Niger Acquires Sophisticated Combat Aerial Vehicle, The Bayraktar TB2
The Bayraktar TB2 unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) appears to have no limitations in terms of economic success, with the number of countries allegedly interested in purchasing the system growing by the month. Thirteen countries were reported to have purchased the TB2 as of late October 2021, an increase of three countries since August 2021. The significance of this achievement is difficult to exaggerate, with Baykar Tech closing more agreements in three months than most other UCAV manufacturers aspire to achieve over the course of their entire manufacturing cycle.
Although this is an outstanding achievement in and of itself, Baykar's success in breaking into totally new markets for their products is possibly even more impressive. The most significant of these areas is Sub-Saharan Africa, where Nigeria, Angola, and Rwanda have either expressed interest in purchasing the TB2 or have actually placed an order for it. Niger is another African country that has bought the Bayraktar TB2. The sale to Niger is in addition to agreements reached with other African nations such as Morocco and Libya.
This time, Baykar was up against not just Chinese manufacturers CAIG and CASC, who make the Wing Loong and CH-3/4 series, respectively, but also a Turkish firm. Turkish Aerospace Industry (TAI) was also presenting the TAI Anka UCAV to Niger, and appeared to be close to reaching an agreement with the government as the business battles to secure deals for its T129 attack helicopter and Anka UCAV.  Tunisia is the only foreign customer who has purchased the Anka, having ordered three systems in 2020.
While the T129's international sales have been impeded by the US government's refusal to provide an export license for the helicopter's two turboshaft engines, the Anka's dismal export sales are definitely due to fierce competition from China and Baykar in the UCAV market. The Bayraktar TB2's big victories over Libya, Syria, and Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as its reduced pricetag, are certain to have boosted the TB2's sales to the disadvantage of the Anka. Despite this, TAI was able to sell a number of TAI Hürku? trainer aircraft to Niger, marking the aircraft's first successful export.
On Niger's southerneastern border, around Lake Chad, there is now an insurgency. Frequent attacks on military installations and civilian settlements in Niger, started by Boko Haram in the late 2000s and now predominantly fought by Islamic State – West Africa (ISWA), have killed thousands of civilians and troops. The Boko Haram insurgency began erupted in northeastern Nigeria in 2009, and the violence swiftly extended to Chad, Cameroon, and Niger. Security forces have struggled to manage the threat thus far, with the militants' remarkable mobility making them tough to detect, pin down, and neutralize.
The difficulties of combating Islamic State militants is increased by a lack of sufficient aerial assets capable of locating and neutralizing small groups of insurgents and vehicles that can quickly avoid detection by hiding behind a nearby tree. Only Nigeria currently has a large fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and other assets equipped with forward-looking infrared (FLIR) cameras, which can detect the heat source of people and vehicles even when they are obscured by dense foliage. While Niger has many aircraft with FLIR cameras, they are unarmed, and coordination with attack planes and helicopters is virtually non-existent.
A UCAV system, such as the Bayraktar TB2, would allow Niger to integrate the finest features of both aircraft types – in this case, an advanced FLIR turret with weapons – into a single system. The TB2 (and TAI Anka) can be armed with up to four precision-guided MAM-L or MAM-C munitions, rather than the dumb bombs or unguided rockets used by practically all assault aircraft and helicopters in Africa. Niger will undoubtedly value the TB2's affordability, dependability, and solid after-sales support, as many African governments have previously purchased powerful weaponry only to discover that operating them was not financially viable in the long run.
The Armée de l'Air Nigérienne (Niger Air Force) now has a small but well-equipped force of planes and helicopters from Russia, Ukraine, the United States, and France. The Niger Air Force has embarked on a minor re-equipment program in the last decade, with the goal of bolstering its capabilities in the face of an uptick in Islamic State terror assaults in southern Niger near Lake Chad. Niger acquired control of close air support (CAS) aircraft and attack helicopters as part of this endeavor.
