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Air Force


Air Force NCO receiving his sergeant's stripes
Courtesy Embassy of Nigeria, Washington

The Nigerian National Assembly approved the creation of an air force in 1962, and the government sought assistance initially from Ethiopia, India, Britain, the United States, Canada, and particularly West Germany. West Germany received a contract in 1963 to create the Nigerian air force from scratch, including designing and setting up its legal and organizational framework; recruiting and training personnel; furnishing equipment, supplies, maintenance, and construction services; and providing the first generation of twenty Dornier Do-27 liaison/transports and fourteen Piaggio 149D primary trainer aircraft. The Nigerian air force (NAF) was officially established by the 1964 Air Act, which also provided for an air force reserve to which officers and enlisted personnel would be transferred on completion of active service. An assistance group provided by the West German air force departed in 1966, at the onset of the disturbances preceding the civil war, leaving behind a fledgling air force of 800 army officers and enlisted personnel seconded to it. The civil war precipitated a period of rapid growth and the first acquisition of combat aircraft, Soviet MiG-17Fs, which played substantial roles in the interdiction of gunrunning and tactical air support to the army. Afterward, the NAF undertook a massive relief effort to the former secessionist region.

From the 1970s onward, the NAF expanded considerably, acquired a large and diversified inventory of combat and support aircraft, and substantially improved its ability to perform its primary missions of defending the country's airspace, of supporting the army and navy, and of conducting rescue operations over land and sea. In 1990 its estimated strength was 9,500 officers and enlisted personnel. Nigeria ranked eighth among African states in the number of combat aircraft, and sixth in total aircraft; among sub-Saharan states, only the South African Air Force exceeded Nigeria's combat aircraft assets. In 1989 the NAF unveiled its first locally built trainer aircraft, dubbed the Air Beetle. Training and maintenance deficiencies in the air force, however, resulted in high loss of aircraft and pilots. Long-range needs included adequate communication systems, search and rescue units, improved armament storage facilities, strategic fuel reserves, combat training, and weapons delivery ranges.

The NAF was organized into four specialized air commands: Tactical Air (headquartered in Makurdi), Training (Kaduna), Logistics (Ikeja), and Airlift (Ibadan), which was formed in June 1988. There were fifteen major air bases, the largest located at Benin, Enugu, Kaduna, Kano, Lagos, Makurdi, and Port Harcourt. In December 1986, the Tactical Air Command announced the establishment of a unit of Aermacchi MB-339AN trainers at Calabar to defend the airspace in the region and to support international missions necessitated by Nigeria's prominent role in African defense. The chief of air staff announced in October 1987 that the NAF would build an air base in Sokoto State to check violations of the country's airspace.

In 1990 the NAF had about 260 aircraft, including three squadrons with 69 attack/fighters, one maritime reconnaissance squadron, five transport squadrons, and 51 training aircraft. Budgetary constraints disrupted air force procurements in the last half of the 1980s. A 1985 order for fifty Brazilian Embracer Tucano trainers as part of an oil-for-goods agreement was shelved in late 1986 when barter deals were suspended; apparently no deliveries were made. The purchase of Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopters was also delayed, and reportedly the NAF was considering disposing of its Aermacchi MB-339AN trainers and Aeritalia G-222 transports (see table 19, Appendix).

In addition to its small naval air arm, the NAF operated a squadron of maritime patrol aircraft and search-and-rescue helicopters in support of the navy. The first combined fleet exercise in late 1987 included air force strike aircraft in flights over the Atlantic. Although the NAF had exclusive responsibility for long-range maritime patrol, this function could be transferred to the navy as the latter service expanded its missions and capabilities.

The NAF's air defense capabilities were limited as a result of incomplete airspace control, of command and communications deficiencies, and of aircraft shortfalls relative to territory. The Selenia radar system installed at Lagos International Airport satisfied both civilian and military purposes, including control of nearby air defense units equipped with antiaircraft guns and Roland surface-to-air missiles. Similar systems were in place at Enugu, Kano, and Kaduna. In March 1987, the NAF completed installation of an intercommand communication system.

Data as of June 1991

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Nigeria Table of Contents