Historically, air power, a fundamental component of a nation’s military force, remains a decisive and critical factor in determining the outcome of any war. Pembi David-Stephen focuses on the vision-driven transformations in the Nigerian Air Force (NAF), under the watch of the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Air Marshal Siddique Baba Abubakar.
“Why does the air force need expensive new bombers? Have the people we’ve been bombing over the years been complaining?” This curious query came from four-term and 45th governor of the US State of Alabama, George Corley Wallace Jr. Wallace who also ran severally but unsuccessfully for the American presidency was not a soldier and perhaps cannot be fairly pilloried for a basic misconception of air power.
However, thousands of kilometers across the Atlantic Ocean, British war hero and Prime Minister Winston Churchill sharply put naïve Wallace in his place when he brought visionary clarity to bear on the meaning of air power for a modern state. His words: “Not to have an adequate air force in the present state of the world is to compromise the foundations of national freedom and independence.”
Back home and fortunately for Nigeria, the current Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Air Marshal Siddique Baba Abubakar, has bought unstintingly into the Churchill’s philosophy of building a competent air force to guard the “foundations of national freedom and independence.” With a vision shaped by a deep understanding of history, Air Marshal Siddique has fundamentally repositioned the Nigerian Air Force (NAF), a body previously beset by significant deficits in funding, equipment, logistics and updated combat doctrine in a new-to-country conflict.
Today, the NAF is far better prepared to confront and defeat the foe, on multiple fronts and perhaps more importantly, remains firmly apolitical. For example, the obvious gains over the stubborn insurgency and militancy in the North East, being recorded by the military cannot be fully appreciated without recognizing the inputs of the Nigerian Air Force.
More specifically, after taking over the command and control cockpit of the NAF, Air Marshal Sadique has dramatically altered that nation’s air force narrative by gradually creating a highly professional and disciplined force via capacity building initiatives for effective, efficient and timely employment of air power in response to Nigeria’s national security needs.
The NAF’s focussed acquisition of new platforms and reactivation of existing ones, under Sadique’s watch in much of the last four years has proven to be pivotal in the significant grounds covered by the nation in the battle against terrorism and other shades of criminality.
By boldly tweaking the NAF’s organizational structure and expansion of its manpower strength, the force has recorded considerable progress in the crucial arenas of boosted professionalism, Research and Development (R&D), human capacity development and personnel welfare enhancement. There is more.
What are the key ingredients of Air Marshal Sadique’s transformation of the air defence component of the country’s armed forces?
At the outset of the Muhammadu Buhari presidency, and his appointment of Air Marshal Siddique as the CAS, the Boko Haram Sect was shockingly in control of over 20 Local Government Areas in the Northeastern part of the country. The air power component of the nation’s armed forces played a crucial role in liberating fundamentally all of these territories from the Sect. Now effectively peripheralised, Boko Haram insurgents are mainly limited to the fringes of Lake Chad and parts of Sambisa and Alagarno Forests. This scenario has facilitated the return to their ancestral homes of many erstwhile displaced persons.
Still on caging insecurity, particularly banditry, the NAF has deployed personnel and offensive air assets as part of the DHQ Operation SHARAN DAJI. It has also conducted targeted air strikes against identified armed bandit locations under the auspices of Operation DIRAN MIKIYA.
Additionally, the NAF also positioned some Special Forces elements interfacing other Services and security agencies in the various operational theatres. In collaboration with other security agencies, the NAF has continued to provide close air support, air interdiction, in-Theatres liaison flights, medical and casualty evacuation as well as logistics re-supply of ammunitions, water, food and medicine.
On the critical front of Communications and Information Systems (CIS) support for the various Theatres of Operation, the air force has enhanced Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance (ISR) missions mirrored in vastly improved intelligence dissemination. The establishment of the new Geospatial Intelligence Data Centre (GIDC) at HQ NAF, equipped with high-tech computer hardware and software, to improve capacity for acquisition, exploitation, analysis and interpretation of imagery and geospatial information is another positive. This enhances the provision of actionable intelligence for the Armed Forces and other security agencies.
Here, it is noteworthy that the newly established Strategic Air Operations Centre (SAOC), would equally boost the coordination of air operations nationally.
Beyond just strafing and bombing foes into submission, the NAF has also taken its civil-military relations pretty seriously. To mitigate the sufferings of IDPs and win the hearts and minds of those affected by the depredations of Boko Haram insurgents, it established two Level 2 hospitals in Bama and Dalori, Borno State. It also initiated a school feeding programme for 1,000 school children in the 2 IDP Camps. This has greatly contributed to the number of pupils that have returned to school in the area.
The NAF, with humanitarian targeting of members of host communities has continued to conduct medical outreaches all over the country and has so far treated over 300,000 people in different parts of the country in the last four years.
