Fight Against Boko Haram: Stop the Blame Game

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    Over the weekend my attention was drawn to an article written by a nameless author on an obscure blog, which was obviously sponsored to deliberately tarnish the image of the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) and malign the outstanding achievements of the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar. It is evident that the writer is grossly misinformed and his sponsors did not even provide him with sufficient information to make a credible argument; hence his obviously one-sided write-up fraught with inaccuracies and misrepresentations. Fortunately, many right thinking individuals, conversant with NAF’s activities, have already engaged the misguided author(s) with facts that put the lie to the falsehood they have espoused. However, in order for those who may read it not to go with the wrong impression of the true situation, it would be necessary to further correct some of these errors and misinformation.

    There is no doubt that even the most casual observer is aware that the NAF is one of the most responsive and responsible Armed Services, which in the last 4 years under the current leadership, has not only contributed immensely to ensuring security in the Northeast as well as other parts of the Country, but also ensured positive transformation in all other aspects of the NAF’s responsibility. Instead of commending the Service, the writer seems to have a problem with the well-rounded, comprehensive and purposeful leadership of the Service that has enhanced personnel welfare and ensured greater respect for human rights, greater accountability, rapid infrastructural improvement, unprecedented human capacity development as well as enhanced operational effectiveness and efficiency, amongst others.

    The central notion of the article is to insinuate a sense of “misplaced priority” by the NAF in the face of the current security challenges. The writer ostensibly believes that the NAF is encroaching on supposedly “Army functions” instead of facing the air function and ‘acquiring’ more platforms to confront the terrorists and support the Army. The NAF, according to the author, is creating a parallel Army. He also attempted to cast aspersions on special capabilities such as the K-9 as well as welfare oriented initiatives such as housing projects, fish farming and the NAFIL tailoring workshop, which he characterised as ‘misplacement of priorities’.  He queried the training of pilots (as if that was a bad thing), insinuating that the pilots so trained seem to be redundant, also claiming that they do not have aircraft to fly. He equally mentioned that billions of dollars had been spent in acquiring 15 F-7Ni instead of refurbishing the erstwhile fleet of MiG-21 in 2005 – a matter that predates the current administration and indeed has no real bearing on the issues at hand. The writer also considered the Metele attack, which he said should not have happened but for lack of coordination between the NAF and the Army. He concluded that much-needed funds had been diverted, which would have been used to acquire platforms.

    First of all, the quite baseless criticisms expressed in the write-up betray the author’s confusion and ignorance. He asserted that “for the third year in a row the Air Force has refused to leave ground operations to the Army and focus on air combat capability and air support missions”; alleging NAF personnel are being “conditioned to ground warfare, with ground combat infrastructure taking precedence over air platforms”. However, the most rudimentary research would have helped him/her to understand that it is the norm for air forces the world over to develop highly-trained, well-equipped Regiment elements, which carry out roles similar to the Army Infantry but are also responsible for ground-based air defence. In the same vein, the principal role of the NAF Regiment is defence of air bases and assets as well as the protection of other critical national air and space assets, in line with the responsibilities of the Service as enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution. Indeed, the bulk of NAF Regiment personnel have been trained to conduct Force Protection in Complex Air Ground Environment (FPCAGE) by the British Military Advisory Training Team (BMATT), in line with the Royal Air Force (RAF) Regiment operational concepts.

    The author should also have known that an air force cannot be effective in offensive operations if its offensive assets are not properly protected from attack. The current posture of the NAF was borne out of the failure of extant protective measures, at the time, to secure the Maiduguri Air Base in December 2013 leading to the destruction (on the ground) of 2 Mi-35P combat helicopters and 3 MiG-21 aircraft. The author may thus need to be reminded of the old maxim that “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. One cannot be effective in air power projection without ensuring effective force protection, because it is far easier for an adversary (especially one without air power capabilities) to devote his resources to destroying aircraft on the ground, before they can be brought to bear against him. This is a fundamental stratagem, which is often employed by asymmetric adversaries in an attempt to mitigate the devastating effects of air power. It therefore beggars belief that someone who is ostensibly advocating for the acquisition of more aircraft for the NAF would in the same breath also contend that the NAF is wasting resources by ensuring protection of its air assets from attack. Thus, to any keen observer, the intentions of the write-up in question would be nothing if not highly dubious.

