Nigeria’s Tiny, Low-Tech Alpha Jets Have Flown in Brutal Wars Across Africa
Now the former training jets are blasting Boko Haram
by SEBASTIEN ROBLIN
On the morning of June 19, 2016, seven Toyota Hilux trucks manned by Boko Haram fighters lay in wait near Daira Noro, Borno State in northeastern Nigeria.
Members of a fundamentalist insurgency infamous for its terrorist attacks and kidnappings of young girls, the fighters had recently been chased out of their camps in Sambisa forest by an African multi-national task force.
As the African forces advanced north in pursuit, the Boko Haram fighters had prepared a road-side ambush under tree cover. Two of their trucks were armed with heavy machine guns.
The distant whine of small airplane engines sounded overhead. An unarmed civilian plane flew by.
Then suddenly, a small twin-engine fighter — an Alpha Jet — came screaming over the horizon. Radioed the position of the Boko Haram fighters by the unarmed plane — actually a King Air 350 surveillance aircraft — the Alpha Jet unleashed a barrage of rockets on the concealed ambush, followed by 250-pound bombs and strafing runs.
The Toyotas were all destroyed and the ambush force thrown into chaos.
Nigerian ground forces followed close on the heels of the jet and chased off the survivors. They counted 15 bodies and two abandoned rocket-propelled grenades.
This incident, as reported by Nigerian air force Group Captain Ayodele Famuyiwa, highlights the role of air power in the struggle against the brutal Boko Haram insurgency in northern Nigeria.
In addition to the Alpha Jets, Hind attack helicopters and F-7 fighters — Chinese-built copies of the MiG-21 — have taken part in the air campaign. But the Alpha Jets, taken out of near-retirement five years ago, also played in important — and at times controversial — role supporting Nigerian peacekeeping troops in Liberia and Sierra Leone during the 1990s.
This is the story of how a diminutive jet trainer made its mark on West Africa.
A Franco-German collaboration
France and Germany jointly designed the Alpha Jet in the 1970s to serve as a two-seat jet trainer — the airplane fighter pilots fly and practice firing weapons with before they begin training on combat aircraft.
The French Dassault and German Dornier aviation companies were interested in replacing American T-33 jet trainers — adapted Korean War-era F-80 Shooting Stars — with an aircraft of their own manufacture.
In the end, the Germans decided they’d rather stick with American trainers — but opted to produce the so-called Alpha Jet as a light ground-attack plane. You can tell the French Alpha-E Jets apart by their more rounded nose, while the German Alpha-As feature a needle-sharp nose accommodating more advanced avionics and sensors, including a Doppler radar navigation system.
The Alpha Jet entered service in 1978. Eventually some 480 Alpha Jets were sold to 13 countries. The 93 German Alpha Jets retired in 1997, but the nearly 100 French Alpha Jets continue to serve as jet trainers.
The Alpha Jet has a reputation for excellent low-speed handling and being very forgiving for novice pilots — in fact, the French air force’s only complaint was that it was actually too easy for trainees, who received a nasty shock when they graduated to more difficult-to-handle combat aircraft.
The small, lightweight jets — weighing fewer than four tons empty — are known for being highly maneuverable and can fly as fast as 621 miles per hour — faster than a typical airliner, but slower than the speed of sound. They can lug up to 5,500 pounds of munitions on five hardpoints, including precision-guided weapons like Maverick anti-tank missiles or even heat-seeking air-to-air missiles.
However, a more typical load would include two SNEB unguided rocket pods, each carrying 18 68-millimeter rockets and two 250 pounds bombs. In addition, Alpha Jets come with a 27- or 30-millimeter revolver cannon that can spit out 22 explosive shells a second.
Now, even with two extra fuel tanks, an Alpha Jet loaded for battle has an operational radius of only 380 miles and lacks many modern electronic systems.
However, Alpha Jets are very cheap and easy to maintain compared to sophisticated jet fighters — and when fighting insurgents hiding in the bush, they are nearly as effective.
How cheap? An Alpha Jet requires seven hours of maintenance per flight hour, compared to 19 for an F-16. In 1978, Alpha Jets sold for $4.5 million each — equivalent to $14 million today. Used Alpha Jets are considerably cheaper — one is being advertised right now for $950,000. This has led Alpha Jets to be widely resold to both civilian and military customers. Google even owns one.
