But their nefarious methods got one of them in big trouble
by TOM COOPER & ADRIEN FONTANELLAZ
The history of the modern Chadian air force is a fascinating one. Just two men — Pres. Idris Deby Itno and Griffin Aerospace executive Habib Boukharouba — are largely responsible for building the Central African country’s air arm.
They did it by way of petro-dollars, illegal arms deals and mercenary recruitment. And they largely succeeded, although one of the man fared better than the other in the end.
Chad is hardly renown for being a center of aviation excellence. The government stood up a small military flying branch with French assistance in the 1970s, but it was staffed almost entirely by French personnel — and was almost entirely destroyed during the Libyan invasion and capture of the capital N’Djamena in 1981.
The situation began to change in 1985, when Pres. Hissene Habré assumed power with support from Paris. Habré took care to have several dozen of his commanders undergo extensive training at French military institutions.
While most of these commanders played a crucial role in the ultimate liberation of northern Chad from Libya in 1987, their subsequent fate was rather tragic. Paranoid about his commanders planning a coup against him, Habré ordered the assassinations of some and forced others into exile.
Just one French-trained officer remained — Deby. In 1990, he launched a coup and installed himself in power. Deby has been the president of Chad ever since.
The country Deby governs suffers from deep schism between the Muslims and animists who dominate the north of the country and the Christians from the south. More recently, centuries-old rivalries between ethnic groups and clans have flared up. Consequently, Chad has battled more than 50 separate insurgencies since its independence from France on Aug. 11, 1960.
As a former French-trained military pilot, Deby appreciates the advantages of air power — especially over the featureless terrain that characterizes most of his country.
Early on, Deby lacked the money to develop an air force, but the funding situation improved dramatically once Chad began collecting royalties of around $500 million a year from oil exports starting in the mid-2000s.
The flow of petro-dollars and Deby’s interest in obtaining an air force brought to the scene Habib Boukharouba — a French citizen of Algerian origin, former French air force pilot, salesman for the Swiss company Pilatus and owner of Griffon Aerospace.
Knowing that the future Chadian air force would first and foremost need training aircraft, but also because of his business connections, Deby contracted Griffon to overhaul one of two derelict PC-7 trainers — registrations TT-QAA and TT-QAB — that France donated to Chad in 1985.
Next, Griffon purchased another PC-7 — registration TT-QAJ — on the civilian market in the United States plus one example of the more powerful PC-9 — registration TT-QAG — directly from Pilatus in Switzerland.
It was with help of these aircraft — plus some 50 French, Mexican and Algerian instructors and ground personnel contracted by Griffon Aerospace — that the fledgling air arm was officially declared an “air force” in 2006.
Boukharouba also arranged for his employees to adapt one Mil Mi-17V-5 transport helicopter — serial TT-OAN — and three Mil Mi-24 gunships — TT-OAP, TT-OAQ and TT-OAS — to carry U.S.-designed Mk.81 and Mk.82 bombs obtained through a French associate of Griffon with connections in Pakistan.
Finally, Griffin modified the cockpits of all three gunships to be compatible with night-vision goggles that Chad acquired from Israel.
Because Chadian student pilots were still inexperienced, instructors from Griffon Aerospace accompanied them on combat sorties — especially at night. Targeting intelligence was usually provided by French military reconnaissance units deployed in country.
The process of establishing the Chadian air force was barely complete when an insurgent coalition supported by Sudan launched a sudden and amazingly fast advance on N’Djamena in late January 2008. This resulted in days-long pitched battles all over the Chadian capital that raged through early February.
Mi-17s and Mi-24s flown by Griffon employees and operating from the French-guarded N’Djamena International Airport proved highly adept at destroying insurgent technicals — usually Toyota pick-up trucks armed with machine guns or rocket launchers.
To the dismay of Pilatus’ bosses, this operation attracted a lot of public attention. It was around the same time that the European Union launched a military intervention with the aim of stabilizing Chad. So it happened that one enterprising journalist reached the Chadian air base near Abeché and photographed the Chadian air force’s sole PC-9 as it sat loaded with Mk.81s.
The photographs caused an uproar and a major affair in Switzerland, because the aircraft was supposed to be an unarmed trainer — and the government of Chad had promised it would never be flown in combat operations. Subsequent investigations revealed that Swiss authorities failed to anticipate Chad’s strong interest in arming the PC-9.
The Pilatus affair proved to be Griffin’s swan song. All company personnel left Chad by March 2008. Nevertheless, the services the company provided formed the foundation of the modern-day Chadian air force.
Deby’s air arm grew. It acquired from Ukraine six second-hand Sukhoi Su-25s between 2008 and 2010 — registrations TT-QAH, TT-QAI, TT-QAK, TT-QAM, TT-QAN and TT-QAO — followed by three second-hand MiG-29s — including TT-OAP — plus two Alenia C-27J Spartan transports in 2014.
To be sure, the flying branch is still dependent on foreign advisors — primarily Ukrainian mercenaries — but additional Chadian pilots and ground personnel have undergone training in Ethiopia and France and are gradually taking over from the mercenaries.
Boukharouba’s fate was less fascinating. Although French authorities were perfectly aware of Griffon Aerospace’s activities of the mid-2000s, he was subsequently sued by Paris for failing to secure formal authorization for arms exports. His business in France collapsed and he felt compelled to emigrate to the United Arab Emirates.