Two neighboring countries, Niger and Nigeria, are looking to acquire additional Mil Mi-35 helicopters (NATO reporting name “Hind”), according to officials from those countries who spoke at the “Russia-Africa” heads-of-state summit and economic forum held October 23-24 in the Russian city of Sochi.
On the sidelines of this assembly, Russian president Vladimir Putin held personal meetings with Mahamadou Issoufou, president of Niger, and Muhammadu Buhari, that of Nigeria. Addressing the “Russia-Africa” forum, Putin said that the backlog of African orders for Russian weapons has risen to $15 billion, making the arms trade second in volume after food export to the continent. According to other officials, this year will see shipments of weapons into Africa worth $4 billion, compared to an average of some $2 billion observed earlier this decade.
The “Russia-Africa” forum attracted 6,000 envoys from 100 nations, including more than 40 heads of state. Among other things, they were shown a defense exposition focusing on aviation and army equipment at the Sirius Science and Art Park. Among other exhibits on display at Sochi, there was an improved Mi-35P in a completely localized version with Klimov VK2500P engines, modern sighting and navigation systems, and an extended arsenal of air-launched munitions. Noting that African countries operate over 250 Mi-24/35 series rotorcraft, Russian Helicopters CEO Andrei Boginsky said, “This is a relatively large fleet, whose presence creates a substantial market for repair, maintenance, and upgrade and provides a base for international cooperation.”
Armed with a 23-mm twin-barrel fast-firing cannon, 80- and 122-mm unguided rockets, and Ataka ATGMs, the Mi-24/35 series is the only attack type in the inventories of both the Nigerian Air Force and Niger Air Force. They have both used the type against separatist and terrorist movements, most notably Boko Haram, an African affiliate of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Apart from close air support missions, the Mi-35M can transport up to eight armed soldiers in the rear fuselage section, or two wounded on stretchers accompanied by a medical assistant, making it instrumental in support of the army fighting terrorist groups.
The Federal Republic of Nigeria has Africa’s largest economy but has long been suffering from religious divides and terrorist movements, the latter targeting non-Muslim communities and oilfields. In countering this threat, the Nigerian armed forces—ranked among the top five on the continent—have been increasingly reliant on Russian expertise and equipment. The 10,000-strong Nigerian air force operates a mix of Western, Chinese, and Russian aircraft, including about 20 Mil Mi-8/17/24/34/35 helicopters.
A longstanding operator of the Soviet-era Mi-24, Nigeria placed an initial order for the vastly improved Mi-35M back in 2014 (along with six Mi-17s). Having received six such rotorcraft, the customer firmed up the option for six more in October 2015. Although all of them should have arrived by 2018, Nigeria’s ambassador in Moscow, Steve Davis Ugba, told local journalists on October 11 that only six Mi-35Ms had been delivered so far. Even though he did not give an explanation for the delays, they are likely to have been caused by U.S. sanctions on the Russian military-industrial complex, making it difficult for foreign customers to make payments when shopping in Moscow.
While acknowledging issues with contract materialization, the ambassador, nonetheless, stated that the remaining six helicopters will arrive “soon.” He added that Abuja remains interested in cooperation with Moscow. “Let me stress that, without Russian assistance, the war on terror in my country would have faced big challenges. Therefore, we are interested in the procurement of weapons and their timely shipment,” said Ugba. Among other points of particular interests, he mentioned the equipment combat-tested in Syria, such as the Sukhoi Su-30 multirole fighter.
Meanwhile, in January the Nigerian air force lost a Mi-35M, which crashed near Damasak in the northeastern state of Borno when on a strike mission to render close air support for the troops combating insurgents. Shortly after the defense ministry released a video depicting another Mi-35M undertaking accurate missile strikes at night on a Boko Haram convoy in the same area. Attrition has reduced the nation’s “Hind” fleet to fewer than a dozen serviceable examples, urging Abuja to seek ways to replenish it.
The smaller Niger Air Force operates a handful of Russian-made helicopters. In 2016, it ordered two Mi-35Ms, with delivery expected soon. According to Russian media, during “Russia-Africa” forum, talks were held concerning 12 additional rotorcraft. Kalla Ankourao, Niger’s minister for foreign affairs, cooperation and regional integration, commented that his country will employ Russian attack helicopters on anti-terrorist operations.