    Secondly, on the issue of acquisition and reactivation of air assets, I believe the writer has committed the greatest of blunders. It is on record that the current Federal Government administration has invested heavily in the acquisition of air assets to enhance the NAF’s operational capability. Indeed, over the last 4 years the Service has acquired 19 brand new aircraft to boost training and combat readiness. These include 10 Super Mushshak trainer aircraft, 5 new Mi-35M helicopter gunships, 2 Bell 412 helicopters and 2 Agusta 109 Power attack helicopters. Beside these, 20 additional aircraft have also been ordered, which include 12 Super Tucano attack aircraft, 3 JF-17 Thunder multi-role fighter aircraft as well as 5 other helicopters – 2 more Agusta 109 Power attack helicopters, one Agusta 139W utility helicopter and 2 Mi-171 SH multi-role helicopters. In the same vein, 20 erstwhile grounded aircraft – a Falcon 900, ATR-42, Beechcraft, Super Puma, EC-135 Do-228, Mi-24V, Mi-35P and L-39ZA, C-130H and some Alpha Jets – have been reactivated, with the Service conducting multiple successful in-country Periodic Depot Maintenance (PDM) of its platforms; a C-130H in Lagos, 3 Alpha Jet aircraft in Kainji and 3 L-39ZA aircraft in Kano, for the first time in its history. These successful acquisitions and reactivations, as well as the emplacement of a robust logistics support structure, have enabled the NAF to raise the serviceability status of its operable aircraft from about 35 per cent in 2015 to an average of about 80 per cent this year.

    The writer, who was eager to mention that the Army is overstretched, failed to state that the NAF is equally stretched from having to operate in all Theatres of Operations including the Northeast, Northwest, South-South and North Central, amongst others. Hence, despite the increase in the number of platforms, the NAF is still faced with limitations in addressing the myriad security challenges. It is, however, envisaged that the induction of the 20 new platforms being expected would, to a large extent, address the current shortcomings. Moreover, the writer rightly observed that the terrorists do not have air assets. Hence, what undue advantage do they enjoy over the ground troops that makes it so easy for them to achieve the few victories they have recorded, to the extent that such losses are always attributed the lack of response from the NAF? Are there no tactics on the ground to defeat an adversary who has no air power capabilities?
    Besides, regarding the issue of the Metele attack, it is important to highlight 2 major limitations of air power which are impermanence (aircraft cannot remain in the air perpetually – they must land to refuel and be serviced); and curtailed ubiquity (they cannot be everywhere at the same time). This second limitation is further exacerbated by ‘Force Majeure’ such as extreme weather conditions. Apart from these, it must be noted that air assets are expensive and thus inherently limited in quantitative availablity, therefore requiring controlled and deliberate employment for optimal effectiveness. In other words, air assets are a vital but scarce resource which must always be carefully managed to prevent dissipation of critical effort. Hence, whenever air support is required it must be requested, and in a timely manner too. In the case of the attack on Metele, and indeed some other locations, either because of the element of surprise or other factors, there was no call from the Unit being attacked. It was 45 minutes after the attack had begun that another Battalion, from another location, reported the attack and air assets were promptly scrambled from Maiduguri. It took the attack aircraft another 25 minutes (including start-up and taxi time) to fly from Maiduguri to Metele, while the Mi-35M arrived about 20 minutes later. Both aircraft engaged the terrorists at the location since our troops had already left the Base. Hence, it is inaccurate to say that air support was not provided. In such scenarios, it is expected that once under attack, the first thing to do is to call for support. Thereafter, the troops must endeavour to hold their position till air support arrives as well as possible ground-based reinforcements. Where these steps are not taken it would be uncharitable and disingenuous to attempt to ascribe fault to the Air Force.

