Procurement: Nigeria Flies Again

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December 5, 2020: In late 2020 the Nigerian Air Force revealed that it would be receiving 19 new aircraft in 2021. These include twelve Brazilian A-29 Super Tucano turboprop counterterrorism aircraft, three Pakistan JF17 jet fighters, one M-171 helicopter and three maritime surveillance aircraft for NIMASA (Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency).

The Nigerian Air Force does not have many combat aircraft. Currently it has eight recently acquired Chinese J-7 jet fighters. These are Chinese built MiG-21s. Although a 1950s design, the J-7 is much updated and adequate to deal with neighboring air forces. There are also about a dozen French/German Alpha Jets. These 7.5-ton twin-jet planes entered service in the 1970s as a trainer/ground attack aircraft. They are armed with a 23mm autocannon and carry about two tons of bombs, rockets and missiles. Nigeria bought 24 in the 1980s and used them heavily for two decades until most were inoperable. In the last five years 14 of their Alphas have been refurbished and most of that work is done. The problem is that the elderly Alphas have been hard at work as the only counterterrorism aircraft available. The J-7 and Alphas are the only combat aircraft Nigeria has, aside from about a dozen armed helicopters. The Super Tucanos are eagerly awaited in part because they are a more effective counterterrorism aircraft than the Alpha jets,

The A-29s are the most important new acquisition because these have already proved themselves as an effective counterterrorism aircraft. Several other African nations have received or are awaiting Super Tucanos. These include Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal and Ghana. Nigeria needs the Super Tucano to cope with Boko Haram Islamic terrorists in its northeast.

The Super Tucano is a single-engine turboprop trainer/attack aircraft that is used by eighteen nations. The armed version carries two internal 12.7mm (.50 caliber) machine-guns and can carry up to 1.5 tons of bombs and rockets. It can stay in the air for up to 6.5 hours. It is rugged, easy to maintain and cheap. You pay $15-20 million for each Super Tucano, depending on how much training, spare parts, and support equipment you get with them.

Super Tucano can be equipped to carry over a half dozen 120 kg (250 pound) SDB GPS smart bombs (or half a dozen dumb 500-pound bombs), giving it considerable potential firepower if rigged to handle smart bombs. The Super Tucano comes equipped with a GPS navigation system. Max altitude is 11,300 meters (35,000 feet) and cruising speed is 400 kilometers an hour. Naturally, this aircraft can move in lower and slower than any jet can. Super Tucano is also equipped with armor for the pilot, a pressurized cockpit, and an ejection seat. Not bad for an aircraft with a max takeoff weight of 5.4 tons.

These "trainer/light attack aircraft" can also operate from crude airports or even a stretch of highway. Aircraft like this can carry systems to defeat portable surface to air missiles. One of the options is a FLIR (infrared radar that produces a photo-realistic video image in any weather) and a fire control system for bombing. Several nations are using the Super Tucanos for counter-insurgency work. The aircraft is also used for border patrol by the United States.

The Super Tucano can double as trainers. It's easier to train pilots to use the Super Tucano, cheaper to buy them, and much cheaper to operate them. It costs less than a tenth as much per flying hour to operate a Super Tucano compared to an F-16. This is why the U.S. Air Force uses Super Tucano (as the A-29) as a trainer for training pilots of allies that have or are receiving the Super Tucano.

Most African nations have Cold War era warplanes, usually jets that have been inoperable for years. Many of these were acquired in the 1960s and 70s and were not adequately maintained. African military leaders have long wanted some basic, easy and cheap to operate aircraft for training and reconnaissance. That is what the Super Tucano does, plus carry out ground attack if so equipped.

Then there is the JF17, which is an odd bird, literally. It is basically a low-cost equivalent of the American F-16. Nigeria is one of only two (so far) export customers for the JF17. Nigeria was apparently offered attractive terms for the three ordered in 2016 and arriving in 2021. If these prove useful enough Nigeria may buy as many as twenty.

Nigeria is receiving the Block 2 version of the JF17. In 2006 the first Block 1 JF17s were built in China and entered service in 2007. The Block 1s were, by Chinese standards, simple aircraft and sold for about $15 million to build. Fifty Block 2 aircraft, with inflight refueling, improved electronics and digital data link, began production in 2013 and twelve more were ordered and completed by 2017. The Block 2s cost about $25 million each.

The JF17 was an unsuccessful Chinese project that was in development for over two decades. The Chinese air force did not want it but the Pakistanis did, if they could assemble them in Pakistan and call them “made in Pakistan.” To make this work Pakistan had to agree to buy over a hundred JF-17s and Pakistan initially said it wanted 150 of them. All this came about because Pakistan could not get modern fighters from anyone else, and turned to China. At the time, China had nothing comparable to the early model F-16s Pakistan already had. Currently Pakistan owns about a hundred JF17s and plans to obtain as many as 300.

China tried to find export customers for the JF17 as an inexpensive alternative to American and Russian fighters. So far, only Burma and Nigeria have ordered any. Burma bought 16. Both of these export sales were more diplomacy than just selling jet fighters. Chinese air force commanders consider the JF-17 inferior to other fighters they are building. The Chinese developer and manufacturer consider the JF17 a financial success but mainly as an export item and mainly to Pakistan, which may ultimately buy more than 300. That plus export sales add up to a significant amount of business.

The low-end JF-17 is little more than a day time interceptor. The most capable F-16 model in service is the F-16I, used exclusively by Israel. It's basically a modified version of the F-16C/D Block 50/52 optimized to deliver smart bombs anywhere, at any time, in any weather and despite dense air defenses. The F-16I costs about $70 million each. At the moment the proposed Block 3 will come close to the F-16I capabilities and the JF-17B Block 3 will cost less than half what the F-16I does while having some of the capabilities. What China is really touting here is the availability of a jet fighter that is cheap and performs somewhat like an F-16. For many countries, this is an attractive option. The only problem is that there are hundreds of second-hand (and very well maintained) F-16s on the market, selling for less than the bare-bones JF-17.

The 13-ton JF-17 can carry 3.6 tons of weapons and uses radar guided and heat seeking missiles. It has max speed of nearly 2,000 kilometers an hour, an operating range of 1,300 kilometers and a max altitude of nearly 18,000 meters (55,000 feet). China says it does not want to use the JF-17 itself because its own J-10 (another local design) and J-11 (a license-built Russian Su-27) are adequate for their needs. The J-10, like the JF-17, did not work out as well as was hoped, but that's another matter. Meanwhile, Pakistan has several squadrons in service and more being formed. The JF-17, along with the American F-16s Pakistan has long used, were both used against Islamic terrorists in the tribal territories where both aircraft performed well using guided and unguided bombs.

The Nigerian Air Force is handling the purchase of the three NIMASA aircraft because two of these are twin-engine business jets equipped for maritime surveillance. These are needed by the navy and coast guard which are busy dealing with the growing piracy problem off the Nigerian coast. The air force already has airbases and training infrastructure to prepare pilots and maintainers for the maritime patrol aircraft. The third NIMASA aircraft is another helicopter for the coast guard.

 


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