by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.
In West Africa’s struggle against the militant Islamist organization Boko Haram, the Military of Chad have played a vital role. In particular, the Chadian Air Force has been instrumental in this fight, providing reconnaissance and close air support (CAS) for Cameroonian and Nigerien ground troops repelling attacks from Boko Haram. Although there has been an increase in asymmetric attacks in Nigeria so far this year, including suicide bombings, Boko Haram has reportedly been pushed back to a few remaining strongholds around Lake Chad, thanks in part to air support from Chad.
However, efforts to bring a “quick and final end” to Boko Haram may have suffered a severe setback on July 1, 2017. On that day, an unusually devastating storm struck N’Djaména, the Chadian capital, and levelled many hangars. The extent of the impact this will have on Chadian airpower is currently unclear, but it appears the storm badly damaged three of Chad’s six AS350/AS550C Fennec helicopters, along with two of its ten Sukhoi Su-25 ground attack aircraft. The status of the rest of the Chadian aircraft fleet – which includes three Mil Mi-8/17 helicopters, five Mil Mi-24 helicopter gunships, two Aérospatiale SA316 Alouette III helicopters, and one MiG-29 fighter jets – is also not currently known.
The loss of two Su-25 ground attack aircraft will hamper Chad’s capacity to provide CAS in future operations against Boko Haram, but any damage suffered by the Mi-24 helicopter gunships would have even greater implications for the region. Due to ongoing economic troubles, Chad’s President Idriss Déby Itno threatened as recently as June 25, 2017 to withdraw Chadian troops from international peacekeeping missions, such as the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). As such, it is doubtful Chad would have the resources necessary to replace any aircraft damaged beyond repair by the storm.To fill the gap, newly installed French President Emmanuel Macron may have to expand the French commitment to Operation Barkhane, a multinational effort in place since 2014 to counter militant Islamist groups like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Mourabitoun, and Ansar al-Dine. The French Air Force continues to maintain a presence in N’Djaména; in fact, two of its CN-235 transport aircraft may have also been lightly damaged by the storm that so affected the Chadian fleet. But France reduced the size of its fighter complement in the region: In August/September 2016, France withdrew its Détachement Hélicoptère Air with its Aérospatiale SA 330 Puma from Madama in Niger as well as four Dassault Rafale fighters from N’Djaména but maintaining the presence of four Dassault Mirage 2000 fighters in Niamey, Niger. Though a very reasonable way of distributing resources, especially as the fight against Boko Haram shifted toward southeast Niger, the return to N’Djaména of French fighters would ensure the pressure stays on the insurgency.
Such a gesture of continued commitment to the region could also go some way toward assuaging the Chadian political establishment’s concerns. As of this writing, Chad has deployed approximately 2,000 troops as part of a regional force to counter Boko Haram, but it has also contributed more than 1,400 troops to the aforementioned MINUSMA and several police to the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO). In 2013-2014, during the initial intervention in Mali, Chadian troops saw the worst of the fighting against a collection of militant Islamist and secessionist groups. Given President Déby’s comments, there is a growing sentiment in Chad that the costs of these missions have not been in proportion to Chadian national interests.
Chad is prone to instability as well. For example, from 2005 to 2010, a civil war raged in Chad that saw an estimated 7,000 people killed. Chadian political elites have a vested interest in seeing the bulk of troops returned to Chad soon, regardless of whether Boko Haram is fully defeated, in order to maintain public order. A premature withdrawal of 2,000-strong troop contingent would be forestalled by bolstering regional airpower.
It is difficult to say whether the Military of Chad will be able to recover in the next few years from the storm of July 1, 2017, but there is no doubt that the region needs an airpower boost if the threat posed to international peace and security by Boko Haram is to be ended.