The Nigerian Government has approved the acquisition of 24 M-346 multirole aircraft for its Air Force which will pave the way for the replacement of Alpha Jets as frontline fighters.
Ashibel P. Utsu, Defence Director for Air Force Affairs, disclosed the procurement of the twin-engine aircraft during a documentary aired on Thursday, Aug. 26, about the Air Force fleet expansion under Nigeria’s current government.
According to Utsu, authorities have concluded the contract for the first 12 M-346.
The aircraft was co-developed with Yakolev Design Bureau as YAK/AEM-130 before the Italian co-manufacturer Alenia Aermacchi went solo with the manufacturing of the platform.
In 2016, the manufacturer became Leonardo-Finmeccanica as Alenia Aermacchi merged into the new Finmeccanica, and subsequently rebranded as Leonardo in 2017.
The exact variant of the M-346 Nigeria is acquiring is unclear, however, the M-346FT (Fighter Trainer) and M-346FA (Fighter Attack) variants are advanced trainers and light combat options for the Air Force.
In the documentary, the newer M-346FA variant was shown, indicating that the service is opting for the attack-oriented version capable of operating in light combat, advanced and Lead-in Fighter Trainer (LIFT) roles, Close Air Support (CAS) missions, Air Policing and battlefield air interdiction.
This acquisition creates uncertainty around further orders of the multirole JF-17 Thunder aircraft which Nigeria has received its first batch of three aircraft. The Air Force has the option of also waiting for the JF17 Block III.
The delivery of the Leonardo M-346 advanced trainer and attack aircraft will enable the Air Force to phase out the older Alpha jets or dedicate the aircraft for non-combat missions.
In the 1980s, Nigeria acquired 24 advanced trainers and tactical-support two-seater Alpha Jet, co-manufactured by Dassault of France and Dornier of Germany.
The Air Force began receiving pre-owned Alpha Jet A tactical support-oriented variants from Air USA Inc to support the campaign against insurgents in the Northeast with two Alpha Jets (NAF475 and NAF477) in March and May 2015, a third (NAF478) in June 2016 and a fourth (NAF476) in December 2018.
Over the past years, the Alpha Jets have been the workhorse of the combat fixed-wing aircraft fleet conducting numerous operations across the country, alongside the F7-NI fighter jets which are currently offline due to maintenance, and recently, the L-39ZA Albatros light attack and trainer aircraft were weaponised and subsequently deployed for combat operations.
The Alpha Jet was also used for regional operations under Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) duties in the 1990s, African-led International Support Mission to Mali in 2013 and ECOWAS Mission in The Gambia in 2017.