Understanding the role of air power in irregular warfare and counter- insurgency operations.
By Abdullahi Murtala
Air superiority and dominance is the primary objective of any air force. In its place, irregular warfare (IW) has arguably become the norm in Military conflicts today , across the Sahel and parts of Nigeria.
This contemporary Military theatre doesn’t remove the possibility of large-scale state-on-state conflict , similar to the Chadian offensive in 1980s that involved strike group MIG-21s of the Nigerian Air Force straffing Islands in the Kinasara area of the Chad basin. Nor does it remove the possibility of deploying Air defence group supersonic F-7Ni aircrafts for interception of alien aircrafts but rather asymmetric and indirect warfare has risen as the predominant threat.
The January 2007 draft on Irregular warfare by U.S Joint Operating Concept (JOC) describes IW as a complex, messy, and ambiguous social phenomenon that does not lend itself to clean, neat, concise, or precise definition. The JOC referred to IW as a form of armed conflict. That replaces the term low-intensity conflict. and a warfare, which encompasses counterinsurgency, stabilization operations and counterterrorism.
Irregular warfare by its nature is asymmetric and covers a wide range of Military operations in Nigeria for example – ; counter-insurgency l operation Lafiya Dole in the North East, Operation Sharan Daji in North West against Bandits, Operation whirl stroke against armed militias in the North Central and Delta Safe against militants in the Niger-Delta.
Nigerian Air Force, Air task force components of these military operations run joint tri-service operations, independent missions such as the Diran Mikiya in the North West and Operation Green Sweep in the Lake Chad, and multinational Joint task force support missions such as operations RAWAN KADA and Gama Aiki.
Enabled by versatility and flexibility the core kinetic and non kinetic functions of air power – ; close air support, Deep Air Support, precision attack, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), search and rescue, show of force, casualty evacuation and air mobility remain enduring in counter insurgency (COIN) operations in North east.
Air power in Close Air Support role, is through concentrated air attacks against enemy forces within the Forward End of Battle Area (FEBA) as requested by friendly forces and in support of ground offensive or specialized operations forces activities against adversaries. To enhance its air-to-ground attack capabilities, the Air Force recently purchased Russian-built MI-35M gunships and armed Italian built Aw109, weaponized Ajets and L-39ZA in-house.
NAF led fighter aircraft, the Chinese built High-speed Multi-role F-7NI also conducts close air support missions, the most critical aspect of this mission involves coordination with ground friendly forces and ISR for proper designation of targets and avoiding blue on blue situation. The NAF has also trained ground air controllers, weaponised and mounted FLIR on rotary wing assets.
The Air Force is awaiting delivery of A29 Super Tucano – a slower Speed Air-to-Ground Aircraft which are able to operate in high temperatures, in extremely rugged terrain and at lower speeds, close to the ground – has good loitering time with better target acquisition and identification systems for close air support, aerial escort, armed overwatch and aerial interdiction missions.
Since 2015, the Nigerian Air Force is known to have introduced new precision-strike munitions capabilities and incorporated targeting from CH-3 ISTAR assets. NAF MI-35M and MI-17 rotary assets are equipped to carry ATGMs while the F-7NI is precision-guided munition equipped with Chinese missiles. The transition of traditional ELINT ATR-42 maritime patrol aircraft to conducting operations over land missions and acquisition of ISR platforms has enhanced the Air Force capacity to acquire time critical intelligence and persistent capability to find, fix, track ,engage and monitor. In addition, airborne ISR provides identification of civilian settlements and situational awareness to ground forces.
The NAF public relation directorate at times, posts videos from unmanned aerial vehicles and other aerial surveillance tools on social media and national media. This is vital to show not only the citizens of Nigeria, but also the population of the world that the military’s targets are legitimate and inline with provisions of international humanitarian law, principles of the Law Of Armed Conflict and rules of engagement, which are crucial for gaining and maintaining support for the military campaign.
Logistically supporting COIN efforts is a crucial role for the Nigerian air force, the Air Force C-130 Hercules and light utility helicopters continue to play a critical logistic support role, despite limitations in medium lift rotary and fixed wings aircrafts.
Tactical Air mobility for troops and equipment , encompasses air combat support, search, rescue, medical evacuation (MEDEVAC), infiltration/exfiltration and movement of VIPs. Air Mobility is vital for Vertical envelopment and air assault, and ensures troops deep in the theater of operation get badly needed supplies and MEDEVAC which increases morale of ground forces.
Air power is responsible for sustaining aid and humanitarian missions vital for countering insurgency, countering violent extremism and winning hearts and minds – , such as supply of packages for feeding school pupils in the Dalori and Bama IDP camps. It also contributes towards the, airlifting of relief materials to IDPs provided through donation programmes by a Airmen and women at NAF HQ, and deployment of medical corps personnel for medical assistance missions in local Communities-, such as eye general surgeries and medevac for IDPs, medical outreach and resupplying of Hospitals in Bama and Maiduguri. Air power plays important role in filling gaps exploited by non state actors and to quickly legitimize authority of the Nigerian state in liberated areas”complex battlespace in counterinsurgency and counter terrorism operations, requires precision in targeting as well as effective coordination with surface forces while understanding the limitations of Air Power”
Despite air power limitation which includes funding, serviceability of flyable aircraft, generation and technology onboard aircraft, weather among others, The Nigerian Air Force from July 2015 to march 2019, flew over 43,000 sorties of about 57,000 hours of day and night close air support, air interdiction, ISR and humanitarian missions.