in Defence / Features

Ever ready for the fight against Boko Haram

Posted 31 May 2018 · Add Comment

The Cameroonian Air Force (CAF) transport fleet is one of the most capable and serviceable in the region and provides a capability that has few equivalents throughout central Africa. Erwan de Cherisey looks at its history and current state of readiness.

Since May 2014, when Cameroon President Paul Biya declared all-out war against the terrorist group Boko Haram operating in the country’s far north, the CAF transport fleet has been providing a permanent air bridge between the south and centre of the country and Maroua in the far north.
Maroua has been turned into the logistics hub for Operation Emergence 4 and Operation Alpha, the two ongoing Cameroonian counter-insurgency operations, and the multinational joint task force’s (MNJTF) sector 1, headed by the Cameroonian Defence Forces (CDF).
The CAF was actually born on January 1, 1961, as Cameroon’s National Flight, with three Max Holste MH-1521 Broussard light utility aircraft donated by the French Air Force.
In the ensuing years, Yaoundé, the country’s capital, obtained its first transport types in the guise of several examples of the emblematic Douglas C-47 Dakota, also provided by France.
Finally rechristened as the CAF in 1966, Cameroon’s air arm continued to expand, acquiring more transport aircraft, including the German-made Dornier Do 28, before obtaining a pair of De Havilland Canada DHC-4 Caribous in the early 1970s.
These aircraft provided a significant boost to the CAF’s still fledgling transport capabilities, with a larger useful load than that of the ubiquitous C-47. A rear-loading ramp made loading and unloading easier, and there was a larger cargo hold. One of the Caribous was written-off in 1975.
The economic bonanza brought by the oil boom of the mid 1970s saw additional deliveries of transport types, with two Hawker Siddeley HS 748s and a pair of Lockheed C-130Hs being received in 1977.
The former were transferred to the Cameroonian presidency two years later and subsequently served briefly with the national civilian carrier before being withdrawn, but the latter were to become the stalwarts of the Cameroonian transport fleet and still soldier on to this day.
A single C-130H-30 was added to the fleet in 1982, while between 1981 and 1983 four DHC5 Buffalos were received. One of these was written-off in 1983 and replaced by a new aircraft in 1985.
By 1987, the single surviving DHC-4 was finally withdrawn from use.
The early 1980s represented the golden era of the CAF, which fielded its largest and most modern aircraft fleet, with as many as seven transports. However, by the second half of the decade, a degrading economic situation was beginning to affect aircraft maintenance and availability.
The 1990s were difficult times, which saw the progressive grounding of the entire DHC-5 fleet, while the C-130s soldiered on with difficulty. Crew training was also cut back.
By the 2000s, only the three Hercules remained on strength, while the Buffalos were phased out, as bringing them back into service was too expensive.
Improving economics, combined with renewed investment in the military because of a fast-degrading situation in the Central African Republic, piracy activity at sea, and the strengthening of the Boko Haram insurgency from the early 2010s onwards, have since breathed new life into Cameroon’s transport fleet.
At present, the fixed-wing airlift fleet comprises the three veteran C-130 Hercules, a Chinese-made XAC MA60, donated by Beijing in 2012, and an Airbus Defence & Space CN235-300, received in 2014.
These are all housed at Air Base 201, in Douala, the economic capital of Cameroon, where they are operated by the 21st and 22nd air squadrons.
While the C-130s and the CN235-300 are configured as troop/cargo transports, the MA60 is outfitted for passenger flights, with an airline-like interior. All aircraft take part in the air bridge between the southern half of Cameroon and Maroua.
The C-130s are the most widely used aircraft and frequently fly mixed loads of cargo and personnel. All troop rotations are conducted by air, as reaching the far north by road from Yaoundé can take several days due to the very limited network in the northern part of the country.
With more than 9,000 soldiers currently deployed under Operation Emergence 4, Operation Alpha, and as part of the MNJTF’s sector 1, the flying tempo is high. As Colonel Didier Badjeck, spokesman for the Cameroonian Ministry of Defence and himself a former C-130 pilot said: “Without the air transport, the anti-terrorist campaign would not be sustainable.”
