Options for the Nigerian Air Force to go on the Offensive in the Counterinsurgency War

Ekene Lionel presently writes for African Military Blog as a defense technology analyst.  His current research focuses on how technology intersects national defense.  He holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Michael Okpara University.  He can be found on Twitter @lionelfrancisNG.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


National Security Situation:  The counter-insurgency war in Nigeria has prevailed for seven years; causing untold hardship to the citizens of the region, devouring a great number of financial resources as well as precious unrecoverable lives[1]. The much sought-after victory has continued to elude the Nigerian Military despite its determined efforts to triumph over the terrorists. In the conflict, the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) has been criticized severally for being absent in the war efforts due to unavailable capable weapons platforms[2].

Date Originally Written:  May 15, 2019. 

Date Originally Published:  July 22, 2019.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author writes from the perspective of a seasoned regional defense technology analyst focusing on Africa. The article is written from the point of view of the Nigerian Air Force decision-makers considering using modern technologies to sustain the counter-insurgency war, as well as offering options on the building of aerial capabilities in order to degrade the terrorist elements.

Background:  Since the 1970s, the NAF has largely lost its capability to conduct full-scale conventional warfare against near-peer adversaries. This loss has directly affected its ability to wage a successful counter-insurgency (COIN) efforts against Boko Haram and the Islamic State[3].

The Nigerian Air Force’s emphasis on utilizing cost-effective aerial platforms such as trainers aircrafts pressed into service in the frontlines has left the force with fewer capable platforms to properly prosecute the COIN war. However, with the insurgents’ ever-changing combat and survival tactics coupled with the increasing regional security uncertainties, the NAF began examining new approaches in meeting its constitutional mandates, even with its shrinking budget[4][5].

Significance:  When the Nigerian Air Force cannot undertake its mandates due to limited aerial capability, the counter-insurgency efforts cannot be sustained. The military echelon will find it difficult to perform optimally, for instance, the NAF’s various Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) platforms are critical in providing valuable information on the enemy’s disposition, troops strength and composition. Also, the NAF’s strike and attack aerial apparatus are seen as the Nigerian Military’s de facto ‘far-reach’ capability; first to see the enemy, first to strike the enemy and first to report the enemy’s position. The Nigerian Air Force is simply the fulcrum that ties all the components involved in fighting the war, its role cannot be over-emphasized[6].

Option #1:  The NAF distributes its platforms and combines them with an integrated observation system.

The NAF disperses rather than concentrates its forces, relying on new weapons, sensors, training, and tactics to defeat the aggressors. Distributed lethality is becoming the newest paradigm shift in offensive combat, aimed at ensuring joint force contribution[7].

This option would ensure the NAF controls the battlefield; which enables deterrence of aggression, power projection, as well as providing theatre security. This concept relies largely on resilient networks to coordinate the activities of all in-theatre airplanes spread over vast areas of landmass as seen in Nigeria’s northeast region. Every aircraft (offensive and otherwise), unmanned aerial vehicles and helicopters are a potential sensor and shooter in the shared effort, but the ability of the enemy to detect, track and adapt is greatly complicated.

While West African based terror organizations lack a credible anti-air / aerial-denial capability, when NAF campaigns are organized around using just light attack aircraft, Unmanned Combat Aerial Systems (UCAS) and attack helicopters, it doesn’t take a lot of thought for the enemies to figure out what to target. But when an offensive campaign is waged by diverse aircraft (fighters, trainers, transport, helicopters, UCAS, etc) scattered over many miles, the enemy is challenged in determining where to focus its response.

This strategy could contribute to regional deterrence, enhance the survivability of the force in wartime, and get more value out of each warfighting asset.

Risk:  As with all new changes especially in the defense sector, misusing money is always an issue. However, a staggered approach to implementation could be proposed. Instead of procuring new platforms, little bits of technology could be added to each platform. Such an approach would glue together the aerial platforms, sensors, and weapons, and these incremental improvements would be a step in the right direction. Furthermore, the NAF engineers have shown countless times that they are quite adept at rejigging non-offensive platforms into highly potent warfighting machines.

