in Defence / Features

Time for Africa to switch on the lights

Posted 3 September 2021 · Add Comment

John Lake assesses the light-attack aircraft situation on the African continent.

Plenty of action: Nigeria’s Alpha Jets have seen heavy use in the fight against Boko Haram. Picture: Nigerian Air Force HQ. 

Since the end of the Cold War, most of the world’s air forces have not had to operate in heavily contested environments, nor have they had to face advanced military opponents with sophisticated integrated air defence systems.

Instead, the emphasis has been on asymmetric warfare against irregular and insurgent opponents.

And, yet, these counter-insurgency operations have frequently been undertaken using unsuitable aircraft and weapons, air power tools developed and optimised for very different requirements.

Fast-jets are poorly suited for counter-insurgency work, and may be prohibitively expensive. Yet, dedicated light-attack aircraft, which are optimised for this kind of warfare, have struggled to gain significant market penetration.

Though many African air forces have prioritised the procurement of fast-jet fighters, some have found themselves, either as a result of smart procurement practices, or because of historical accident or budgetary need, to have far more useful equipment.

Unable to afford the procurement and/or operating costs of modern fast-jets, some African air forces have bought armed trainers or light-attack aircraft in their place, while others are operating these aircraft as a result of long past procurement decisions.

In a few cases, air forces have sensibly assessed their operational requirements and purchased accordingly!

With its extensive combat experience – first in Liberia as part of the Economic Community of West African States monitoring group (ECOMOG) peace-keeping force, and then in the long war against Boko Haram, the Nigerian Air Force soon found that its frontline fast-jet fighters were much less useful for close air support than its Aero L-39 and Dassault Alpha Jet advanced trainers.

The latter have formed the backbone of Nigeria’s air campaign against the Islamist insurgent group, while the type has also been used operationally by Cameroon, Egypt, Morocco and Togo.

The L-39 is in service with a number of African nations – as a trainer in Algeria, Angola, Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea and Mozambique, and with a ground-attack capability in Libya, Nigeria, South Sudan, Tunisia, and Uganda.

Aero Vodochody sees potential for further sales, and is actively marketing the modernised and upgraded L-39NG variant, which is powered by a Williams FJ44 engine, and which features an improved fuel system and modern avionics.

Other jet light-attack aircraft include small numbers of Aermacchi MB326s, for example in Togo and Tunisia, while the Cameroon Air Force operates six ex-SAAF Atlas Impala Mk I and IIs.

Kenya retired its BAE Hawk Mk52s nearly 10 years ago, but the type remains active in South Africa, where the Hawk 120s of No85 Combat Flying School at AFB Makhado have a secondary frontline commitment.

China’s increasing influence may be seen in the number of air forces using the Hongdu JL-8 (Nanchang JL-8, also known as the Karakorum-8 or K-8). Some use the type purely as an advanced trainer, while others (including Ghana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe) exploit the type’s weapons capabilities.

But, as in the rest of the world, it is turboprop aircraft (and usually derivatives of turboprop-powered basic trainers) that provide the bulk of Africa’s dedicated light-attack aircraft. The Embraer EMB-314 A-29 Super Tucano has dominated the market thus far.

Three were delivered to the Burkina Faso Air Force in September 2011, and four to the Mauritanian Air Force from December 2012.

Six more went to the National Air Force of Angola from January 2013, while four were delivered to the Mali Air Force in July 2018.

An order for five aircraft from the Ghana Air Force was placed in 2015, but these do not seem to have entered service.

On their way: The Nigerian Air Force will soon receive 12 Embraer A-29s, built in Florida by Sierra Nevada. They will wear this attractive jungle camouflage scheme. Picture: Embraer. 

All of these aircraft were manufactured by Embraer in Brazil, but the company has also set up a production line in Florida in conjunction with its partner, the Sierra Nevada Corporation, for the manufacture of A-29s for the US and US clients. The 12 aircraft on order for the Nigerian Air Force will come from this line.

Senegal entered negotiations with Embraer for the purchase of several Super Tucanos, but the deal was never finalised and Senegal opted for four Korean KAI KT-1s instead.

The Senegalese aircraft is an armed export variant, locally designated as the KA-1S. These were delivered from May 2020, and will be augmented by four armed versions of the L-39NG.

Senegal has been without a fixed-wing combat aircraft since the retirement of its Fouga Magister light-attack aircraft, relying on armed Mi-171Sh and Mi-24/35 helicopters.

In February 2020, the US State Department approved a possible foreign military sale (FMS) of four AT-6C Wolverine light-attack aircraft to Tunisia, adding to an earlier approval for up to 12 unarmed T-6C Texan trainers. If finalised, this would represent the first export sale for the Wolverine – Textron’s competitor to the Super Tucano in the light-attack aircraft market.

In recent years, the US Air Force has undertaken a series of evaluations of light-attack aircraft, but attempts to establish an acquisition programme for itself have been unsuccessful.

The light air support (LAS) requirement did result in the procurement of 20 Embraer/SNC A-29 Super Tucano aircraft, but these were used only to train Afghan personnel, before being handed over to the Afghan Air Force.

The USAF has bought three Super Tucanos to support Air Force Special Operations Command’s (AFSOC’s) combat aviation advisor (CAA) mission, and two AT-6E Wolverines for the ‘continued light-attack experiment’ and to support development of the new low-cost airborne extensible relay over-horizon network (AEROnet) datalink architecture.

The US is now undertaking an armed overwatch flight demonstration programme, evaluating potential solutions to a special operations command (SOCOM) requirement.

As African Aerospace was going to press, five competing aircraft were each scheduled to fly four demonstration flights at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida between June 14 and July 23. The ‘winner’ could then be asked to provide a proposal for the production of 75 aircraft for SOCOM.

The competitors include the Textron Aviation Defence AT-6E Wolverine, the L3 AT-802U Sky Warden, MAG Aerospace’s MC-208 Guardian, the PZL/Sierra Nevada Corporation MC-145B Wily Coyote, and the Leidos Bronco II – an Americanised derivative of the South African Paramount/Aerosud advanced high-performance reconnaissance light aircraft (Ahrlac).

Any US acquisition would give the winning aircraft a massive advantage on the export market – not least in Africa.




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