Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Taking Africa By Storm: Niger Acquires The Bayraktar TB2

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

The commercial success of the Bayraktar TB2 unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) seems to know no bounds, with the number of countries reportedly interested in procuring the system increasing by the month. In late October 2021, thirteen nations were reported to have purchased the TB2, an increase of three countries since August 2021. [1] The significance of this success is hard to overstate, with Baykar Tech successfully concluding more deals in three months than most other UCAV manufacturers ever hope to achieve during the entire production run of their systems.
Although already an impressive feat in and of itself, arguably just as impressive is Baykar's success in penetrating entirely new markets for their products. The most notable of these markets is sub-Saharan Africa, where countries like Nigeria, Angola and Rwanda have either hinted at an acquisition of the TB2 or have already placed an order for the system. [2] Another African country that purchased the Bayraktar TB2 is Niger. [3] [4] A sale to Niger comes in addition to deals already concluded with other African countries such as Morocco and Libya.

This time Baykar not only faced competition from Chinese manufacturers CAIG and CASC that produce the Wing Loong-series and the CH-3/4-series respectively, but also from a Turkish company. [3] Turkish Aerospace Industry (TAI) was offering its TAI Anka UCAV to Niger as well, and appeared poised to strike a deal with the country as the company struggles to close export deals for its T129 attack helicopter and Anka UCAV. [3] The only foreign customer to have acquired the Anka is Tunisia, which purchased three systems in 2020. [5]
While the T129's foreign sales have been hampered by the U.S.' reluctancy to grant an export license for the helicopter's two turboshaft engines, the Anka's disappointing export sales are undoubtedly a direct result of the stiff competition in the UCAV market from China and Baykar. The significant successes obtained by the Bayraktar TB2 over Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh are also certain to have propelled the TB2's sales to the detriment of the Anka, as does its lower pricetag. Nonetheless, TAI did succeed in selling a number of TAI Hürkuş trainer aircraft to Niger, marking the first successful export of the aircraft. [6]
Niger currently faces an insurgency on its southerneastern border along Lake Chad. Instigated by Boko Haram in the late 2000s and now largely fought by Islamic State – West Africa (ISWA), frequent attacks on military outposts and civilian settlements in Niger have left thousands of civilians and soldiers killed. [7] The Boko Haram insurgency first broke out in northeastern Nigeria in 2009 before the violence quickly spread into neighbouring Chad, Cameroon and Niger. Security forces have so far struggled to contain the threat, with the highly mobile insurgents proving difficult to track, pin down and neutralise.
The difficulty in combatting Islamic State forces is further exacerbated by a lack of suitable aerial assets capable of finding and neutralising small groups of insurgents and vehicles, which can easily escape detection from most aircraft by simply hiding under a nearby tree. Only Nigeria currently operates a significant fleet of UAVs and other assets equipped with forward-looking infrared (FLIR) cameras, which can detect the heat source of humans and vehicles even when covered by dense vegetation. While Niger does operate several aircraft equipped with FLIR cameras, these are unarmed and coordination with attack aircraft and helicopters is practically nonexistent. 
An acquisition of a UCAV system like the Bayraktar TB2 would allow Niger to combine the best of both aircraft types – in this case an advanced FLIR turret with armament – into one system. Rather than consisting of dumb bombs or unguided rockets that arm almost all attack aircraft and helicopters in Africa, the TB2 (and TAI Anka) can be armed with up to four precision-guided MAM-L or MAM-C munitions. The TB2's affordability, reliability and strong after-sales support will surely be appreciated by Niger as well, as many African countries have prior experience in purchasing advanced weaponry only to find out that operating them wasn't financially sustainable in the long run.

Islamic State fighters celebrate a successful attack atop a captured Niger Army ACMAT Bastion infantry mobility vehicle. Note the many bullet impact holes on the side of the vehicle.

The Armée de l 'Air Nigérienne (Niger Air Force) currently operates a small but well-equipped force of aircraft and helicopters acquired from Russia, Ukraine, the United States and France. In the past decade, the Niger Air Force has launched a modest re-equipment programme with the aim of strengthening its capabilities to deal with the surge in Islamic State terror attacks in southern Niger at the margins of Lake Chad. As part of this effort, Niger took possession of close air support (CAS) aircraft and attack helicopters.
Also acquired were a number of modern surveillance aircraft, comprising one King Air 350 ISR aircraft, two Cessna 208s and two DA42 MPPs. The latter two types are equipped with a FLIR turret, and are well suited for surveillance along the southeastern border with Nigeria. The two Cessna 208s were donated by the United States in 2015 to carry out intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions over southeastern Niger. [8] Unlike the AC-208 Combat Caravans delivered to Afghanistan, Lebanon and Iraq, Niger's Cessna 208s do not feature any armament.