    On the issue of the high number of pilots being trained, it is also clear that the writer is the one who is ‘confused’. When has the availability of pilots (especially young ones) been a problem? This is a scenario that every air force earnestly prays for – to have a continual stream of competent young pilots! There was a time, not too long ago, when it was Air Commodores and Air Vice Marshals that were the only captains on some NAF fleets. The case has however changed for the better as a result of the capacity building initiatives of the current NAF leadership. Now there are Flying Officers (who have served for less than 4 years) who are captains on some NAF aircraft types, including the C-130H, racking up thousands of flying hours to their names; a feat which was last recorded in the early 1980s. The writer again showcased his ignorance by insinuating that the pilots are idle and doing nothing but “playing video games due to unavailability of platforms”. It appears he is unaware of the value of strategic planning in air crew development for air forces. He should please be informed that, without prejudice to peculiarities of aircraft type and role in some exceptional cases, the minimum recommended average aircrew-to-aircraft ratio should be at least 2:1 (ie 2 sets of aircrew for each aircraft). For instance, for one Mi-35M Helicopter, which has a crew of 5 (2 pilots, a flight technician and 2 gunners), there should be at least 10 crew members to ensure proper rotation for the sustainability of the intensive rate of effort needed for wartime air operations, characteristic of the Northeast Theatre. Indeed, for the first time in that Theatre, pilots are able to enjoy proper rotation for enhanced operational efficiency. This was not the case even 2 years ago. It must be noted that the fact that people are under constant pressure is not a barometer for seriousness! Besides, it is noteworthy that the NAF is also training pilots in anticipation of the 20 additional aircraft that will soon be inducted into the Service. That is the value of strategic planning, which the NAF is known for. The current CAS has maximally employed this to the immense benefit of the Service. To his credit, by the end of October 2019, the NAF would have winged an unprecedented 105 pilots in the last 4 years to ensure effective and efficient air operations. It must also be highlighted that the NAF has flown over 50,000 hours in a range of missions in the Northeast Theatre alone. This would not have been possible without adequate platforms and sufficient number of trained pilots.

    As to the other aspects raised by the author regarding NAF personnel being accustomed to “uninterrupted access to civilian-like infrastructure, internet cybercafés, luxury housing projects, sporting facilities, fish-farming, sewing machine factories … etc” in their bases, the writer seems to have a problem with improved welfare and forward thinking leadership. He is obviously drawn from the old, “suffer-head” culture ilk, which believes that “you do not allow your troops to be comfortable; otherwise they will not be effective”. This is exactly the kind of arcane thinking that leads to low morale and diminished fighting spirit, especially given the current level of awareness of young officers and men. It is also the kind of condition that could lead to human rights abuses by personnel.

    The NAF has taken deliberate steps to improve accommodation, healthcare, education, sporting and recreational facilities, amongst others, to ensure that personnel are in the right frame of mind to give their best. This is premised on the understanding that the human being is one of the most (if not the most) critical success factor in any endeavour, warfare inclusive. Besides, it is important to highlight that these facilities are not extra in any way but actually the minimum standards required in line with the Harmonized Terms and Conditions of Service (HTACOS) for the Armed Forces. Consequently, it is the basic responsibility of leadership to ensure their emplacement, just as they are required to ensure the payment of salaries and allowances, as at when due. Moreover, regarding the writer’s allusion that millions that ought to have been spent on acquiring platforms are being spent on training and welfare enhancement projects, nothing could be further from the truth. That would amount to unauthorized misappropriation of public funds, which is an offence. This again shows the writer’s lack of understanding of the dynamics and responsibilities of the various arms and levels of government regarding budgeting and appropriation. It must once again be stated that the current leadership of the Service has remained one of the most financially prudent and accountable in history and has painstakingly ensured that funds are judiciously expended for the benefit of the Service as well as to promote enhanced service delivery.

    On the whole, I see this misguided and indeed insidious article by a faceless author, as a totally one-sided, unprofessional piece, which smacks of absolute disregard for truth and fairness as well as contempt for facts and logic. It should therefore be consigned to the rubbish heap, never to be remembered.

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