Most military Alpha Jets have been used in their original intended role — as jet trainers. The Moroccan air force, however, employed some of theirs in its war against the Polisario rebels in Western Sahara.
It’s the Nigerian air force, however, that has made the most combat use of the type. Nigeria reportedly acquired its initial 24 aircraft — nicknamed “A-Jets” — from Germany, but additional aircraft have been acquired over the years. Most of those photographed appear to be the French models.
Peacekeeping air strikes
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, with more than 180 million inhabitants, and has long suffered from tensions stemming from ethnic and religious divisions. The Nigerian air force is probably most famous for the widely condemned bombing of the Biafra secessionist state — the 1960s equivalent of the conflict in Darfur.
However, in the 1990s the Nigerian military embarked on a more defensible mission, at least in theory — trying to restore order to a Liberia torn apart by Civil War as part of a West African peacekeeping force called ECOMOG.
By 1990, the corrupt and brutal Liberian government of Samuel Doe had been nearly overthrown by two rebel factions, the National Patriotic Liberation Front led by Charles Taylor and a splinter group called the Independent NPLF.
Funded by the sale of diamond and making wide scale use of child soldiers, the two rebel groups descended on the Liberian capital, Monrovia, in an orgy of killing, kidnapping and rape.
In 1990, the English-speaking Western African countries agreed to form a roughly 3,000-man peacekeeping force called ECOMOG to prevent the capital from being seized by the rebels. ECOMOG’s largest contingent consisted of Nigerian troops. Up to 12,000 ECOMOG troops deployed at one point.
Things did not begin auspiciously when Doe visited ECOMOG’s new headquarters to register a complaint. While there, he was kidnapped by INPFL soldiers, and videotaped being tortured to death while their leader, Prince Johnson, drank a beer and watched.
Unlike a typical peacekeeping force, ECOMOG had to militarily subdue the rampaging NPFL first before it could try to organize a peaceful political settlement. In the last four months of 1990, a detachment four Alpha Jets hammered rebel enemy gun emplacements and supply convoys at Robertsfield International Airport and Charles Taylor’s headquarters in Kakata, forcing him to move his base.
Later, ships running guns for Taylor were sunk in the seaport of Buchanan.
“The firepower of NAF fighter aircraft has finally dealt an incalculable blow to the war effort of the NPFL leader,” Time reported.
In October 1992, after a year and half of sporadic negotiations, Taylor launched a massive new assault on Monrovia. A detachment of six NAF Alpha Jets flew over a thousand missions in response, employing Beluga cluster bombs — a 628-pound munition that disperses 152 small bomblets by parachute.
Lethal against troops in the open, cluster munitions are now banned by convention in Nigeria because of their tendency to leave behind unexploded mini-bomblets long after hostilities have ended.
The NAF’s search-and-destroy mission were so effective in eliminating rebel vehicles that the NPFL began attacking at night. The Alpha Jet didn’t have night-flying equipment, but the NAF decided to give it a try anyway. Experienced pilots flew several night raids, fortunately without mishap.
The low-flying jets were reported by to have chased and terrorized the civilian population. “They say this is proving Taylor was right, that ECOMOG is coming to kill us,” one journalist said to Africa Watch. Humanitarian relief convoys and civilian crowds were strafed and a food-storage warehouse in Buchanan bombed. A team of Firestone workers described their horror as an air strike hit a group of children playing soccer, killing 40.
“”This is a low-tech war, and they are sloppy,” one journalist concluded. ECOMOG contended that it did not deliberately target civilians, but that the NPFL used them as human shields — an assertion backed up by independent observers. ECOMOG troops, however, were implicated in looting and humans rights abuses.
The siege of Monrovia was ultimately broken in the spring of 1993, and ECOMOG forces went on the offensive toward Buchanan. However, the Nigerian troops needed to cross Saint John’s River Bridge, which had already been wired with explosives. Alpha Jets were sent to strafe anyone trying to detonate the explosives until ECOMOG troops managed to cross the bridge.