A number of modern surveillance aircraft were also obtained, including a King Air 350 ISR, two Cessna 208s, and two DA42 MPPs. The last two models are equipped with a FLIR turret and are ideal for surveillance along Nigeria's southeastern border. In 2015, the US donated two Cessna 208s to be used for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance flights over southeastern Niger. The Cessna 208s in Niger are unarmed, unlike the AC-208 Combat Caravans supplied to Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Iraq.
Two Su-25 CAS planes, two Mi-35Ps, two Mi-171Sh, and three SA342M Gazelle assault helicopters are among Niger's offensive assets. Neither of these have guided armament, but they can be fitted with a variety of rocket and gun pods. Two C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, a Dornier 228 transport aircraft, two Humbert Tetras light aircraft, and a Boeing 737 VIP transport are among the Niger Air Force's other aircraft. In 2013, Niger got two Cessna 208 Caravan aircraft from the United States, which were equipped for casualty evacuation.
Despite not having its own UAVs, Niger is in the epicenter of U(C)AV activity in Sub-Saharan Africa, thanks to the deployment of French MQ-9B Reapers in Niamey and a secretive US drone station near Agadez in central Niger. These nations' operations are almost certain to have piqued Niger's interest in operating UCAVs, and this, together with the security situation on its southern border, must have provided for a compelling case for the procurement of its own UCAV assets.
All of Niger's planes and helicopters are stationed at Niamey's Base Aérienne 101 (BA 101). Although the Niger Air Force shares the same airport grounds as Diori Hamani International Airport, it has its own runway. BA 101 is also used by French Air Force cargo planes and unmanned aerial vehicles, and it was previously the major base for US drone operations in Niger until they were moved to Agadez. Agadez (BA 201) in central Niger is another notable air base, albeit no aircraft are now stationed there permanently. Despite the fact that Diffa in southeastern Niger does not have the formal designation of an air facility, the Niger Air Force has maintained regular detachments there.
The Nigerien government has announced the creation of an air base near Diffa in view of the security situation along Niger's southeastern border. It is still unknown if this will entail the extension of Diffa airport (seen below) or the construction of a brand new air base in the area. Diffa's 1800-meter runway is long enough to accommodate the deployment of Bayraktar TB2s, and the airport has room for future expansion. In 2016, three hangars were built here, each large enough to hold many TB2s at once.
ISWA fighters have repeatedly targeted Diffa airport in protest to the Niger Air Force's use of the airfield over the last several years. Fortunately for the airport employees, most of these strikes consisted of a single 122mm rocket launched from a makeshift launcher. The precision of such a launch method is appalling at best, and no harm is known to have been done as a result of these irregular attacks. Despite this, the Niger Army reinforced its presence in the area surrounding the airport, with perimeter defenses along the length of the runway.
The Niger Army lacks weaponry, such as armour and artillery, and does not have any true multiple rocket launcher (MRL) weapons or contemporary artillery. The army's only long-range fire-support equipment are a few of 107mm Type-63 MRLs and 122mm D-30 howitzers (boasting a 8km and 15km range). Niger, unlike Chad and Nigeria, uses only wheeled armoured fighting vehicles such as the French AML-20/60/90 armoured cars and Chinese WZ-551 and WZ-523 APCs. Other notable purchases include the French ACMAT Bastion infantry mobility vehicle (IMV) and South African mine-resistant ambush protection vehicles (MRAPs). Niger will also buy armoured vehicles from Turkey, it was reported in November 2021.
The army's ability to conduct efficient patrols and pursue ISWA forces before they abandon the location or even escape into a completely different country is hampered by a shortage of contemporary protected vehicles. Ground forces are vulnerable to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and ambushes because to a shortage of MRAPs and other armoured vehicles, and they lack situational awareness in thickly forested combat areas due to a lack of modern sighting systems. Niger can take the fight to ISAW forces without having to rely exclusively on exposed ground personnel thanks to the employment of aircraft to support ground forces and independently hunt out targets.