Within the period under review, anchored by Air Marshal Sadique, the NAF has projected air power beyond Nigeria, in the West African sub-region. NAF Alpha Jets were the first and only fighter aircraft deployed in the Gambia to actualise the mandate of the Gambian people and facilitate the peaceful handover of political power to President Adama Barrow. The C-130s, flying the Nigerian flag, also flew humanitarian relief materials to the Sierra Leonean people after the mudslides that affected that country in August 2017.
Despite quirky folklore that ascribes powers of flight by broomstick to some Africans, modern flight requires definitive hardware complemented by advanced software to make impact and achieve set objectives. Outside these hardware imperatives, it would simply become a flight of fancy suitable to folklore and fairy tales.
To give teeth to air power as Churchill proclaimed requires capacity enhancement and sustenance. Sadique ensured that NAF fleets of aircraft were up-scaled. The Federal Government has acquired 18 brand new aircraft to boost training and combat readiness of the NAF. These include 10 Super Mushshak trainer aircraft, 4 new Mi-35M Helicopters gunships, 2 Bell 412 helicopters and 2 Agusta 109 Power Attack Helicopters.
Beside these, 19 additional aircraft have also been ordered by the Federal Government, which include 12 Super Tucano attack aircraft, 3 JF-17 Thunder Multi-role fighter aircraft, an additional Mi-35M helicopter gunship as well as 3 other helicopters – 2 more Agusta 109 Power Attack Helicopters and one Agusta 139W utility helicopter. In the same vein, 14 erstwhile grounded aircraft such as Falcon 900, ATR-42, Beechcraft, Super Puma, F-7Ni, EC-135 Do-228, Mi-24V, Mi-35P and L-39 have been reactivated, with the reactivation of another 9 soon to be completed; 3 helicopters – one EC-135, one Mi-35P and a Dauphin – as well as 3 L-39ZA tactical trainer aircraft and 3 additional Alpha Jet aircraft.
For the first time, the NAF is conducting multiple in-country Periodic Depot Maintenance (PDM) of its platforms; C-130H in Lagos, 3 Alpha Jet aircraft in Kainji and 3 L-39ZA aircraft in Kano. The acquisitions and reactivation as well as the emplacement of robust logistics support structure have enabled the NAF to raise the serviceability status of operable aircraft from about 35 per cent in 2015 to an average of about 80 per cent as at May 2019.
To further firm up the grounds it had covered, the NAF also undertook structural expansion and more manpower acquisition. In the past four years, it has expanded its force structure by creating two new branches, two new Field Commands as well as several new units including some Quick Response Groups and Wings (QRGs/QRWs), to bring security closer to the people of Nigeria. The two new Commands are the Special Operations Command which is located in Bauchi and the Ground Training Command which is located in Enugu.
The QRGs/QRWs and Regiment Groups, which are manned by NAF Regiment and Special Forces personnel, are located in Nguroje, Taraba State; Ipetu Ijesha, Osun State; Owerri, Imo State and Agatu, Benue State. Other locations where it established new units include Kerang, Plateau State; Kastina, Katsina State; Gombe, Gombe State; Gusau, Zamfara State; Doma, Nassarawa State as well as Birnin Gwari in Kaduna State.
To optimally man the new structure, the NAF embarked on massive recruitment resulting in the training of a total of about 7,693 young Nigerians as airmen/and airwomen and 669 young graduates as officers.
On the human capacity development front, the NAF has winged 92 pilots in the last four years alone, while 117 other student pilots are currently undergoing training both within and outside the country. It is noteworthy here that the female officer undergoing training in the US will become the first female fighter pilot in the history of the NAF. Similarly, another female pilot is currently undergoing training in South Africa to become the first NAF female helicopter pilot.
Additionally, the NAF has also built several facilities to further enhance training and operations effectiveness. On 26 April 2018, President Muhammadu Buhari, commissioned a new NAF Reference Hospital in Bauchi State. The 60-bed Hospital consists of an Accident and Emergency Unit, Intensive Care Unit, Twin Theatres, Radio Diagnostic Unit as well as Renal Dialysis, Ophthalmic, Dental, Physiotherapy, Maternal and New Born Units in addition to a Mortuary. It is also equipped with modern diagnostic and Life Support equipment intended to provide medical care to critically ill patients such as those wounded in combat. The NAF also upgraded medical equipment at its various medical centres around the country.
Significant investments in R&D are yielding tangible results. Some of the R&D breakthroughs include production of the first NAF indigenous operational Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), named Tsaigunmi, inducted into the NAF by President Mohammadu Buhari in February 2018. Others are the receipt of patent rights for the production of the Unmanned Ground Vehicles.
However, notwithstanding these noteworthy positives, challenges still remain, given the fluid dynamism of the operational environment. This is where the bold vision of Air Marshal Sadique Baba Abubakar, remains key.
Pembi, a public affairs analyst, wrote in from Abuja.