Niger's offensive capabilities come in the form of two Su-25 CAS aircraft and two Mi-35Ps, two Mi-171Sh and three SA342M Gazelle attack helicopters. Neither of these are equipped with guided armament but can be equipped with a wide range of rocket and gun pods. Other aircraft in the Niger Air Force's fleet include two C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, a Dornier 228 transport aircraft, two Humbert Tetras light aircraft and a Boeing 737 VIP transport. In 2013, Niger also received two Cessna 208 Caravan aircraft configured for casualty evacuation from the United States. [8]

One of Niger's two DA42 MPP surveillance aircraft. Note the FLIR turret under the nose.

Despite not yet operating any UAVs of its own, Niger is currently at the very center of U(C)AV activities in sub-Saharan Africa through the deployment of French MQ-9B Reapers to Niamey and a secretive U.S drone base located near Agadez in central Niger. Operations conducted by these nations are certain to have sparked an interest in the operation of UCAVs by Niger itself, and combined with the security situation on its southern border this must surely have made for a strong argument for the acquisition of its own UCAV assets.

A U.S. Army MQ-1C Grey Eagle after an emergency landing near Agadez, Niger, January 2021

All of Niger's aircraft and helicopters are based at Base Aérienne 101 (BA 101) Niamey. The Niger Air Force shares the airport grounds with Diori Hamani International Airport but possesses its own dedicated runway. BA 101 is also used by French Air Force transport aircraft and UCAVs, and previously served as the main base for U.S. drone operations in Niger until operations were shifted to Agadez. Another important air base is Agadez (BA 201) located in central Niger, although no aircraft are currently permanently deployed here. Despite not (yet) having the official status of an air base, the Niger Air Force has maintained regular detachments to Diffa in southeastern Niger.

Satellite imagery showing the military side of Niamey airport. Note the abundance of French military aircraft occupying the ramps.

In light of the security situation along Niger's southeastern border, the Nigerien government has announced the establishment of an air base near Diffa. [9] It is currently unknown if this entails the expansion of Diffa airport (seen below) or the construction of an entirely new air base nearby. The 1800 metres long runway at Diffa is long enough to support the deployment of Bayraktar TB2s and the airport offers enough space for future expansion. Three hangars were already erected here in 2016, and are large enough to house several TB2s at a time.

Two Mi-35P attack helicopters and a Cessna 208 configured for casualty evacuation at Diffa.

In response to the use of Diffa airport by the Niger Air Force, ISWA fighters have targeted the airport on numerous occasions throughout the past several years. Luckily for the personnel stationed at the airport, these attacks most often consisted of the firing of a single 122mm rocket from an improvised launcher. The accuracy that results from such a launch method can be described as abysmal at best, and no damage is thought to have resulted from these sporadic attacks. [10] Nonetheless, the Niger Army greatly increased its presence in around the airport, with perimeter defences dotting the entire length of the runway.

An Islamic State fighter prepares a 122mm rocket before firing it in the direction of Diffa airport, March 14th 2019. [10]

The Niger Army features little in terms of firepower like armour and artillery, operating no true multiple rocket launcher (MRL) systems or modern artillery. A number of 107mm Type-63 MRLs and 122mm D-30 howitzers are the army's sole long-range fire-support assets (boasting a 8km and 15km range). Contrary to Chad and Nigeria, Niger exclusively makes use of wheeled armoured fighting vehicles like the French AML-20/60/90 armoured cars and Chinese WZ-551 and WZ-523 APCs. Other recent acquisitions have been the French ACMAT Bastion infantry mobility vehicle (IMV) and mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles (MRAPs) from South Africa. In November 2021 it was announced that Niger would also procure armoured vehicles from Turkey. [6]

The lack of enough modern protected vehicles hinders the army's capacity to carry out effective patrols and pursue ISWA forces before they have a chance to flee the scene or even escape into an entirely different country entirely. The limited numbers of MRAPs and other armoured vehicles leave ground forces vulnerable to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and ambushes and the lack of modern sighting systems gives them little situational awareness in the densely vegetated operational areas. The use of aircraft to support ground forces and independently seek out targets allows Niger to take the fight to ISAW forces without having to solely rely on exposed ground forces.

The main strike element of the Forces Armées Nigériennes currently consists of two Su-25s acquired from Ukraine in 2013. While boasting a respectable payload of 4400kg consisting of 100kg and 250kg bombs or 57mm UB-32 and 80mm B-8 rocket pods or a combination of these armament types, the Su-25s would be severely challenged in locating targets in the densely vegetated areas of southeastern Niger. Originally designed to engage heavy armour traversing the plains of Europe, any Su-25 pilot will have immense difficulty in tracking small groups of insurgents and their vehicles, which often hide under trees as soon as they hear engine noises overhead.

