Counter-terrorism: Nigeria’s $493 million Tucano planes are equipped with heavy bombs and machine guns and are ready for combat

Just a few months after the highly anticipated arrival of the A-29 Super Tucano planes purchased by Nigeria to combat Boko Haram, the Islamic State West Africa Province, bandits, and other criminals in the region, the acquisition can best be characterised as a six-year-long war in and of itself.

In 2015, the Federal Government requested authorization from the United States Government, then led by former President Barack Obama, to purchase 12 Super Tucano planes to address domestic security concerns. However, the sale was not authorised until August 2017. Then, a year later, Nigeria allegedly paid $493 million to a US corporation for the propeller aircraft.

The Presidency recently announced that the aircraft’s manufacturers, Sierra Nevada Corporation and Embraer Defence and Security, would deliver six of the planes in July, with the second batch following shortly after.

The two-seater planes are a major upgrade from the Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jet, an older light attack aircraft model currently in use by the Nigerian Air Force that is said to lack modern avionics — electronic systems for communications and navigation, among other things — and support for precision-guided munitions.

The Super Tucano’s avionics, on the other hand, include cutting-edge features including electronic displays compatible with night-vision goggles, a throttle built into the control stick, GPS navigation, a laser-range finder, a forward-looking infrared sensor, security cameras, data-link provisions, and a modern targeting computer.

According to a Medium analysis, the aircraft is a nimble, explosive, and agile plane that can hold up to 997.9kg of bombs under its wings — about the weight of a 1979 Volkswagen Beetle.

“The Super Tucano, on the other hand, has a longer airframe, a beefed-up engine, additional Kevlar armour that can withstand heavy machine gunfire, and two.50-calibre machine guns in the wing roots,” it went on to say. Though it can travel at 367 miles per hour faster than the EMB 312, the plane’s heavier weight means it has less endurance (eight and a half hours) and range (1,329 kilometres) than its predecessor.

“However, it is capable of carrying heavier payloads — up to 3,300 pounds (1,496.9kg) of munitions, sensor pods, or fuel tanks on up to five hardpoints. For good measure, the Super Tucano can carry Piranha and Sidewinder air-to-air rockets, Griffin laser-guided bombs, Maverick anti-tank missiles, and 20-millimetre gun pods.

“Upgrades are also in the works to enable the plane to drop GPS-guided bombs as well as smaller, ultra-precise Small Diameter Bombs. To top it all off, the Super Tucano costs just $1,000 per flight hour to run and can fly in the hot and humid climates typical of its home country.”

A radar warning receiver, as well as flare and chaff dispensers, are included in the aircraft’s defence systems to assist the pilot in detecting and evading incoming missiles. It’s no surprise that, in addition to Nigeria, the plane is used by 15 air forces around the world, including those in Afghanistan, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

An significant aspect of the Super Tucano, according to a retired Air Vice Marshal who spoke on the condition of anonymity, is how difficult it is to bring down.

“If the enemy acquires (locks onto) the plane, a beep can be heard in the pilot’s ears to notify him that it has been acquired.” Since the equipment uses signals, the signal will inform the aircraft that it has been acquired. The aircraft has items that it can automatically deploy in order to elude or confuse you.

“Once that is deployed, you can see two or three objects or a scattering of objects. It might even be obscured by your scope. It will then notify the (attacking) pilot that you have taken off (the radar). So, without that technology, it becomes impossible for you to shoot down such an aircraft,” he explained.

However, as the retired AVM pointed out, mishaps are unavoidable.

On March 31, for example, the NAF declared an Alpha Jet aircraft (NAF475) missing. The Air Force later reported that the plane, which was carrying two pilots, Flt Lts. John Abolarinwa and Ebiakpo Chapelle, went off the radar and may have crashed on the outskirts of Maiduguri, Borno State, the cause of which is unknown. The two pilots were thought to be dead.

While Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the crash in a video showing a grounded plane, the NAF said there was no proof of the allegations, and that the clips released by the group online may be from a previous incident.

When asked whether the A-29s could be targeted by terrorists, the retired AVM clarified that the enemy would need to use a “guided” missile to reach the aircraft.

“A guided weapon acquires an object using equipment such as a scope or radar,” he explained. That is, you are not obtaining the object by sight. When you choose an item on the scope or radar, it will lock on to it. When you press the mouse, the object will be difficult to miss.”

Garba Shehu, Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, teased the aircraft in a tweet on April 13 with a video showing the test operations, adding, “14 Nigerian pilots are currently practising at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia.”

The one-minute video showed a lone camouflage propeller aircraft taxiing on a runway and taking off in a series of short cuts. However, it was unclear if the video showed the same plane or different planes spliced together.

The retired AVM told Sunday PUNCH that the pilots were combat-ready, adding, “The pilots and logistics (personnel) have all been qualified.” We strive to develop both outside and in-house training as part of our training strategy.”

According to a source in the NAF, the preparation is sufficient for aerial combat, which involves flight and targeting.

“They mainly target equipment that helps the enemy maintain itself,” he said. Facilities or equipment that allow the enemy to continue fighting – for example, their training facilities; logistic support, which is where they store their weapons; or where they manufacture their arms.

“Because it is impossible to battle individual humans in the air, the aircraft targets vehicles, logistics, training grounds, and so on.”

Jackson Schneider, President/Chief Executive Officer, Embraer Defence and Security, announced on April 17, 2020, that the NAF A-29 aircraft would begin mission modification and final testing in Centennial, Colorado, and that after final testing, NAF pilots would train in the aircraft before delivery.

Ed Topps, Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Vice President for Programs, also said, “The aircraft met or exceeded all specifications, and we are very pleased with the good flight.” SNC and our partner, Embraer, are confident that the NAF will be satisfied with these planes.”

With the anticipated delivery date approaching, all eyes will be on the NAF for some much-needed respite from the country’s escalating insecurity.

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