What Are Ukrainian Warplanes Doing in Niger?
Su-25s could be taking over for U.S. drones
Satellite imagery from Digital Globe in late October depicts Niger’s two recently acquired Su-25 ground attack aircraft at Diori Hamani International Airport in Niamey. Both planes sit close to U.S. and French drone aprons.
The warplanes are certainly interesting. What’s even more interesting is why they’re at the airport. One possibility is that the planes—with their Ukrainian pilots—are taking over for U.S. drones.
The Su-25 Frogfoot is the Russian-made equivalent of the A-10 Warthog. Both provide dedicated close air support. The Sukhoi has five hard-points underneath each wing for carrying weapons and an array of attachments.
It’s also one of the few attack aircraft in Niger’s inventory.
The aircraft first proved itself in the 1980s during Soviet counterinsurgency missions in Afghanistan, and has since joined the inventories of African states including Chad and Sudan. Like Niger, those states acquired the warplane for use in local conflicts.
West Africa watchers have long expected the Su-25’s entry into the country. Niger is battling local rebels, and the Islamist group Boko Haram is active in the remote southeastern regions of the country. To the west and north is Mali—where a major international peacekeeping operation is underway.
Photographs of these specific aircraft first circulated in February 2013. The planes had Niger’s tan camouflage paint scheme, and were sitting in what was probably a Ukrainian-built hangar at MiGremont.
However, the ex-Ukrainian, twin-engine aircraft were not initially meant for Niger. Mali first reported the purchase of the same two aircraft parked at Diori Hamani.
The deal with Ukraine fell through. Niger then snagged them both for an unreported amount. It’s not clear who paid for them—although France has contributed substantial military assistance in the past.
Ukraine’s Zaporozhye State Aviation Repair Factory, known as MiGremont, refurbished the aircraft prior to delivery. Spotters captured them during flight trials in March 2013 at the co-located airfield.
In addition to the repairs, Ukraine may also provide the pilots until Niger has an adequately trained crew—a similar pattern Kiev has applied to other African countries.
Several photographs from Diori Hamani in May 2014 indicate that’s probably the case. One image depicts an older Ukrainian pilot sporting the MiGremont patch. Another shows a Ukrainian ground support crew, a Nigerien pilot and other military personnel.
Not surprisingly, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has consistently ranked Kiev as one of the 10 largest exporters of major conventional weapons for most of the years since Ukraine’s independence.
And for good reason.
After 1991, the Ukraine government cut defense spending, leaving few opportunities for domestic procurement. Kiev inherited a massive amount of equipment it didn’t have the ability to maintain. Defense exports are subsequently one of the few ways the country pays for its military—which has long been in decline.
Regardless of local sales, last year’s SIPRI report placed Ukraine at number eight for the world’s biggest conventional weapons exporters. And the Stockholm-based institute ranks Sub-Saharan Africa an important export location. In the past, the region has accounted for nearly 20 per cent of Ukraine’s defense exports.
As far as Niger, SIPRI’s trade registry only shows the Su-25 in its database for transfers to the country.
Then there’s the question of what the planes are doing in Niger. It’s circumstantial, but the arrival of the Frogfoots at an operational area of the airfield comes around the same time U.S. forces announced they might redeploy their drones from Niamey to Agadez, several hundred miles to the northeast.
Agadez was the site of a major terrorist attack in 2013, where a Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb splinter group attacked a French-owned uranium mine. Analysts believe the attackers transited from—and were armed—in Libya.
Earlier in October, French troops along with support from Nigerien forces intercepted and destroyed a weapons convoy in the northern part of the country. The convoy belonged to AQIM and was reportedly delivering weapons to fighters in Mali.
Working closely with the French, the U.S. is concerned about the growing unrest in neighboring Libya and the increasing spillover effects. As a result, the two Su-25s could pick up the slack of the redeployed drones, helping locate and bomb militant positions in the process.
Bolstering this case is satellite imagery dated to Oct. 29, 2014, depicting the Sukhois fitted with two external fuel tanks. Located under the wings, the drop tanks extend the planes’ operational range to more than 776 miles, increasing coverage to most of northern Niger, including Agadez.
The imagery also shows the aircraft at a section of the airfield that formerly housed two white-painted Mi-17 Hip helicopters.
These helicopters, operated by the U.S. Air Force’s 6th Special Operations Squadron, recently relocated—possibly further north—or returned home from rotation. The helicopters’ last known location at the airfield was six days prior to the satellite image.
The 6th SOS operates in a combat aviation advisory role for “non-standard aircraft.” In other words, the group builds up foreign air forces—although it’s currently unknown if the unit’s scope of support extends to the Su-25.
With the current deployment of the Frogfoots to the same airport, it could be a possibility. In the meantime, the latest imagery shows what appears to be two fuel trucks next to the aircraft—suggesting these warplanes are ready to join the fight.