Although acquired by many African countries as a cheap strike aircraft, these nations have often struggled to effectively deploy its Su-25s. When they were put into action, the accuracy of the bombs dropped by the Su-25s often proved to be so poor that they might as well have not flown the sortie at all. Only Angola and Ivory Coast managed to use their Su-25s to some degree of effectiveness, although in the case of the latter they were almost exclusively used against buildings and fortifications rather than nimble targets like vehicles or infantry.

A Nigerien Su-25 armed with B-8 rocket pods for 80mm rockets.

Slightly more effective at combatting insurgents on the ground is Niger's fleet of attack helicopters, which currently consists of two Mi-35Ps, two Mi-171Shs and three SA342M Gazelles. All of these have been recently acquired, and especially the Mi-171Sh is a revered asset for its ability to carry infantry in addition to a hefty payload of six rocket and gun pods. However, none of the helicopter types are currently equipped with any guided weaponry, and the additional lack of a FLIR turret means they are essentially limited to carrying out attacks on targets of opportunity.

In this sense, scores of expensive close air support aircraft and attack helicopters do little to improve on the actual capabilities of the armed forces that operate them when acquired without the guided weaponry and targeting systems that could turn these assets into effective platforms. Although Niger operates several ISR aircraft that could help locate targets for the Su-25s and attack helicopters, such synergy between multiple air assets is often out of reach for small African air forces like that of Niger. Despite these drawbacks, Niger's Su-25s, Mi-35Ps and SA342Ms have deployed in the fight against ISWA on numerous occasions.

A Nigerien Mi-171Sh armed with rocket and gun pods. Two examples were acquired from Russia in 2020 for 47 million USD. [11]

One of Niger's three SA342M Gazelles with a 20mm cannon installed to the right side of the helicopter.

Although one could argue that it is up to African air forces to acquire an aircraft that combines the surveillance capabilities (a FLIR turret specifically) of an aircraft like the DA42 MPP with the capacity to deploy precision-guided munitions, this has proven to be easier said than done. To give just one example, while Mali and Burkina Faso have both acquired the A-29B Super Tucano, these were delivered without FLIR equipment or guided weaponry because of their hefty pricetag or simply because the U.S. did not allow their export to these countries. Indeed, while Mali was given a green light to purchase A-29Bs, it was blocked from purchasing the FLIR systems associated with the aircraft. [12]

With very little alternatives available (save for the Calidus B-250 and TAI Hürkuş), this situation essentially pushes certain African countries straight into the arms of China for the acquisition of aerial assets with PGM capabilities. China has proven to have little issues with exporting such equipment even to nations that are at war. [13] Nonetheless, most Sub-Saharan African countries have so far refrained from purchasing Chinese-made UCAVs, presumably because of their high crash rate, reliability issues and still significant acquisition costs (approaching some 15 million USD for one Wing Loong II alone).

The Bayraktar TB2 has brought about a revolution in the notion of how modern wars are being fought. Thanks to their affordability, reliability and politically conditionless availability, this revolution is now also set to reach Africa. The acquisition of Bayraktar TB2s by Niger will allow them to take the fight to the Islamic State in an effective manner and carry out the same drone operations currently conducted by the United States and French out of Niger, at a price that is actually attainable for a country of its stature. 
It is not unthinkable that countries like Chad and Cameroon will want to follow in Niger's and Nigeria's footsteps and begin acquiring UCAVs as well. Given the success of the TB2 in Niger and Nigeria, and the latter's interest to buy Turkish UCAVs rather than more of the Chinese-made UCAVs it already operates, to such countries the TB2 may now too seem like the obvious choice. At a time when other African countries like Angola and Rwanda are also reported to be in the market for Turkish drones, the TB2's commercial success currently looks to be without bounds. This should come as little surprise to those that examined the system in combat, as the TB2 is arguably the first UCAV that manages to combine reliability and affordability with devastatingly effective results on the battlefield: a capability sourly looked for in the 21st century.

[2] An International Export Success: Global Demand For The Bayraktar TB2 Reaches All Time High https://www.oryxspioenkop.com/2021/09/an-international-export-success-global.html
[4] TUSAŞ’tan Nijer’e HÜRKUŞ İhracatı https://www.savunmasanayist.com/tusastan-nijere-hurkus-ihracati/
[5] Tunisia Signs $80 Million Deal for Three Turkish Anka-S Combat Drones https://www.thedefensepost.com/2020/12/17/tunisia-buys-anka-s-drones/ 
[7] Niger: Surging atrocities by armed Islamist groups https://reliefweb.int/report/niger/niger-surging-atrocities-armed-islamist-groups
[8] Niger C-208 Program Reaches 10,000hr Flying Hours Without Incident https://ne.usembassy.gov/niger-c-208-program-reaches-10000hr-flying-hours-without-incident/ 
[13] Tigray War: Chinese-Made Armed Drones Spotted Over Mekelle https://www.oryxspioenkop.com/2021/10/tigray-war-chinese-made-armed-drones.html