The Cameroonian C-130s and the single CN235 are also used in other activities, notably as platforms for parachute training. Every year, new intakes from the Airborne Troops Battalion (BTAP), based at Koutaba, and from the Special Amphibious Battalion (BSA), in Tiko, gain their parachute wings after conducting several jumps from these aircraft. The commandos of the rapid intervention battalions, the elite forces of the Cameroonian military, are also trained as paratroopers.
The aircraft also provide transport services to the families of Cameroonian servicemen. They are allowed to board those taking part in regular sorties, notably to the far north.
Medical evacuation is another mission for the aircraft of the 21st and 22nd squadrons. Indeed, in February 2016, the MA60 was used to fly several badly wounded troops, who had been hit by an improvised explosive device (IED), back to Yaoundé for emergency treatment. No on-board medical equipment was available and this operation highlighted the need to procure a dedicated medevac suite for outfitting the C-130. While the matter was being actively explored in 2016, it is unclear whether any procurement has since taken place.
Over the years, the CAF has worked with several foreign companies to provide servicing to its transport fleet, notably its C-130s.
Denel in South Africa or Sabena Technics in France were contracted successively during the 1990s and 2000s to undertake maintenance with mixed results, according to one CAF officer. A few years ago, a new contract was signed with OGMA of Portugal to cover C-130 maintenance. Since then, C-130 availability has notably increased, with OGMA deploying some of its technicians in country to work alongside CAF personnel and train them.
Level 1 and level 2 maintenance are undertaken in Cameroon, while level 3 services and overhauls require the aircraft to be flown to OGMA’s facilities in Portugal.
One issue regarding maintenance is the lack of a dedicated hangar to house the C-130s in Douala, which also means they are exposed to the saline air found in this coastal city.
CN235 maintenance is done locally up to level 2, while level 3 and overhauls are completed in Seville, at Airbus’ facilities.
The MA60 is serviced in-country, although overhauls likely require Chinese technicians to visit Cameroon to oversee the process.
The CAF has no aviation school and sends its officers abroad to undertake pilot training.
Until 2015, it was involved in the running of the Regional Vocation National Aeronautics Pole (PANVR) alongside French military instructors. This provided initial flying training on ultralight aircraft to officers belonging to most French-speaking African countries, including CAF personnel, prior to their going to the French Air Force School at Salon de Provence for more advanced training.
With the PANVR closed, the CAF is dependent on foreign institutions for flying training. Although France once was the main destination, nowadays Cameroonian pilots are sent to different European countries, to either military or civilian schools. Those who train at the latter subsequently undergo officer training at the Joint Forces Military School, which trains all officers of the Cameroonian military.
Many senior Cameroonian transport pilots undertook training at Salon de Provence before moving to the French Air Force’s Transport Aviation School at Avord Air Base. Type conversion on the C-130 was then conducted in the US, with Lockheed Martin, with simulator training being undertaken regularly at CAE’s facilities in Brussels. Funding and staffing difficulties meant that the training of new transport pilots came to a halt several years ago.
However, by 2014, with the campaign against Boko Haram in full swing, a higher availability of the Hercules fleet, and a very high tempo of operations, the CAF realised the urgent need to expand its shrinking pool of C-130 pilots. The services of a former Portuguese Air Force pilot and C-130 instructor were, thus, enlisted to provide hands-on training to young officers. For the past three years, this instructor has been training new co-pilots for the C-130, while also flying as a pilot on operational sorties.
MA60 pilots were trained in China in 2011, prior to the delivery of the aircraft to Cameroon, while the aircrews for the CN235-300 undertook conversion training at Airbus in Seville, where they continue to travel for recurrent courses.
The existing transport fleet currently meets most Cameroonian requirements and does not require any significant expansion. Increasing the availability of the C-130s is one of the priorities and should ensure that adequate logistics support is provided to the forces in the far north.
While a limited modernisation of the Hercules’ avionics could be useful, this is not an urgent requirement.
Infrastructure work, such as the construction of a modern hangar in Douala, is needed, although it is uncertain whether this will take place in the short term.

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