By Arnaud Delalande
On Jan. 14, 2018, Boko Haram – an Islamist group from northeast Nigeria led by jihadist leader Abubakar Shekau – released a video depicting the remains of a Nigerian air force Mi-171 helicopter the group claimed it shot down.
The alleged shoot-down occurred amid an intensive new offensive targeting the group. On Jan. 8, Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon launched an operation aimed at two Boko Haram factions in the group’s Nigeria stronghold. The day the operation began, another Mi-17 crashed during a mission in northeast Nigeria.
Nigeria has battled Boko Haram since 2011. Cameroon, too, has fought the group for years. In mid-January 2015, the Chadian National Assembly approved Pres. Idris Déby’s request to deploy soldiers to support Cameroon.
There have been several major operations against Boko Haram. Operation Restore Order I, lasting from June 2011 to May 2013, involved some 4,000 Nigerian soldiers fighting alongside police and other forces in Borno State.
A Nigerian air force F-7Ni and Mi-171-NAF-558. Photo via the author
Operation Restore Order III took place in Yobe State between December 2011 and August 2013 and saw around 2,000 soldiers deploy against Boko Haram. Operation Boyona replaced Restore Oder I in the states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa and involved 10,000 soldiers. Operation Zaman Lafiya, also with 10,000 soldiers, succeeded Boyona.
In July 2015, Maj. Gen. Tukur Buratai, then the acting chief of staff of Nigerian forces, launched Operation Lafiya Dole, replacing Zaman Lafiya. The objective was to professionally transform the army and accelerate the war against Boko Haram. Operation Deep Punch I began in July 2017 with the aim of clearing militants from the Sambisa Forest. Deep Punch II, starting in December 2017, is meant to eliminate Boko Haram from the Lake Chad basin.
By August 2014, the Nigerian air force had carried out 2,468 ground-attack missions against Boko Haram with its Alpha Jets, Chengdu F-7Nis and Mi-24/35. The air force also conducted 1,443 surveillance missions with DA42s, ATR-42s and King Air 350is. C-130Hs and G222s flew 1,479 transport missions.
The air support continued. Between Dec. 25, 2015 and the end of January 2016, the air force conducted 286 strikes against Boko Haram for a total of 536 flight hours. During the 18 months between July 2015 and mid-January 2017, the air arm carried out 2,105 missions.
A newly weaponized Nigerian Alpha Jet readies for a combat mission. Photo via the author
Since 2013 and the start of Zaman Lafiya, the Nigerian air force has suffered relatively few losses directly related to the fighting. Two Chengdu F-7Nis, one Alpha Jet, two Mi-35Ps and one A109LUH have been shot down or destroyed in accidents.
The air force’s efforts have made a huge difference. Following surveillance by ATR-42s and King Air 350is, which revealed the presence of militants in Njimia and Zairo in the Sambisa area, on Jan. 3, 2018 Alpha Jets and F-7Nis performed multiple air strikes.
Later the same day, two jets and one helicopter scrambled to support ground forces that had come under attack by Boko Haram in Tokombere, southwest of Zairo. A few hours later, another helicopter attacked the insurgents’ position, killing many and causing some survivors to flee. Surveillance aircraft tracked the fleeing militants and helped direct a strike by army rocket launchers.
By Jan. 10, 2018, scores of jihadists were dead and hundreds more had surrendered. Besides the two Mi-171s, Nigeria has lost four soldiers killed and at least 15 others wounded. Two Cameroonian troops were killed in the Sambisa Forest.