Let's clarify Nigeria's purchase order for 24 M-346FA jets

Leonardo M346 order Nigeria
Leonardo M346 advanced jet trainer.

Nigerian media recently confirmed the purchase of 24 Leonardo M-346FA light combat aircraft by Nigeria. According to them, the deal has already been signed and 'At least six aircraft will be delivered before Q3/2021.' The Italian-made platform would be intended to replace the older Alpha Jet ground attack aircraft of the Nigerian Air Force (NAF).

However it is clear that something is wrong. Six months for the production and testing of six light fighters are very few and Leonardo, like all arospace companies, does not have any new off-the-shelf aircraft.

Over the past few months we have talked about the great efforts the NAF is making to restore some of the older F-7NI and L-39ZA jets. Why would the nation allocate funds for these activities if it is about to receive new trainers/LCA?

Let's take a look at the NAF fleet. It is very varied, currently it includes 9 Chengdu F-7s, 13 Alpha Jets, 8 L-39 Albatros, 3 A-29 Super Tucanos and 6 Aermacchi MB-339s. These will soon be joined by 12 Super Tucanos and 3 JF-17 Thunders that the nation ordered in 2018.

The new Super Tucano will include Paveway II guided bombs, laser-guided rockets and infrared sensors and will be used to support counterterrorism, counter insurgency, border surveillance, and illicit trade interdiction operations. The Thunders, on the other hand, will mainly guarantee air superiority. The nation plans to introduce 25/40 of them (the 3 aircraft already acquired are for familiarization). This means that Nigeria has already made its choice on the future combat fleet and it is unlikely 'under a rationalization strategy' that other types of fighters will be added. So what role could the M-346 play in the modernized NAF fleet?

Nigeria will soon need new trainer jets, especially to train pilots for modern JF-17 fighters, and the M-346 is among the best for that role. We are quite sure that Abuja has not finalized a deal for the Italian aircraft, but we do not exclude that it has sent an RFI to Leonardo.

Bilateral relations between Italy and Nigeria are excellent and have lasted for decades, Nigeria is Italy's main trading partner in sub-Saharan Africa after South Africa. It is one of the most important customers for the Italian defense industry in the area, for several years the NAF has been operating different types of 'Italian-made' fixed and rotary wing military aircraft.

It is unlikely that the parties involved will be able to release official news on this topic as the sales of arms to Nigeria are subject to restrictions, but we can say for sure that the purchase of new LCA has never been included in the latest budget documents of the nation. They mainly involved the procurement of many spare parts to restore the jet fleet on the ground.

We believe that the choice of additional LCA should have prevailed over that of the JF-17 as the nation has most urgent requirements for close air support and counter insurgency capabilities, however the choice has already been made and the first NAF Thunder pilots are under training in Pakistan.

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Written by Matteo Sanzani
Photo Credit: Leonardo

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