From then on, the strikes planes were involved interdicting the NPFL supply convoys and sank six of the group’s cargo ships. An air strike even took out a captured Nigerian ZSU-23 quad-barrel anti-aircraft tank. Several aircraft were damaged by anti-aircraft fire during the campaign but Nigerian sources state that none were shot down.
ECOMOG’s efforts culminated in an election in 1997 — which Charles Taylor overwhelmingly won. Six years later, another rebel army brought Taylor’s government to its knees. A second African peacekeeping force finally succeeded in installing a democratic government, which has kept the peace to this day under the first female head of state in Africa, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson.
In 1992, the civil war in Liberia spilled over into neighboring Sierra Leone when one of Taylor’s commanders, Foday Sankoh — a.k.a. “General Moskito” — led a force of 3,000 fighters called the Revolutionary United Front to invade weakly-governed Sierra Leone. The Sierra Leone army rapidly lost control of the country — and its soldiers began to act almost as brutally towards the civilian population as the rebels did.
Sierra Leone soon resembled the wasteland of Mad Max, minus the protagonists. Charismatic and monstrous warlords with names such as General Warboss III and Betty Cut Hands led bands of drug-addled child soldiers in a rampage of looting, murder, rape, cannibalism and mutilation with little apparent ideological motivation. They did make sure to capture profitable diamond and uranium mines.
ECOMOG was sent to intervene in the conflict in 1994 — and like in Liberia, it would achieve temporary military successes, and then utterly fail to “win the peace” leading to a resumption of war. In 1995, two NAF Alpha Jets detached to support the ECOMOG task force.
They soon paired with a small South African mercenary contingent — Executive Outcomes — which led a counteroffensive to recapture the uranium mines. The Alpha Jets, along with mercenary Hind helicopter gunships, pounded RUF positions with bombs and rockets until they began to flee — into the teeth of ground-based ambush parties of tribal Kamajor fighters.
The offensive succeeded in driving the RUF from the country and led to the Abidjan peace accords in 1996.
Unfortunately, coups and corruption from within led to the resumption of fighting. In 1997, the NAF is accused of having dropped cluster bombs in Kenema and the capital of Freetown.
In 1999 the RUF — now a group called “the West Side Boys” — had overrun Freetown in what was dubbed “Operation No Living Thing.” More than 6,000 were killed and much of the city burned down while rebel troops perepetrated mass amputations of civilians. 3,000 Nigerian troops supported by two rocket-firing Alpha Jets led a bloody counterassault that succeeded in driving the rebels out of the capital — at heavy cost.
During the campaign, 10 aircraft sustained heavy damage from anti-aircraft fire. Three Alpha jets were lost, though all the crew survived. The cause of the losses are unspecified, though at least one is believed to have been shot down.
Peace would not be secured for another two years until the intervention of Indian, British and Russian troops.
Air power against Boko Haram
The Nigerian Alpha Jets wouldn’t see action again for more than a decade. Many of them fell into poor condition for lack of maintenance.
Unfortunately the winds of war were blowing closer to home for the Nigerian air force. In 2009, an Islamic fundamentalist insurgency called Boko Haram — which means “Western education is forbidden” — emerged in North Eastern Nigeria in the states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe.
Nigeria is marked by stark religious divisions between the Islamic north and Christian south. Boko Haram wishes to institute Islamic law across the entire country and bring an end to Western influence on society.
Fueled by government corruption and brutal military reprisals that resulted in hundreds of innocent citizens being tortured and killed by government troops, the insurgency escalated its violent attacks year after year, employing terrorist bombings, guerrilla warfare and large-scale raids on villages and military bases, culminating in the infamous 2014 Chibok raid in which 276 schoolgirls were kidnapped to serve as “wives” for Boko Haram fighters.
The terror group also has made attacks in Cameroon, Chad and Niger, and has recently proclaimed a switch in allegiances from Al Qaeda to ISIS.
In 2013, the Nigerian air force began to take measures to refurbish 13 of its Alpha Jets. Two were sent to Niamey, Mali to support a multi-national peacekeeping force there — but one crashed fatally in an accident that May. As Boko Haram seized control of more villages, Pres. Goodluck Johnson declared a state of emergency in the North Eastern state. Alpha Jets based in Yola and Maiduguri soon were flying combat mission in their own country.