The Forces Armées Nigériennes' main attack force currently consists of two Su-25s bought from Ukraine in 2013. While the Su-25s have a good payload of 4400kg, consisting of 100kg and 250kg bombs, 57mm UB-32 and 80mm B-8 rocket pods, or a combination of these weapon types, identifying targets in densely wooded parts of southeastern Niger would be difficult. Su-25 pilots will have a hard time tracking small groups of insurgents and their vehicles, which typically hide under trees when they hear engine noises overhead.
Despite the fact that many African governments bought Su-25s as a cheap strike aircraft, they have struggled to successfully deploy them. When they were put to use, the Su-25s' bombing accuracy was so poor that they might as well not have flown the sortie at all. Only Angola and the Ivory Coast were able to make successful use of their Su-25s, albeit in the latter's case they were almost exclusively utilized against buildings and defenses rather than quick targets like vehicles or soldiers.
Niger's attack helicopter fleet, which now consists of two Mi-35Ps, two Mi-171Shs, and three SA342M Gazelles, is slightly more successful at combating militants on the ground. All of these aircraft were recently purchased, and the Mi-171Sh in particular is regarded as a valuable asset due to its capacity to transport infantry as well as a large cargo of six rocket and gun pods. However, none of the helicopter types are currently equipped with guided weapons, and the lack of a FLIR turret means they are limited to attacking targets of opportunity.
In this sense, acquiring a large number of expensive close air support aircraft and attack helicopters without the guided armament and targeting technologies that could turn these assets into effective platforms does little to increase the actual capabilities of the armed forces that employ them. Despite the fact that Niger has several ISR aircraft that may assist the Su-25s and attack helicopters in locating targets, such synergy between different air assets is generally out of reach for small African air forces like Niger's. Despite these disadvantages, Niger's Su-25s, Mi-35Ps, and SA342Ms have repeatedly deployed in the war against ISWAP.
Although one may argue that African air forces should purchase an aircraft that combines surveillance capabilities (particularly, a FLIR turret) with the ability to fire precision-guided weapons, this has proven to be more difficult said than done. To offer just one example, while Mali and Burkina Faso both received A-29B Super Tucanos, they were delivered without FLIR or guided armament due to the aircraft's high cost or simply because the United States refused to approve their transfer to these countries. While Mali was allowed permission to purchase A-29Bs, it was barred from obtaining the FLIR systems that go with the plane.
With few choices (with the exception of the Calidus B-250 and TAI Hürku?), this circumstance effectively forces certain African governments into China's arms in order to acquire aerial weapons with PGM capabilities. China has shown that it has no problems exporting such technology to countries that are at war. Despite this, most Sub-Saharan African countries have resisted purchasing Chinese-made UCAVs, owing to their high crash rate, reliability difficulties, and still expensive acquisition costs (approaching some 15 million USD for one Wing Loong II alone).
The Bayraktar TB2 has ushered in a new era in the way current wars are conducted. This revolution is now destined to reach Africa, thanks to their price, dependability, and politically unconstrained access. The procurement of Bayraktar TB2s by Niger will enable them to effectively combat the Islamic State and carry out the same drone operations currently carried out by the US and French from Niger, all at a cost that is affordable for a country of Niger's size.
It's not out of the question that countries like Chad and Cameroon will wish to follow in the footsteps of Niger and Nigeria and acquire UCAVs as well. Given the TB2's success in Niger and Nigeria, as well as the latter's desire to buy Turkish UCAVs rather than more Chinese-made UCAVs, the TB2 may now appear to such countries as the natural choice. At a time when other African nations such as Angola and Rwanda are rumored to be interested in Turkish drones, the TB2's commercial success appears to be limitless. This should come as no surprise to those who have seen the TB2 in action, as it is arguably the first UCAV to combine reliability and cost with devastatingly effective battlefield results: a capability desperately needed in the twenty-first century.