• Saturday, December 09, 2023
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Explainer: What to know about the $1bn attack helicopters US sold to Nigeria

In a bid to address the insecurity crisis in Nigeria, the United States State Department has cleared the sale of 12 AH-1Z Cobra attack helicopters worth nearly $1bn to Nigeria.

The clearing of the sale followed the lifting by US lawmakers of objections over human rights concerns.

The Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced last Thursday the sale of the helicopters and related defence systems to the Nigerian military.

The sale includes the Bell-made Cobras; 28 General Electric-made T700-401C engines; 2,000 Advanced Precision Kill Weapon Systems used to convert unguided missiles into precision-guided missiles; and night vision, targeting and navigation systems.

About Bell AH-1 Cobra

The Bell AH-1 Cobra is a single-engined attack helicopter developed and manufactured by the American rotorcraft manufacturer, Bell Helicopter. A member of the prolific Huey family, the AH-1 is also referred to as the HueyCobra or Snake.

The helicopter type, which was used during the Vietnam War, was produced in response to fulfill a need for a dedicated armed escort for transport helicopters to give the helicopters greater survivability in contested environments.

Design and features

The AH-1 is a dedicated attack helicopter, featuring a tandem cockpit, stub wings for weapons, and a chin-mounted gun turret.

The fuselage and other sub-assembly elements are all made of corrosion-resistant material. No two dissimilar metals of the structure are in contact.

The helicopter features an epoxy primer layer on the exposed surfaces. The AH-1Z Viper is deployed to provide close air support, armed escort/reconnaissance, anti-air warfare, and anti-armour operations.

Northrop Grumman developed the integrated avionics systems for the AH-1Z. The systems include two mission computers and an automatic flight control system with four-axis stability control augmentation system. Each crew station has two 8in×6in multifunction displays and one 4.2in×4.2in dual function display, based on active-matrix liquid crystal colour technology.

The communications suite combines the US Navy RT-1824 integrated radio, UHF/VHF, COMSEC and modem in a single unit. The navigation suite includes an embedded GPS inertial, a low-airspeed air data subsystem, which allows weapons delivery when hovering, and a digital map.

The Super Cobra can carry both TOW and Hellfire anti-armour missiles and is qualified to carry the Maverick missile.

The Super Cobra carries a three-barrel, 20mm gatling gun for close range (up to 2km) engagement and 750 rounds of ammunition. With the gun in a fixed forward position, the pilot can aim by manoeuvring the helicopter. Either crew member can slave the turret to the helmet-mounted sight and aim the gun by looking at the target.

Countries that have used the Cobra helicopters

Several countries, including the US, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan and the Philippines, have deployed the Bell AH-1 Cobra for attack missions.

The first examples of the type entered service with the US Army during 1967; other branches of the US military also opted to acquire the type, particularly the US Marine Corps, while export sales were made to numerous overseas countries, including Israel, Japan, and Turkey.

For several decades, the AH-1 formed the core of the US Army’s attack helicopter fleet, seeing combat in Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, and Iraq.

In the US Army, the Cobra was progressively replaced by the newer and more capable Boeing AH-64 Apache during the 1990s, with the final examples being withdrawn during 2001.

The Israeli Air Force operated the Cobra most prolifically along its land border with Lebanon, using its fleet intensively during the 1982 Lebanon War.

Turkish AH-1s have seen regular combat with Kurdish insurgents near Turkey’s southern borders. Upgraded versions of the Cobra have been developed, such as the twin engined AH-1 SeaCobra/SuperCobra and the experimental Bell 309 KingCobra.

Experts’ views on Cobra attack helicopters

Kabir Adamu, founder and chief executive officer of Beacon Consulting, a security risk management and intelligence consulting company, said the attack helicopters would not be useful in the fight against banditry, terrorism, and all security threats that involve armed conflict.

According to him, the helicopters expected in the country are very good for precision-styled warfare, especially in urban settings where the enemy is sometimes mixed with the citizens.

“You need this precision-styled attack, especially where you want to take the enemy by surprise and in close proximity from an aerial point of view,” he said, while stressing that the deployment of the aircraft using credible intelligence would prevent civilian harm.

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According to Adamu, the helicopters will help the military respond to distress much faster, especially in forward operating bases, which are most vulnerable to attacks.

“These helicopters will be very helpful to that response capability. In fact, it’s one of the things that would be the game-changer because of the way the Nigerian security forces are spread thinly; there are so many threat elements and that means we have a lot of bases that are vulnerable to attacks. But where you have this response capability, anytime they are in distress, and you are aware, you can deploy speedily,” he said.

The expert therefore advised that the armory should be well secured so that enemy would not steal or destroy them as done in the past.

According to Shehu Sadeeq, a private security and defence consultant, the helicopters are more rugged and can access places where other aircraft including the Super Tucano cannot access.

He said the aircraft would make it easier for the military to access the forests where bandits/terrorists hibernate.

The security consultant, however, noted that Nigeria had not yet purchased the aircraft, saying the contract had not been signed.

Sadeeq said, “The US Congress has to make the final approval; after that is done, Nigeria and America will agree on terms of use and constituents of the aircraft. When they agree, they will sign the final agreement for the aircraft to be produced. So, this is just the start of a long journey.

“We have learnt our lesson form the Tucano; Nigeria did not do due diligence. Americans did; they specified how the aircraft will be used and Nigeria signed, not knowing that it will not be used against banditry. Before signing, we must be sure of the terms of use.”

According to him, the attack aircraft can only be effective if handled by well-trained personnel that can maximise its features. “A good aircraft needs a good pilot, else you won’t be able to maximise its benefits. It’s our pilots and technicians that will make sure that the human element complements the quality of the aircraft,” he said.

Chidi Omeje, a security analyst, applauded the move to purchase more aircraft, saying, “Nigeria is in need of more attack aircraft to deal with security threats.”

He said the aircraft would enable the Nigeria Air Force (NAF) to dominate the airspace. “The NAF will have more eyes in the sky, and this will add great impetus to the war on terror,” he said.