The following is an article from our partners at the Conflict Studies And Analysis Project.  During 2019 you will occasionally see their content on our website and vice versa.  The original article can be viewed here.  


Fulan Nasrullah is the Executive Director of the Conflict Studies And Analysis Project At The Global Initiative For Civil Stabilisation. He is national security policy and strategy advisor and conflict researcher. He sometimes tweets via @fulannasrullah.

Murtala Abdullahi is a Junior Associate Researcher with the Conflict Studies And Analysis Project at The Global Initiative For Civil Stabilisation. His areas of focus are on Nigeria’s military, local conflict drivers across Nigeria, conflict prevention, and effects of climate change on national security. He tweets via @murtalaibin.

Conflict Studies And Analysis Project’s content does not contain information of a classified or otherwise official nature, neither does the content represent the position of any governmental or non governmental entity.

Summary – The Nigerian Air Force (NAF), deployed air power in support of the Joint task force: Operation Restore Order and has sustained operational support to Nigerian Army as operational mandate changed. This is in addition to supporting regional Multinational Joint Task Force operations against Boko Haram groups, as well. The performance of the Nigerian Air Force has greatly improved compared to when operations in the Northeast first began, as it has taken on varied missions from Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance( ISR), to close air support to the Army’s manoeuvre units in theatre. However, air operations efficiency is affected by scarce national defence spending and a shortage of aircraft.

Text– Nigeria’s counter insurgency area of operations covers the three northeastern states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe, or over 125,000 square kilometres of land area. This complex terrain encompasses the Nigerian side of Lake Chad with hundreds of islands, the massive Sambisa Forest Area, the Gwoza Hills, and the Mandara Mountains range which mostly hem in the region from the east.

The Nigerian Air Force, began operations against Boko Haram groups in 2010, as military operations under the Joint Task Force (JTF) of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Police and State Security Service were initiated (in succession) under the code names, Restore order I, II and III, to flush out insurgent fighters from built up areas of Borno between December 2011 and mid 2013.

As the conflict escalated, the Nigerian government on May 14, 2013, declared a state of emergency in the three worst affected states (Adamawa, Borno and Yobe) and expanded the JTF operations into Operation Boyona with the objective of securing the nation’s borders and asserting territorial integrity.

As part of Operation Boyona, the Nigerian Air Force conducted air strikes targeted at insurgents camps in July-September 2013 employing NAF’s Mi-35P Hind attack helicopters, in the opening salvo of what was evolving into a campaign of aerial bombardment against insurgent held territory.

Operation Boyona was later renamed Operation Zaman Lafiya with the Nigerian Air Force providing the aerial component in August 2013. The air component was under Boko Karam threat to it’s fixed- and rotary-wing operations, with NAF’s Mi 24V/Mi-35P attack helicopters, F-7NI and Alpha Jets fixed wing attack planes, coming under enemy anti-aircraft fire of up to 30mm caliber, forcing them to fly higher in order to deliver strike packages. This also required the Nigerian Air Force to fit longer-range rockets, removed from its MiG-21s, onto the attack helicopters [1]. By August 2014, the Nigerian air force had carried out 2,468 ground-attack missions against Boko Haram, in addition to conducting 1,443 surveillance missions with its DA-42s, ATR-42s and King Air 350Is, plus 1,479 airlift transport missions [2].

The Boko Haram conflict soon reached its peak between the last quarter of 2014 and early 2015 as the insurgents overran towns and military bases across Borno, Adamawa and Yobe States. The Nigerian Government followed up with a counter-offensive campaign, in tandem with offensives launched by troops of neighbouring Lake Chad countries, to retake the territory overrun by the insurgents.

The Nigerian Air Force component of Operation Zaman Lafiya, played a key role in assisting ground forces in rolling back Boko Haram groups from territories they had occupied. The MI-35P helicopters flew over 900 combat sorties within this period [3]. In July 2015, Nigerian forces, launched Operation Lafiya Dole, replacing Zaman Lafiya.

As part of the new Operation Lafiya Dole, the NAF component of the joint military forces battling the Boko Haram insurgents, was expanded to an air task force with leeway to conduct independent missions [4]. This was in addition to carrying out missions in support of Nigerian Army troops engaged in the Army specific Operations Deep Punch I&II and Operation Last Hold, while also providing air support to the regional MNJTF’s Operations Rawan Gada and Gaman Aiki.

Between Dec. 25, 2015 and the end of January 2016, the Nigerian Air Force conducted 286 strike missions against Boko Haram targets, for a total of 536 flight hours. During the 18 months between July 2015 and mid-January 2017, the air task force (ATF) carried out 2,105 missions across the entire aerial spectrum [5].

