Nigerian Airpower Hindered in Boko Haram Fight

 - February 2, 2015, 8:16 AM
Mil-24/35 helicopters have been used to attack Boko Haram insurgents, but the Nigerian Air Force is hampered by various problems. (Photo: Russian Helicopters)

The Nigerian Air Force (NAF) is facing various problems in helping the country’s fight against Boko Haram, the Islamic fundamentalist insurgents who now control large areas of northeast Nigeria. In a frank presentation to the International Helicopter Conference in London recently, organized by Defence IQ, the NAF’s chief of policy and plans reported a shortage of aircraft and spares, inadequate self-protection, insufficiently trained aircrews and a lack of joint doctrine to underpin operations. A partial arms embargo is another constraint.

AVM A.A. Zannah said the NAF first conducted operations against Boko Haram in 2010, and had enjoyed some success, such as the strikes on the insurgents’ camps in July-September 2013 by the NAF’s Mi-35P Hind attack helicopters. But the operations had not led to the same outcome as that obtained in the River Niger delta a few years earlier, when combined air and surface operations forced insurgents to sue for peace.

The threat to fixed- and rotary-wing operations by Boko Haram is not insignificant, Zannah told AIN. The NAF’s Hinds and Alpha Jets had both been hit by gunfire of up to 30mm caliber, forcing them to fly higher, and requiring the NAF to fit longer-range rockets taken from its MiG-21s onto the Hinds. The NAF has a fleet of 24 to 30 Mil Mi-24V/35P helicopters, and has lost two of them during operations, although not to enemy fire. The NAF also operates Mi-17, and is acquiring some new Mil-17-1 versions. “The Mil series is still the helicopter of choice for us,” Zannah noted.

The NAF has also used its Do-228s twin-turboprops and A109 light helicopters in counter-insurgency operations. It has flown a total of 5,390 operational missions, including 2,648 for ground attack, 1,479 for airlift, and 1,443 for ISR.

Zannah said that the NAF’s attempt to acquire second-hand AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters from Israel was thwarted by the U.S., which opposed their transfer. Nigeria’s previous history of military coups, together with human rights concerns of the U.S. and other Western countries, has also restricted the NAF’s ability to acquire other equipment, including night-vision goggles (NVGs) to enable night operations. Zannah appealed for the lifting of these restrictions. “We must close ranks against the terrorists,” he told the conference.

Speaking in Washington last week, Gen David Rodriguez, head of US Africa Command, said that the Nigerian armed forces were incapable of defeating Boko Haram, a task that would require "a huge international effort."