The Cameroonian armed forces have been in bitter conflict with Boko Haram (now Islamic State's west Africa province) since 2014 in a bid to prevent the terrorists from expanding their foothold in the country's northern territory. Erwan de Cherisey reports.
While the elite soldiers of the Bataillon d’Intervention Rapide (BIR – Cameroon’s special forces) spearheaded initial combat with only limited support from conventional forces, the situation has evolved. Nowadays, all components of the Cameroonian Defence Forces (CDF) are involved in anti-terrorist operations.
Among these is the Cameroonian Air Force, which has experienced a significant expansion over the past few years – Cameroon has gone out of its way to provide its ground forces with additional air mobility and support assets.
With just over 30 aircraft on strength, the Cameroonian Air Force (CAF) is not a plethoric air arm. It does, however, more than make up for its limited fleet with its skilled personnel (most of the CAF’s pilots and mechanics are trained in France) and maintenance capability, something unique in central Africa, where long-term military aircraft serviceability is usually an issue.
The CAF compromises a headquarters in Yaoundé which is also home to the BA 101 (Base Aérienne 101: Air Base 101), and its two helicopter units: the 11ème Escadron (11 Squadron), which flies two Bell 206B Jet Ranger IIIs and the 12ème Escadron (12 Squadron) and its two SA330s Pumas.
Further east, not far from the border with the Central African Republic (CAR), is Bertoua and BA 102, which houses the CAF’s 13ème Escadron (13 Squadron) and its five Mi-17s.
Cameroon’s largest city and the economic capital of the country is the port of Douala, sitting on the country’s western coast. Douala has its own air base, BA 201, where all the air force’s transport aircraft are positioned.
The 21ème Escadron (21 Squadron) flies a single Xian MA60 (a Chinese-manufactured aircraft) along with an Airbus DS CN235-300 delivered in 2013, while the 22ème Escadron (22 Squadron) has two C-130Hs, delivered in 1977, and a single C-130H-30 received in 1982.
Northwest of Douala, facing neighbouring Nigeria, Bamenda’s BA 202 and its 23ème Escadron (23 Squadron) operate Cameroon’s most recently procured helicopters: three new Harbin Z9WE attack aircraft, freshly delivered in November 2014, which are capable of carrying HJ-9 antitank missiles.
A fourth Z9 is not currently operational, having suffered extensive damage following a crash landing on April 23, 2015, but should be replaced in the near future.
The northern city of Garoua and its BA301 are home to the 31ème Escadron, Cameroon’s sole fighter unit, which currently fields five Dassault Dornier Alphajet MS2s. Six of these aircraft were originally delivered in 1984 to the then newly built BA301 and latter supplemented by a seventh aircraft, as attrition replacement. The 32èmeEscadron is also based at Garoua. It
is a surveillance unit equipped with eight Humbert Tétras 912 BSM/CSM ultra-light aircraft and two AeroSynergie J300 Joker, which are mainly employed in patrol flights over Cameroon’s natural reserves and national parks, as well as along the country’s extensive borders. A pair of FK Lightplanes FK9 ELA ultralights are directly attached to the BA301’s command for the same purposes.
The Tétras are also used by the Pôle Aéronautique National à Vocation Régionale (PANVR), an aviation school used to train ultra- light pilots, observers and mechanics, sometimes as a prelude to additional preparation abroad, which was set up in 2000 under the auspices of the French military cooperation mission in Cameroon.
South of Garoua, is N’Gaoundéré and BA 302, the newest air base in the CAF and the only one which has yet to be assigned an operational squadron. With more aircraft to be delivered over the coming months, it is very likely that the base will soon be provided with a permanent flying unit.
For now, Cameroon’s extreme north is devoid of any air base, although air force detachments are frequently deployed at Maroua, or wherever their presence might be required.
Over the past few years, the CDF has embarked on an accelerated modernisation effort, procuring new patrol ships, armoured vehicles and infantry weapons, as well as several aircraft types.
Between 2012 and 2013, the transport fleet was boosted by the arrival of a single MA60, donated by China, and a CN235-300.
A second aircraft of this type, configured for maritime patrol, is expected shortly and will provide a much-needed boost to Cameroon’s naval surveillance capability in the midst of the increasing number of acts of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.
Similarly, after purchasing a total of five Mi-17s and four Z9s, the CAF is now set to receive four Mi- 24s Hinds from Russia, while the BIR’s aviation component will add two Mi-24s of its own to the two Bell 412EPs it already flies in counter-piracy operations from its base in Man O’ War Bay, near Limbé.
Unlike these, however, the Hind will be used in combat sorties against Boko Haram.
The BIR has also boosted its surveillance capabilities with the procurement of a single Cessna 208EX Caravan and is now expecting the delivery of a Boeing Insitu ScanEagle unmanned air vehicle (UAV) surveillance system.
The CAF has longer-term projects as well. There is a real understanding of the need to establish a dedicated military aviation training school in Cameroon, where air force pilots and mechanics could receive schooling instead of systematically being sent to France. Yaoundé also has a desire for a long overdue supersonic air defence capability.
While it had provided some limited logistics support to ground forces involved in the armed dispute with Nigeria over the Bakassi peninsula in the 1990s, until 2014 the CAF lacked any real combat experience against a foreign foe.
Boko Haram’s cross-border operations gave it an opportunity to fire in anger and, on December 28, 2014, a patrol of Alphajets from BA 301 struck enemy forces occupying the military outpost of Ashigashia, on the border with Nigeria.
Boko Haram had sent a strong party of its fighters to attack it, forcing the Cameroonian forces there to carry out a tactical withdrawal while requesting air support. The air strike proved devastatingly effective and forced the terrorists into a hasty withdrawal.
Airstrikes haven’t been the CAF’s only contribution to the war in the north and its Mi-17s have been committed time and again, carrying out logistics and troops transport flights as well as medevac sorties.
While Bell 206s from the 11ème Escadron are employed in liaison flights, transporting commanders from one place to another, C-130Hs and the CN235-300 provide a vital link between the country’s southern bases and the operational area in the north and a constant logistics chain in a part of the country where the road network remains insufficiently developed.
The delivery of new air assets will allow the CAF to increase its commitment in the extreme north and eventually support, not only the Cameroonian military but also the multinational joint task force (MNJTF), which is being activated in a bid to bring a definitive end to the Boko Haram insurgency.