The Nigerian Air Force’s forthcoming acquisition of twenty-four M-346 Master aircraft from Italy’s Leonardo is generating considerable interest in the defence industry. With discussions already underway regarding the selection of armament for these advanced aircraft, several prominent defence companies have been approached to provide the necessary munitions, missiles, precision-guided bombs, and rockets.
The deal, estimated to be worth around €1.2 billion, marks a significant step in Nigeria’s ongoing efforts to modernize its air force. The M-346 Master aircraft will replace the aging Dassault Alpha jet A/E, enhancing the country’s aerial capabilities and bolstering its defence strategies. The aircraft is expected to be delivered to the Nigerian Air Force in 2024.
The selection of armament for these aircraft is crucial to their operational effectiveness, and Nigerian defence authorities have engaged with several renowned companies to fulfill these requirements. According to Africa Intelligence, Ebony Enterprises, an Israeli intermediary company, has played a pivotal role in reaching out to potential suppliers for this vital aspect of the aircraft’s deployment.
Various munitions and stores can be carried, including IRIS-T or AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, various air-to-surface missiles, anti-ship missiles, free-fall and laser-guided bombs and rockets, a 12.7 mm gun pod, reconnaissance and targeting pods, and electronic warfare pods. Weapon aiming is performed using the Helmet Mounted Display and the multifunction displays.
Among the prominent defence companies approached for the armament of Nigeria’s M-346 Master aircraft are French Thales, Israeli Elbit Systems, and European Nexter. These companies bring a wealth of experience and expertise in providing advanced weaponry and support systems for military aircraft.
These new aircraft will join the ranks of the growing Nigerian Air Force. They will replace the Alpha Jet A/E aircraft that are reaching the end of their service life. The M-346s will come between the 12 A-29 Super Tucano ordered in 2019 and the 3 JF-17C Thunder in service since 2016. The multi-purpose aircraft will complement the anti-guerrilla warfare conducted by the Super Tucano in the north of the country and provide air-to-air support to the new JF-17 Thunder for air defence. With this purchase, the NAF will have the most powerful air force in the region, especially since it also has a fleet of armed Chinese and Turkish drones.
The M-346 Master, co-developed with the Yakolev Design Bureau as the YAK/AEM-130, has undergone a series of developments and improvements. The Italian aerospace manufacturer Alenia Aermacchi (now part of Leonardo) has played a significant role in advancing the aircraft’s capabilities. The M-346 Master’s diverse roles, including lead-in flight training (LIFT) and multi-mission capabilities, make it a valuable addition to the Nigerian Air Force’s fleet.
As part of a sole-source contract, Leonardo will be responsible for delivering aircraft, training, support, and munitions to Nigeria. This partnership also includes a training component in collaboration with the Italian Air Force, where Nigerian Air Force pilots will receive training at the International Flight Training School of Galatina and the Decimomannu airbase in Sardinia.
Elbit Systems and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, known for their expertise in avionics and advanced weaponry, will supply crucial components, including the PESA radar system and various munitions. These contributions will enhance the M-346 Master’s operational capabilities, enabling it to fulfill multiple roles, such as ground support, air-to-ground attack, close air support (CAS), and interdiction, with precision-guided munitions.
The M-346 Master aircraft boasts several advanced features, including the Grifo-M346 radar system, an integrated Helmet Mounted Display (HMD) system, night vision goggles (NVG), voice command systems, and comprehensive navigation and communication tools. The digital glass cockpit accommodates two pilots in a tandem configuration, supported by a four-channel fly-by-wire flight control system, ensuring mission reliability and flight safety.
In Nigeria, the M-346 Master aircraft will serve a dual role, conducting training duties and performing close air support, ground and maritime strike missions, patrol missions, and acting as a second echelon in air defence operations. Its multi-mission capabilities and advanced armament will further bolster Nigeria’s military readiness and its ability to respond to a range of security challenges.
The acquisition of these advanced M-346 Master aircraft represents a significant leap forward for the Nigerian Air Force, demonstrating the country’s commitment to enhancing its military capabilities and securing its national interests. As the aircraft’s delivery approaches, the choice of armament will be a critical factor in determining its success in various operational roles.