Additionally, adapting the NAF for distributed lethality requires it to restructure its tactics, training and warfighting tools to a new way of waging war.  This new way of war’s most important items are weapons, networking, and sensors with increased offensive reach, integrated precision munition, improved battlespace awareness, and high-mobility training.

Gain:  This option would increase battlefield coherence, tactical units synergy, and also the possibility of integrating more features like a battlefield ‘friendly force tracker’ in the future. The overall picture is one of a force that will likely gain reconnaissance assets with wider operational range; communications links that better support timely targeting of threats; procedures to optimally pair weapons with targets in a distributed environment; precision munitions with greater over-the-horizon capability. 

Option #2:  The NAF focuses on persistent ISR, real-time target data sharing and rapid reaction engagement.

Another option is to dedicate the Nigerian Air Force’s ISR assets in a persistent deployment mode whereby multiple ISR platforms are deployed to the forward edge of the battlespace for a longer period of time. These ISR platforms will be tied to a theatre-wide real-time target data sharing network (or data link similar to South Africa’s Link ZA or the United States’ Link 16) to instantaneously transmit the target’s data (location and imagery) to standby rapid reaction assets deployed in Forward Operating Bases[8][9]. 

Risk:  With the ever-shrinking defense budget, deploying multiple aircraft for a long period of time drastically increases the operational cost. The amount of money needed to keep military aircraft airborne or in constant high-alert mode is considerable. Moreover, an increase in deployment or sortie rate results in aircraft downtime and the maintenance time required.  With the NAF currently being deployed in multiple fronts, Option #2 could result in security lapses in some areas in the country. However, UCAS could be especially useful in closing some of the gaps identified.

Gain:  Option #2 offers the benefits of a quicker engagement time since the time required from target detection to engagement is significantly reduced. With this in mind, surprising attacks from terrorists are lessened. Furthermore, the decision-making process in target engagement is also reduced because the burden would be passed on the field commanders, thereby lessening the strain on the command and control process. 

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1] Gillian, L. ( 2018, January 24), The impact of the Boko Haram insurgency in Northeast Nigeria on childhood wasting: a double-difference study. Retrieved May 16, 2019, from https://conflictandhealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13031-018-0136-2

[2] Leadership Newspaper. ( 2017, June 29), Distractions On The Path To Glory: The Nigerian Air Force Experience. Retrieved May 16, 2019, from https://leadership.ng/2017/06/29/distractions-path-glory-nigerian-air-force-experience/

[3] Ekene, L. (2018, June 28), AIR SUPREMACY: Has the Nigerian Air Force lost its teeth? Retrieved May 16, 2019, from https://www.africanmilitaryblog.com/2018/06/air-supremacy-has-the-nigerian-air-force-lost-its-teeth

[4] Vanguard Newspaper. (2017, November 16) War on Terror: Airforce converts L-39ZA Albatross jets to fighter aircraft. Retrieved May 16, 2019, from  https://www.vanguardngr.com/2017/11/war-terror-airforce-converts-l-39za-albatross-jets-fighter-aircraft/

[5] Sadique Abubakar. (2018, December), Air Power And National Security Imperatives. Retrieved May 16, 2019, from https://leadership.ng/2018/11/20/air-power-and-national-security-imperatives/

[6] Chris Agbambu. (2017, May 28), Nigerian Air Force Has Played Significant Role In Tackling Insecurity. Retrieved May 16, 2019, from https://www.tribuneonlineng.com/94666/

[7] U.S. Naval War College. (2015, October 10), ‘Distributed Lethality’ concept gains focus at NWC. Retrieved May 16, 2019, from https://usnwc.edu/News-and-Events/News/Distributed-Lethality-concept-gains-focus-at-NWC

[8] Reutech Communications. Link ZA. Retrieved May 16, 2019, from http://www.reutechcomms.com/linkza/

[9] Defense Web. (2010, January 18) Link ZA: Fact File. Retrieved May 16, 2019, from https://www.defenceweb.co.za/resources/fact-files/fact-file-link-za/?catid=79%3Afact-files&Itemid=159

Air Forces Ekene Lionel Nigeria Option Papers