From the beginning of Operation Zaman Lafiya and now Operation Lafiya Dole, the Nigerian air force has suffered relatively few losses directly related to the Combat. Two Chengdu F-7Nis, one Alpha Jet, two Mi-35Ps, one A109LUH, and at least two Mi-17s have been shot down or destroyed in accidents over active battlefields.

The Nigerian Air Force’s combined aircraft inventory is estimated at between 200-250 aircraft[6], comprising an estimated three operational C-130Hs, sixteen Alpha Jet E trainer variants acquired in the ‘80s and around twenty Alpha Jet A[7] ground attack aircraft, thirteen Aero L-39 ZA Albatross, ten used Mi-24Vs acquired from the Ukraine, around twenty Mi-35Ps and MI-35Ms acquired from Russia, 10 Pakistani Super Mushshak trainers, two Bell 412, four EC-135 and over a dozen Agusta Westland helicopters. In addition an unknown number of Chinese-built CH-3 rainbow unmanned combat aerial vehicles and indigenous Gulma|Tsaigumi UAV are in service, along with Austrian DA-42 Twin Star light patrol aircraft, ATR-42 maritime patrol aircraft, Super Puma, MI-17 and Beechcraft Super King Air 350i ISR-optimised turboprop aircraft [8].

In addition the Nigerian Air Force is expecting delivery of six AgustaWestland AW109, unknown number of Yabhon Flash 20 unmanned aerial vehicle, and an unknown number of CAC/PAC JF-17 fighter-bombers from Pakistan[9].

The Nigerian Air Force has also ordered twelve A29 Super Tucanos, a turboprop aircraft built for the kind of engagements it has to carry out currently, i.e a counterinsurgency. The much criticised $593m deal for these planes, however comes with 100 GBU-12(500lb) Paveway II(PW-II) Tail Kits, 100 GBU-58(250lb) PW-II Tail Kits, 400 laser guided rockets with Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System, 2,000 MK-81 (250lb) bombs, 6,000 Hydra 70 unguided rockets(70mm, 1000 of which are practice rockets), 20,000 rounds of .50/12.7mm calibre machine gun ammunition, seven AN/AAQ-22F electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensor and laser designators [10]. Also, these planes will be equipped with software to support forward-looking infra-red targeting pods.

Service operable aircraft increased from about 36 per cent in 2015 to between 78 and 82 per cent currently [11]. This contributed to the Air Task Force in Operation Lafiya Dole’s ability to, from June 1 2015 to October 31 2018, fly 51,852 flight hours in 39,807 day and night sorties including close air support, strike, ISR and humanitarian support missions.

However, despite these improvements, the Nigerian Air Force still faces significant challenges in asserting aerial supremacy over the terrain, despite insurgent air defence capabilities being limited largely to varied calibre anti-aircraft guns (including ZSU-23-4 quad-barreled self-propelled platforms). This is due to the size of the terrain in question, plus a lack of systems to set up and maintain an integrated kill-chain from finding the enemy to maintaining ISR presence over him, to ultimately finishing him off and gathering information to be exploited for analysis purposes. There are improvements to be made in this regard.

Also, logistical challenges including a lack of spare parts, inadequate number of precision guided and stand-off weapons, and a shortage of personnel trained to standard to maintain increasingly complex modern weapons of war will continue to prove a major hindrance to the Nigerian Air Force, at least for the foreseeable future.


End Notes:

[1] Chris Pocock. February 2, 2015.Nigerian Air Power Hindered in Boko Haram Fight. Retrieved from: https://www.ainonline.com/aviation-news/defense/2015-02-02/nigerian-airpower-hindered-boko-haram-fight

[2] Same as No. 1 above

[3] Author’s conversations with ranking NAF officers involved with pertinent operations

[4] Author’s conversations with ranking NAF officers involved with pertinent operations

[5] Author’s conversations with ranking NAF officers involved with pertinent operations

[6] Global fire power. “Nigeria military strength”. Retrieved from: https://www.globalfirepower.com/country-military-strength-detail.asp?country_id=nigeria

[7] Murtala Abdullahi. Options For Supporting Nigerian Air Operations In The Lake Chad Conflict. Conflict Studies And Analysis Project. Retrieved from: https://conflictstudies.gics.live/2019/01/01/options-for-supporting-nigerian-air-operations-in-the-lake-chad-conflict/

[8] Same as No.7 above

[9] Author conversations with ranking Nigerian Air Force officers for this paper.

[10] FederalRegister.Gov. “Arms Sales Notification”. Retrieved from: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2017/08/28/2017-18201/arms-sales-notification

[11] Author conversations with ranking NAF officers, confirmed by the Nigerian Chief of Air Staff during his presentation at the International Air Power Seminar in Abuja, Nigeria. Chief of Air Staff remarks retrieved from: https://www.today.ng/multimedia/photo/sadique-abubakar-role-public-irregular-warfare-critical-172227