Deep in Boko Haram territory, Maiduguri itself came under assault in March 2014, and the A-Jets bombed targets right next to their base. As Boko Haram continued its offensive, Nigerian troops were forced to withdraw from the town of Bama on Sept. 1, 2014. Alpha Jets again flew into battle to recapture the town.
On Sept. 14, 2014, a lone Alpha Jet flying out of Yola was shot down and one of its pilots captured. Boko Haram filmed their infamous leader Shekau — frequently reported dead — mounted on a machine gun-armed truck, then showed pieces of wreckage. A surviving pilot spoke briefly to the camera, before a man cut off his head with an axe .
The Nigerian air force at first denied the pilot’s identity, but he was later confirmed to be Wing Commander Chimda Hedima.
The Alpha Jet’s arsenal also may have contributed to rebel attacks. ‘Bomblets’ stolen from Nigerian stockpiles of Beluga cluster bombers may have been given to young girls for them to serve as suicide bombers. Nigeria has signed the convention agreeing not to employ cluster munitions, but has not yet disposed of its stockpile. The Nigerian army has claimed that the jets have hit friendly ground troops — possibly because of bad maps.
Alpha Jets of the Cameroonian Air Force joined the fray in December 2014 with air strikes against Boko Haram militants that had overrun the Cameroonian military base in Assighasia. The attacks reportedly killed 41 insurgents and compelled the rest to flee. Cameroon still operates 11 ground-attack Alpha Jets out of an original 27 purchased.
In March 2015, Nigeria elected a new president, Muhammadu Buhari, who set in motion a new military campaign against Boko Haram, forcing the insurgents back into sanctuaries in Sambisa Forest Reserve. In March 2016, a multi-national African force moved in to clear out the woods in Operation Crackdown, supported by extensive air strikes by Alpha Jets.
Another Alpha Jet crashed while landing that same month. Both crew survived, but it is not clear if the aircraft is recoverable.
Tragically, air strikes targeting Boko Haram were also liable to hit hostages and abductees. One 15-year old girl recounted being kept as a prisoner in a school repurposed as a base by Boko Haram in Sambisa forest.
“They hurriedly chased us out with canes as military jets flew overhead,” the girl said. “Bombs just started dropping from the sky, and the school buildings caught fire. Many of us, including my three year-old sister, were badly injured. She died within a few hours.”
Operation Crackdown succeeded in driving Boko Haram from Sambisa Forest, and a new campaign called Operation Gama Aiki — “See it Through” in the Hausa language common in northern Nigeria — sought to push the fighters northward against the shores of Lake Chad.
Three Alpha Jets and three F-7 fighters have been assigned to provide ground support for the ongoing operation, leading to the attack described at the beginning of this article.
Meanwhile, the United States approved the transfer of four unarmed Alpha Jets to the Nigerian air force in 2015, and a fifth may have been received this June. The Nigerian air force set about jerry-rigging onto two of the jet trainers its own weapons hardpoints capable of holding bombs or rocket pods.
Reportedly, the modifications cost just four million Nigerian naira — roughly $13,000. Some reports state a sum as low as $2,000. Given typical military equipment costs, this stands as a remarkable achievement. Foreign companies had requested up to $30,000 just to assess the cost of doing the refit.
A Nigerian car manufacturer, Innoson, has also been contracted to produce spare parts for the NAF to keep the old aircraft flying.
Nigeria has requested approval to buy new A-29 Tucano counter-insurgency propeller planes to replace its aging Alpha Jet fleet. However, a U.S. law known as the Leahy Amendment prohibits the transfer of military equipment to military units responsible for human-rights violations.
Backers of the Leahy Amendment have opposed the sale on the grounds that the Nigerian military has done too little to reform its human-rights practices.
Boko Haram has displaced more than a million people and killed at least 10,000 others.
The Nigerian government has declared that Boko Haram is “technically defeated.” Most experts are skeptical. Undeniably, substantial military progress has been made by Nigerian and its allied African troops. If that military progress doesn’t lead to real political and economic reforms, however, northeastern Nigeria risks succumbing to long-lasting conflict just like Liberia and Sierra Leone did under ECOMOG.
The Alpha Jet has proven to be a cost-efficient weapon when employed in counter-insurgency warfare, if not always a discriminate one.