Still On the Nigerian Air Force A-29 Super Tucano Aircraft, By Sadeeq Garba Shehu
In today’s world that is intolerant of imprecise weapons, the A-29 Super Tucano is the ultimate low-risk, fully-developed solution required where time is short and the need is urgent, and it will provide the Nigerian Armed Forces fighting Boko Haram in the North-East a vital battlefield advantage.
The Nigerian Air Force (NAF) has acquitted itself very well in the current counter-insurgency (COIN) operation against Boko Haram. It may therefore come as a surprise to many Nigerians to learn that when the campaign started, NAF was facing a capability gap: It was fighting COIN without a dedicated aircraft. Its aging ground/light attack Alpha Jets (no longer in production since the early 90s and with spares unavailable) and Chinese F7 interceptors/ground attackers, are both jet-engine aircrafts that fly too fast (the Alpha jet does 1,000 km/h; the F-7 – 2,200 km/h; Tucano – 590 km/h) and have little endurance. They lack the adequate loiter time on station for close air support (CAS) to ground forces. Moreover these two jets operate at high altitudes (generally between 10 and 15,000 feet), which reduce the ability of pilots to accurately identify and discriminate between targets visually from the air (leading to unfortunate and disastrous consequences, such as the accidental bombing of the Rann IDP Camp). Incapable of night operations, it neither was designed or is suitable for a COIN environment. To even keep the Alpha Jets in the air, NAF had to revert to ingenuity and improvisation, e.g. as in its collaboration with Innoson Motors and the University of Maiduguri for the fabrication of some of the Alpha Jet parts. But creative thinking, innovation and improvisation have their limits when the appropriate aircraft is lacking.
The NAF’s search for dedicated CAS/COIN aircrafts started in November 2013 when the then vice president, Namadi Sambo held bilateral discussions with Brazilian officials for the acquisition of the Super Tucano. On arrival in office in 2015, President Buhari observed that, “[T]he air force is virtually non-existent. The fixed wing aircrafts are not very serviceable. The helicopters are not serviceable, and they are too few”. The ideal COIN fixed wing aircraft is one with a piston-engine, built ab initio as a dedicated COIN aircraft, which flies relatively slowly and lowly, is relatively cheap, is easy and cheap to maintain, has night capability, is battle tested/COIN proven and readily available in the market. The Brazilian A-29 Super Tucano ticked all the boxes. However, due to U.S. sanctions on the basis of alleged human rights abuses and corruption of the Nigerian military, all efforts to acquire the A-29 were blocked by the United States government, citing the Leahy Law, which bars the selling of American arms to countries with militaries having histories of human rights abuses. The new détente between Presidents Buhari and Obama reopened discussions as a result of improvements in both the corruption and human rights record of the Nigerian Armed Forces, making President Obama promise Buhari in late 2016 that the A-29 sales would go on. Finally, in February this year, the federal government of Nigeria made a down payment of $496 million of a total package worth $593 million, for the supply twelve A-29 Super Tucanos, with their associated equipment and training, in a transparent government-to-government arrangement that removed all rapacious middlemen from the equation.
Probably due to poor communication on the part of the federal government, some erroneously believe that Nigeria bought the A-29 at an inflated unit price of over $40 million (online sources put the unit price at between $9 and $30 million). What this position ignores, however, is the fact that the $496 million (possibly more) is not just for the 12 aircrafts alone, but includes the costs of other goods and services. Independent research carried out (including through a freedom of information request filed in the U.S.), shows that under a Total Package Approach (TPA), the NAF would get comprehensive value throughout the programme life-cycle to include programme management, systems engineering and certification. Apart from the 12 Super Tucano warplanes, the TPA includes: Two spare engines per aircraft, thousands of bombs and rockets, 20,000 rounds of machine gun ammunition, flight simulators, 18-month training for crew/engineers, and construction of infrastructure such as hangars and ammunition dumps. Also, it covers aircraft manuals in DVD, the ferrying of the aircraft to Nigeria by SNC pilots, freight/shipping costs, two years of contractor logistics support, spare parts, required ground equipment, and required aviation flight crew equipment. To allay the fears of collateral damage and human rights/IHL violations, the contract also includes a training package on humanitarian law, human rights, targeting, Collateral Damage Estimation and Air-Ground Integration.
On the delivery date of 2020, investigations revealed that two years seems to be the standard timeline from order to delivery. For example, Philippines and Angola received theirs two years after placing orders. Only countries like Columbia and Ghana, who ordered direct from the Brazilian Embraer, got theirs within a year. USG documents obtained show that the first two aircrafts will be ready within 18 months.
A good question to ask when acquiring a new COIN combat aircraft is: “How has it performed in battle in other COIN environments? The A-29 has performed as advertised in COIN operations, especially in Colombia where it was credited with the precision-guided strikes that killed FARC leader Alfonso Cano, his second-in-command Raúl Reyes, as well as other commanders. The A-29 is in service with 14 air forces around the world, with more than 320,000 flight hours and more than 40,000 combat hours.
Its array of weapon-systems include guns, rockets, missiles, general-purpose, incendiary/and cluster bombs. Good sensor suites are a key requirement of a COIN aircraft, as correctly identifying and accurately engaging targets have always been fundamental in COIN as one collateral damage incident can quickly undermine the whole operation. The A-29 has a good sensor suite to help mitigate against the risk of collateral damage, allowing correct identification of targets and accurate engagement using its precision-guided EO optical/IR sensors and NS/GPS guidance kit. The A-29s Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS) has a lower yield more suitable for avoiding collateral damage, and takes a very short time for ordnance personnel to load and unload.
Low operating costs is another highly attractive feature of the Super Tucano, as cost-per-flight-hour is $430-500, many times cheaper than even the smallest jet aircraft, which flies at $3000/hour. Its fuel consumption of 107 litres/hour is a fraction of Alpha Jets’ 908 litre/hour. With an impressive endurance and loiter time of 6 hours 30 minutes (against Alpha Jets’ 3 hours and F-7’s 45 minutes), the A-29 has been variously described as “A lower cost alternative for fighting in permissive environments, including insurgencies”, “(p)erhaps one of the best examples of a light, inexpensive counterinsurgency air force…”, and as, “(t)he Best Example Of Economical Simplicity”.
The A-29 is night-capable. Boko Haram currently cashes in on NAF’s limited night attack capability, using the cover of darkness to conceal their movement, to rest and then launch surprise attacks. This would no longer be the case as the A-29, with its Night Vision Device (NVD), would enable NAF pilots to “own the night” and conduct night operations. It is a plus that A-29 can be used in border patrol, anti-drug and anti-smuggling operations as well.
The low- and slow-flying night-capable A-29, using precision laser-guided bombs, would certainly have a better chance of identifying targets and engaging them than the current higher and faster-flying combat aircrafts that the NAF uses. In today’s world that is intolerant of imprecise weapons, the A-29 Super Tucano is the ultimate low-risk, fully-developed solution required where time is short and the need is urgent, and it will provide the Nigerian Armed Forces fighting Boko Haram in the North-East a vital battlefield advantage.
Sadeeq Garba Shehu, a retired Air Force group captain and a defence/security/counter terrorism expert, writes from Kaduna. Email: Sgshehu@gmail.com.