality and speed is required. While the Nigerian Army may have mortars and artillery, not all areas can be ranged by ground fires so operations outside the range of land-based fires must utilize airpower as the only fire support option available.

Fire support from airpower can range the entire forest and can also do this with very little notice by utilizing aircraft stationed at NAF base Katsina. Airpower gives the ground force commander fires flexibility not only from the stand point of axis of attack but also in size and type of the kinetic effect.

The majority of NAF aircraft carry various ordnance loads that provide a range of kinetic effects from small, such as 23mm guns, rockets and bombs. No other fire support element can provide such a range of effects from one source and give the ground force commander access to fires with accuracies in the neighborhood of feet. Both the ability to scale effects and the precision fires of airpower allow the ground force commander to limit collateral damage and casualties while lethally engaging the enemy.

Before the Zamfara airstrikes, the thinking was NAF did not have the ability to combat local aggression and there was no emphasis upon airpower to meet the military threats posed by anything short of major war. There used to be doubt as to whether the NAF can contribute anything in a LIC environment . It took direct prodding by the current dynamic and visionary NAF leadership under Air Chief Marshall Sadique Abubakar to push the NAF into thinking about how airpower could be applied to LICs in many states . He, it was who foresaw that airpower will be needed in the current Nigeria’s localized security problems and even before the bandits situation broke, he started establishing Forward Operational Bases, NAF Special Forces and the NAF Special Operations Command.

It is Air Marshal Sadique’s vison that carried the NAF into roles hitherto untried, building the organization, equipment, planning, and developing concepts of operation from the scratch and which required a flexibility of thinking from Air Marshall Sadique that was most impressive. There is no doubt that the current NAF leadership is committed in this regards and has seemingly puts a good deal of emphasis on its LIC capability by highlighting the importance of the FOBs and special operations forces tailored for LIC. The early impressive results speak for themselves.

However, if the NAF is to continue its impressive trajectory and become an effective player in LIC operations , it must recognize the peculiar difficulties of war at the lower reaches of the conflict spectrum and commit increased portion of its intellectual and material resources to building its budding LIC capability.

Suffice to say there should be less emphasis on acquiring fighter aircraft as the NAF has little need for such aircraft. NAF must also consider the organizational, doctrinal, and philosophical issues that are as yet unresolved in the NAF concerning LIC specifically. The NAF must decide at what level it wishes to participate in LIC operations. Interagency, interservice, and intra-service liaison, cooperation and coordination with other Services and many agencies operating on the ground will be key factors in the effectiveness of a NAF unit dedicated to LIC.

LICs will continue to play an increasingly larger part in Nigeria’s security picture and the use of airpower in such emerging threats would continue to grow in importance. All security stakeholders should fully recognize the important part airpower can play in LICs. While airpower cannot alone defeat the insurgents and bandits, airpower also cannot capture or hold ground, but it does offer a big advantage to ground in forces fighting in todays conflicts . LICs will be with us for the foreseeable future and we must move away from a thinking where the least likely kinds of conflict-, large-scale conventional wars currently drive resource allocation as well as strategic and doctrinal thinking. In this respect , the NAF is moving in the right direction.

– Group Captain Shehu (rtd) wrote from Kaduna