Africa’s New Age of Combat Air Power
Nations on the continent gear up to fight insurgents and each other
Combat aircraft — modern multi-role and light attack aircraft and helicopter gunships — are quickly becoming the favorite new toys of militaries across Africa. For strategists and governments alike, air power holds a lot promise, both in terms of fighting internal rebellions and projecting power abroad.
Historically, sophisticated aircraft have played a negligible role in most African conflicts. For most of the 20th century, Africa’s post-colonial states lacked the funds and expertise to acquire, operate and service efficient air forces, which could influence the outcome of military campaigns.
There are some notable exceptions to this rule. During the Biafran War, the Nigerian air force used Soviet-supplied MiG-17s and Il-28s to indiscriminately bomb military and civilian targets in the secessionist region of Biafra. The Biafrans only had a rag-tag collection of civilian and military aircraft, most famously five Malmö MFI-9Bs, nicknamed “Biafra Babies.”
Flown by foreign mercenaries as well as local Biafran pilots, these aircraft scored some impressive tactical victories, but were unable to influence the overall outcome of the war.
Other historical conflicts include the heavy use of the Libyan air force in successive interventions and wars in neighboring Chad during the 1970s and 1980s. During the Ethiopian-Eritrean War of 1998–2000, both sides deployed modern fighters such as MiG-29s and Su-27s. For the most part, though, Africa’s many interstate and internal conflicts have used air power only in the most rudimentary sense or not at all.
More and more, African governments are splurging on advanced combat aircraft. This time around, the warplanes have local pilots schooled in modern doctrines by Western colleagues. While buying shiny hardware has been a favorite pastime of many African military rulers — only to result in underused and underserviced equipment — these new investments in modern air power are producing results.
There are a variety of reasons for this. First of all, sophisticated aircraft suitable for Africa’s predominant form of conflict – insurgencies – are increasingly affordable. The posterchild for this type of hardware is the EMB 314 Super Tucano, manufactured by Brazilian company Embraer.
A turboprop design, the Super Tucano has quite a few things going for it. It is designed to withstand the tropical conditions found in Brazil, as well as many African countries. An all-in-one package, the same airframe can theoretically work for reconnaissance, attack missions, close air support and training, substantially reducing the complexity involved with supporting these different missions.
With a decent combat radius of 550 kilometers, modern avionics, five hardpoints and two internal machine guns, the plane packs plenty of punch to serve its primary role of combating rebels and insurgents in a low-threat environment. It can also carry sidewinder air-to-air missiles, making it at least in theory capable of interdiction missions against enemy air forces.
Another plus is the sticker price — at a unit cost of $9-$14 million and operating costs of $430 to $500 per hour, the Super Tucano is a bargain compared to the jet powered fighters developed for the needs of military superpowers.
In comparison, a Su-27/30, another recent favorite of African militaries, clocks in at upwards of $30 million per unit and thousands of dollars in operating costs per hour. All modern Western multi-role fighters have similarly high costs.
To be sure, these airframes are substantially more capable than the Super Tucano. The advanced Russian fighters feature sophisticated radars, the ability to network with each other and ground-based systems — and aerial refueling for increased combat range. However, none of these capabilities are in huge demand when it comes to dropping a few tons worth of explosives on a rebel camp, or taking out a high-profile target with moderate precision.
So far, seven African nations have ordered or already operate the Super Tucano. Others have expressed interest.
But for some countries, money is no object. This may either be because their respective governments are swimming in cash — shoveled into the country because of the world’s never-ending addiction to petroleum and natural gas. Or these countries are ruled by military elites, who treat it as a point of pride to spend resources on top-of-the-line hardware to combat real or imagined threats to their domestic or regional dominance.
Often, it is a combination of these factors.
An outlier in the terms laid out above is South Africa. A stable democracy with a strong historical commitment to regional stability and understanding, it nonetheless bought 28 Swedish JAS 39 Gripen fighters at a sticker price of a cool $65 million per unit.
The Gripen likely gives South Africa air superiority in southern Africa, even against advanced Su-30Ks such as those deployed by Angola’s military. There is of course no real reason why South Africa would need this capability.
A shooting war in southern Africa is highly unlikely for the foreseeable future, and while South Africa’s military has been involved in situations recently where some close air support would have been advantageous, these engagements took place thousands of kilometers away in Central Africa, far outside the operational range of the Gripen.
To the contrary, the Gripen drains South Africa’s military budget, while the rest of the military verges on the cusp of obsolescence because of under-financing. The answer to why South Africa still had to buy the Gripen is simple — corruption. Saab allegedly handed over $1.58 billion in bribes to shady middlemen to secure the deal.
While South African politicians are still trying to defend the Gripen purchase, other African governments can spend their money with even greater freedom from scrutiny. As we mentioned, Angola recently invested in a number of Su-30s, an airframe that Uganda has already deployed since 2012.
Algeria is the largest operator of the Su-30, one of Russia’s most modern multi-role fighter designs. It currently has 44 Su-30 MKAs in service and a further 14 on order.
It is conspicuous that every African country with Su-30s is ruled by a leadership with intimate ties to the military establishment. But this is not surprising. Keeping the military loyal is a means of regime survival — and one way to do that is giving those elites new expensive toys to play with.
But in addition to this, all three countries claim regional military superpower status. Uganda is currently the most prolific at exerting its military abroad, actively intervening in South Sudan and Somalia, as well as defining parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic within its sphere of influence due to the presence of the Lord’s Resistance Army.
But Angola is equally interested in developments in the DRC. And Algeria defines its military priorities both in respect to its regional rival, Morocco, and the presence of jihadist groups and rampant insecurity in Mali and Libya.
But perhaps the uncrowned king of modern combat aircraft on the African continent is Egypt. Again a country run by military officers for decades, Egypt owes it excessive inventory of warplanes to its special historical relationship to the United States.