Murtala Abdullahi is a Junior Associate Researcher with the Conflict Studies And Analysis Project. His areas of interest are in Nigeria’s military, local conflict drivers across Nigeria, conflict prevention and effects of climate change on national security. He tweets via @Murtalaibin .
Conflict Studies And Analysis Project’s content does not contain information of a classified or otherwise official nature, neither does the content represent the position of any governmental or non-governmental entity.
National Security Situation: Since 2009, Nigeria has been fighting a counter-insurgency campaign in its northeast, against a variety of mostly local Islamist insurgencies, active in a terrain that is over a hundred thousand square kilometres in size, with limited air assets to support ground operations.
Paper/Author(s) Point Of View: This paper is written from the perspective of a defence policy advisor, offering options to western countries seeking to assist the Nigerian state in its counter-insurgency campaign.
Background: Nigerian Air Force(hereafter also NAF) combat operations in the Lake Chad conflict, began in the early stages of the war when NAF assets were tasked to provide air support to military units battling so-called Boko Haram insurgents.
As the conflict matured in duration, the Nigerian Air Force revamped its air and ground capabilities which had been left to atrophy over the years, in order to be able to provide close air support to ground troops, conduct interdiction operations against insurgent logistics, and develop an aerial intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance(hereafter ISR) in support of the general campaign.
The Nigerian Air Force’s combined manned and unmanned aircraft inventory is estimated at between 200-250 aircraft, comprising of an estimated three operational C-130Hs(with pennant numbers NAF 913,917 & 918), sixteen Alpha Jet E trainer variants acquired in the ‘80s and around twenty Alpha Jet A ground attack variants(of which just 16 are active), thirteen Aero L-39 ZA Albatros, ten used Mi-24Vs acquired from the Ukraine, around twenty Mi-35Ps and MI-35Ms acquired from Russia, 10 Pakistani Super Mushshak trainers, two Bell 412, four EC-135 and over a dozen Agusta Westland helicopters. In addition an unknown number of Chinese-built CH-3 rainbow unmanned combat aerial vehicles and indigenous Gulma| Tsaigumi UAV are in service, along with Austrian DA-42 Twin Star light patrol aircraft, ATR-42 maritime patrol aircraft, Super Puma, MI-17 and Beechcraft Super King Air 350i ISR-optimised turboprop aircraft
A sizeable number of these aircraft are deployed with the Air Task Force-Operation Lafiya Dole conducting aerial sorties as part of the general counterinsurgency campaign. These planes fly out of 75 Strike Group (75 STG) Yola in Adamawa State, and the 105 Composite Group Nigerian Air Force (NAF) Base, Maiduguri in Borno State.
In addition to combat operations in the northeast of Nigeria, the Nigerian Air Force has its hands full conducting sorties in support of internal security operations in the coastal region of the country, the northwest, the north-central and the southeast, thus can only allocate a finite number of air assets permanently to the Northeast.
With a terrain spanning more than 100,000 sqkms, and with inadequate number of aircraft assigned to operations in the region, the Nigerian Air Force is finding it difficult to tangibly affect the course of military operations in the counterinsurgency campaign. Combined with the limited number of aircraft, Nigerian Air Force’s budgetary constraints(the combined defence budget for 2018 was $1.5bn and nearly 70% of that was salaries and overhead expenditure) and shortages in technical capacity(aircraft engineers, image analysts, signals intelligence analysts for example), spare parts for aircraft, and guided munitions to help reduce civilian casualties, all lead to the current situation where airpower is a negligible participant in the shaping the trajectory of this conflict.
Significance: Nigeria is Africa’s largest petroleum producer, 12th largest in the world, and boasts the largest natural gas reserves on the continent. It is the world’s fourth largest democracy, with a population of 200 million people which is projected to surpass that of the United States before 2050 .
Nigeria’s military is an essential force for stability in the West African region leading regional interventions in Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Gambia, in support of the international rules based order, in recent history. Nigeria serves as an alternative migration destination for many West Africans. Northern Nigeria, including the Lake Chad region hosts important centuries old Trans-Saharan corridors for movement of people, animals and trade, crucial for food security and the relative economic healthiness of at least three states in Nigeria’s immediate vicinity.
These factors make the survival of the Nigerian state important to the international community. Stability in Nigeria is inextricably linked to Africa’s future and the security of Western Europe.
Option#1: The United States, United Kingdom and France, should develop and implement a strategy for enhancing their military assistance to the Nigerian Air Force through providing manned and unmanned aerial ISR platforms, attack helicopters, and fast attack jets, and slower turbo-prop attack planes. The UK and France in particular could help Nigeria reactivate its fleet of 18 SEPECAT Jaguar strike planes, which had been withdrawn from service due to sanctions against the then Nigerian military regime. This will increase the number of strike platforms available for operations in the Northeast. From the American side contributing a matching number of A-29 Super Tucanos to the order Nigeria is buying and hastening the delivery time from 2023 to late 2019 or early 2020 at most, will also increase the number of platforms available for close air support missions in the Northeast.
Supporting the Nigerian Air Force with donations of NH-90, S-70 , AW169, Bell 412, and other rotorcraft platforms for search and rescue and medical evacuation of wounded troops, will go a long way in enhancing the operational capabilities of the NAF, and also the Nigerian Army.
Risk: Interoperability of systems between new platforms donated by the three partner states and current assets in NAF inventory might be an issue. This strategy will lead to more extensive US, French and UK direct involvement in the Nigerian Air Force’s operations and its expansion process, requiring deeper levels of allied military aid commitments. As is seen with criticism of Western support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, allied governments will be held responsible by rights groups and advocates against war crimes for any mishaps by Nigerian pilots flying donated planes that lead to the deaths of civilians.
Gains: Option #1 will provide the capability to conduct relentless pursuit, reinforce Nigerian forces under attack quickly. This is in addition to degrading insurgent military and logistic capabilities, thus providing conditions necessary for sustaining offensive ground operations by Nigerian forces.
Option#2: Allied support to the Nigerian Air Force, focuses solely on training, and helping the NAF expand its bench of professionals. Instead of disparate adhoc training missions, a unified allied training group would be attached to the Nigerian Air Force. This unified training group would incorporate specialists-trainers from all three major Western partner states, who would provide the training support to beef up NAF capabilities across board; from training aircraft maintenance personnel and imagery analysts, to training terminal attack controllers to embed with the Nigerian Army and better coordinate provision of close air support in combat operations.
Risks: While this will improve capacity, it will not address paucity of resources plaguing the Nigerian Air Force.
Gains: This is a low-risk, inexpensive option, limiting the exposure of allied governments to liability from mistakes and wrong decisions made by Nigerian Air Force personnel.
 Global fire power. “Nigeria military strength”. Retrieved from:
 Author’s estimates from physical counting and monitoring of multiple military blogs and press releases
 Same as 2, above
 Beegeagle’s Blog. “ The Shape Of Things To Come, Nigerian Air Force Expecting 6 Mi-35M Attack Helicopters”. Retrieved from:
 Tribune Pakistan. “Nigeria To Buy Ten Super Mushshak”. Retrieved from:
 Fulan Nasrullah. “Options to Build Local Capabilities to Stabilise the Lake Chad Region”. Retrieved from: https://divergentoptions.org/2018/03/05/options-to-build-local-capabilities-to-stabilise-the-lake-chad-region/
Budget Office Of Nigeria. “2018 Federal Budget”. Retrieved from: