By Kingsley Omonobi and Chris Onuoha
Nearly one month after taking delivery of six A-29 Super Tucano fighter jets from the United States (U.S.) to aid the fight against insecurity in the country, especially banditry in the North-West and Boko Haram terrorism in the North-East, the military has yet to deploy the aircraft for combat missions.
Sunday Vanguard sources blamed the delay in the deployment of the counterterrorism planes on support infrastructure which is not ready.
The sources also spoke of ongoing specialized training of personnel for the attack jets.
The Nigerian Air Force (NAF) had taken delivery of the fighter jets designed to combat insurgents and bandits, among other functions, on July 22 amid raging attacks by bandits in Zamfara, Kaduna, Katsina, Niger and Sokoto states, and Boko Haram terrorists in Borno and Yobe.
For instance, a review of the security situation in Nigeria by Sunday Vanguard as of last weekend showed that no fewer than 50 police officers were gruesomely murdered by bandits and other criminal elements within 38 days while about 211 other Nigerians were killed during the same period.
According to the review, about N1.415billion was demanded as ransom for 321 kidnapped victims across the country during the period.
The Super Tucano is a dual-pilot turboprop aircraft built as a workhorse combat air platform, equipped for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and for precision air-to-ground strike missions.
The six fighter jets represent the first batch of the 12 ordered by the Nigerian government from the U.S. to aid the fight against terrorists and bandits.
Authorities said the second batch of six will be delivered before the end of the year.
It would be recalled that the Minister of Defence, Major Gen Bashir Magashi (rtd), the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshal Oladayo Amao, and the Chief of the Army Staff, Lt. Gen Faruk Yahaya, were at the NAF base in Kano to receive the light attack aircraft on arrival.
Experts believe the deployment of the fighter planes is the game changer in the battle against terrorists and bandits.
But speaking on the delay in the deployment of the six Super Tucano jets, one of our sources said: “Work on the infrastructure at the Tucano Fighter Squadron, located in Kainji, is still ongoing.
“Some equipment needed for the aircraft full operation is not built up yet and specialized training of personnel is still ongoing in the US”.
The source noted that the fighter jets were taken to Kano as a temporary base, saying their base ultimately is Kainji.
Meanwhile, the Director, NAF Public Relations and Information, Air Commodore Edward Gabkwet, told Sunday Vanguard that the first batch of the six fighter jets would be deployed for action in the “not too distant future”.
Gabkwet did not elaborate.
Speaking during an inspection of the six A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires, Kathleen FitzGibbon, said the delivery represented a historic level of cooperation achieved between the U.S. and Nigerian militaries.
“We are proud to partner Nigeria in its ‘whole of government’ approach to end violent extremism and ensure a more stable, prosperous country for all Nigerians,” FitzGibbon added.
A statement by the US Embassy subsequently said: “The Super Tucano platform for Nigeria is the United States’ largest Foreign Military Sales programme in Sub-Saharan Africa, valued at almost $500 million.
“This programme follows the Department of Defence’s ‘Total Package Approach’ model and includes spare parts for several years of operation, contract logistics support, munitions, and a multi-year construction project to improve Kainji’s infrastructure.
“The Super Tucano is a dual-pilot turboprop aircraft built as a workhorse combat air platform, equipped for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and for precision air-to-ground strike missions.
“Through this programme, the U.S. Air Force’s 81st Fighter Squadron at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, trained Nigerian pilots and maintenance crews to U.S. standards.
“Training also emphasizes the Law of Armed Conflict and Civilian Casualty Mitigation, which are fundamental principles of the Nigerian military’s professional education and training.
“With the A-29 Super Tucano purchase, the Nigerian Air Force also has become a founding member of the U.S. Air Force’s ‘Combined Light Attack Experiment,’ which is developing Light Attack global best-practice tactics and doctrine for the 21st century.”
Security officials had revealed that “several African countries already operate the terrorists’ ‘crushers’ which are a robust and versatile airplane, with proven experience in combat and which will fulfill with excellence the missions for which it was selected”.
Mali and Ghana are two other African countries that have placed orders for the aircraft.
Officials said Super Tucano suits the counterterrorism role as it can be used for both surveillance and combat particularly in Africa.
The cost of the 12 planes Nigeria ordered is put at about $500million made up of $18million for each aircraft.
The contract was awarded to Sierra Nevada Corporation, an American aerospace contractor operating in Jacksonville, Florida, in partnership with Brazil’s Embraer, the designer of the aircraft which it designates EMB 314
According to defence sources, six of the aircraft would be equipped with Forward Looking Infrared System, a technology that senses radiation which is then converted to video output.
As part of the contract for the 12 Super Tucano fighters, NAF would receive ground training devices, mission planning systems, mission debrief systems, spares, ground support equipment and alternate mission equipment, the United States Defence Department said.
The Federal Government had placed order for the aircraft in April 2018, following discussions with the U.S. government that led to the relaxing of a moratorium placed on military equipment sales to Nigeria.
The procurement, it was said, would help strengthen Nigeria’s national security as well as timely end to banditry and Boko Haram war.
African countries demand for the light attack/trainer turbo-prop aircraft has been on the rise as countries seeking cheaper multirole aircraft are settling for its lower price tag, operational simplicity and ease of maintenance.
For instance, officials confirmed that 11 new firm orders of the A-29 Super Tucano were received from Mali and Ghana with both countries planning to deploy their A-29 aircraft on pilot training and other internal security missions, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).
“The makers stand a better chance to expand their attack/trainer aircraft market in Africa than their Western and Russian competition”, one of them said.
“It was also spurred by force modernization needs to counter the threat of transnational terrorism, piracy and insurgencies in North, East and West Africa.
“Force modernization demands continue to drive aircraft [demand], but African militaries now assess aircraft suitability based on pricing and maintenance costs against mission delivery.
“They now look at whether there are incentives such as loans to support their aircraft acquisition and MRO programs.
“The makers also stand a better chance to increase their African market shares because the aircraft offers simplicity, low operating cost and low-cost maintenance while providing a versatile fighter/trainer aircraft in the A-29, which meets the demand of most African militaries”.
Super Tucano made its African skies debut in September 2011 when Burkina Faso received three A-29s. Since then, Angola, Mauritania, Mozambique and Senegal have joined the Super Tucano family
The A-29’s missions include light attack, aerial surveillance and counterinsurgency.
It is equipped with a sensor system which includes an electro-optical / infrared system with a laser designator, night-vision goggles, and secure communications and data-link packages.
Its principal armaments are one 50-caliber machine gun in each wing and five hard points which can carry a maximum external payload of 1,550 kilograms.
It can also be armed with air-to-air missiles, bombs, rocket pods and gun pods.
In a related development, Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah (APC, Kebbi South), the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Air Force, says military’s operational strategy is as important as the delivery of the attack jets in defeating terrorists and bandits.
“I am sure they plotted something before arriving at that conclusion that with the Super Tucanos, they can change the game in the fight against banditry, kidnapping and insurgency”, Na’Allah told Sunday Vanguard.
“The good thing is that it does not matter whether they have Tucano or not, what is important is operational strategy. You can do a lot with equipment, but you can do a lot more with equipment backed by a sound operational strategy”.