DRAMA IN NATION’S WAR THEATRE
The Nigerian Army recently blamed the lack of air power as the reason for the prolonged battle with the Boko Haram insurgents, putting the Nigerian Air Force under the watch of the Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Siddique Baba Abubakar, on the spot over a war that has dragged on for 11 years. Louis Achi examines the issues
British war hero and former Prime Minister, Winston Churchill succinctly captured the essence of air power in defending a modern state, when he said, “Not to have an adequate air force in the present state of the world is to compromise the foundations of national freedom and independence.”
Churchill’s insight enjoys historical validation by the fact that air power, a fundamental component of a nation’s armed forces, remains a decisive and critical factor in determining the outcome of any war.
Does this scenario validate the recent pitch by the Nigerian Army that it needs its own ‘air force’ to quickly and finally bring the Boko Haram insurgents to her knees and wrap up the long-drawn military campaign?
Maj. Gen. Olusegun Adeniyi, Theatre Commander of Operation Lafiya Dole, could not have spoken on such weighty matter without top-echelon clearance, specifically from the Chief of Army Staff, Lt.-Gen. Tukur Buratai.
Adeniyi assumed command of the military’s counter-insurgency operation about three months ago. According to him, the lack of army aviation was responsible for its inability to defeat the insurgents.
He made this revelation while receiving the National Assembly Joint Committee on the Army, led by Senator Ali Ndume, which visited Maiduguri, for a two-day oversight assignment at the front line, a fortnight ago.
Adeniyi said, “The only thing that needs to be given to the army now is Nigeria Army Aviation with its own helicopters. There is a way you solve a problem that will change the game. The army needs combat helicopters to end the Boko Haram war. If we have it, it will not be deployed like air force assets, air force jets, which are for bigger strategic goals.
“These helicopters will sleep with us in the trenches; they will be with us in the frontline. These helicopters and the rifles are dispatched together. I know this has been on the table for years. When this is done, Nigeria can forget about the deadly Islamic sect.”
Continuing, he stated, “Let me say Boko Haram is not a formidable force. They are not strong. They cannot sustain 15 minutes of intensive firing. I personally exchanged (gunfire) with Boko Haram in Marte, in Delta, in Gubio as deputy theatre commander and as theatre commander. Please go and tell Abuja that the terrorists are not a formidable force that the military cannot defeat.”
Adeyemi spoke more on the army’s request for its own combat helicopters, separate from those of the air force, explaining that unlike the air force jets, the army aviation helicopters would perform more critical roles during attacks but conceded that NAF was doing well.
“The air force is doing a wonderful job, but their reach is too long. It is what we call close air support that is needed,” the military officer explained.
The Nigerian Army is the largest component of the Nigerian Armed Forces and is responsible for land warfare operations.
Buratai is not a frivolous soldier and enjoys the reputation of being a very focused and disciplined professional.
He has brought these qualities to bear on his command, under obviously very challenging conditions. In effect, he must have weighty reasons for seeking army aviation, a footing, which seemingly clashes with the extant structural philosophy of the nation’s armed forces.
But many, rightly or wrongly, are reading more into the army’s recent pitch for creating its own air power to effectively defeat the deadly Boko Haram insurgency. Does this position signal a further ratcheting up in the undeniable inter-service rivalry, which has measurably impeded seamless security services delivery in the country?
Though both are great professionals, there have been serial speculations that the army and air force bosses have been waging below-the-radar supremacy skirmishes. Beyond alleged juggling for who will snag the presidential badge of honour, there is also insider talk that the duo are also scheming to succeed the Chief of Defence Staff, Gen. Gabriel Olonishakin, but these firmly remain in the realm of speculations.
The traditional structure of much of the world’s armed forces is that usually, the air force forms the aerial offensive/defensive leg of the military triad – army, navy and air force.
The exceptions to this general rule occur in super-power status countries like the US, Russia and a few others, where the land army could have its own close support aerial or even naval units for special assignments. Usually, national air forces deliver both tactical and strategic strike capabilities to military forces it works in synergy with.
In the face of apparent encroachment into its statutory turf, Nigeria’s air force is clearly unwilling to permit grass to grow under its nimble wings and has strongly countered the army’s pitch.
In its reaction to the army’s proposal to Abuja, to create “army aviation”, a senior source in the air force told THISDAY that Maj. Gen. Adeyemi did not comprehend basic air power principles.
“The senior officer does not fully comprehend basic air power principles if he refers to the NAF as a strategic air force rather than a tactical air force. In the first place, no one is against the Nigerian Army having the aviation wing. But the nation cannot afford that, given the economic situation.
“There must be an economy of effort. Does the army have the required wherewithal to deal with the actions on the ground? Are there sufficient armored vehicles as well as support (equipment)? This is the area where the senior army officer should have focused on,” a senior air force officer stated.
The source pointed out, “Sorry to say the senior officer appears to be oblivious of the imperative resources – financial, material and otherwise, required to maintain helicopters to effectively provide the support he so craves for.
“He alluded to the fact that if given army aviation, the army will land its helicopters behind the trenches. This, to say the least, is ludicrous. And, of course, there are no parallels to such as he has neither considered the logistics requirements of providing fuel, oil and other lubricants, ready, in-between sorties and service maintenance requirements, as well as other considerations such as on the ground support services.”
The NAF source went through some air assets the air force had acquired and suggested that the nation cannot afford army aviation.
“It is evident that the senior officer displayed the nuances of the employment of the airpower. The nation cannot afford it. Within the past four to five graders the NAF has taken delivery of several aircraft types,” he explained.
“Apart from the Alfa jets, F7NI, and L-39ZA aircraft that conduct air interdiction (strike) missions and in some cases provide close air support to troops, the NAF also has an array of helicopters most of which were procured during this administration. These include the Mi35M, Mi35p, A109 Power, Super Puma Mi17, amongst others – that provide close air support, tactical air logistics in supply as well as medevac/casevac to troops.
“The NAF is also expecting additional two attack helicopters and one utility helicopter from Italy, which have been paid for and are on the verge of being delivered, as well as MI3m helicopters. Moreover, 12 Supper Tucano light attack aircraft, which is considered as one of the best aircraft for containing terrorist and counter-insurgency operations, which has been successfully employed in combat with amazing results in Afghanistan and some countries in South America.”
Insisting that the air force is very capable of discharging its statutory function, he said, “With all this, the NAF is more than capable in providing air support for ground troops to achieve desired results. In my view, what is required is a tweaking of the tactics on the ground. The terrorists do that because they have no airpower, hence they do not have undue advantage over our well-trained Nigerian military troops.
“There is a need to look at the tactics, the equipment and more especially, the morale of the troops on the ground. I think this is where the theater commander should look at rather than put his eye on the NAF. It will at least raise morale.”
Significantly, Abubakar has bought unstintingly into 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, Abubakar has fundamentally repositioned the air force, a body previously beset by significant deficits in funding, equipment, logistics and updated combat doctrine in a new-to-country conflict.
Today, NAF is far better prepared to confront and defeat the foe, on multiple fronts and perhaps, more important, 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 Marshall Siddique has dramatically altered the 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.
NAF’s focussed acquisition of new platforms and reactivation of existing ones, under Abubakar’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 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, human capacity development and personnel welfare enhancement.
Just recently, the air force winged its first female jet fighter pilot and first female combat helicopter pilot.
Against this background, the new campaign by the army for its own army aviation suggests high-level dissonance or mistrust within the nation’s armed forces and the emerging stakeholders’ consensus is that it must be resolved speedily. This is the territory of the commander-in-chief and chief of defence staff.