Bell awarded Nigerian AH-1Z Viper contract

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Nearly two years after the sale was approved, Bell Textron has been awarded a $455 million contract for the production and delivery of 12 AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters to Nigeria.

The US Department of Defence announced the sale on 12 March, stating the contract also includes engineering, programme management and logistics support. Work is expected to be completed in July 2028.

In April 2022 the US approved the possible sale of 12 Bell AH-1Zs to Nigeria for $997 million. The proposed deal included 28 T-700 GE 401C engines, 2 000 Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS) guidance sections, M197 20 mm guns, sighting systems, night vision equipment, technical and logistics support.

Nigeria had for some time shown interest in acquiring AH-1Z helicopters, but the deal was put on hold over concerns about possible human rights abuses by the Nigerian government. Under former President Barack Obama’s administration, arms sales to Nigeria were cut back, but when Donald Trump assumed power in 2016, his administration agreed to sell Nigeria 12 A-29 Super Tucano turboprops manufactured in the United States by Sierra Nevada Corporation, and these have been used to combat terrorists.

The US Department of State revealed that in August 2023, “Nigeria delivered the first payment for 12 AH-1Z attack helicopters worth a total of $997 million. The FMS [Foreign Military Sales] case includes an additional $25 million of funding allocated for Nigeria’s AGI programme, which continues to train the AFN [Armed Forces of Nigeria] on developing targeting processes that are legally compliant with International Humanitarian Law.”

On 19 December 2023, the US Department of Defence announced a contract awarded to Northrop Grumman for the production and delivery of an additional 32 “H-1 tech refresh mission computers in support of the AH-1Z aircraft for the government of Nigeria”. Work is expected to be completed in June 2024.

The AH-1Z programme was originally launched in 1996 by the US Marine Corps; the AH-1Z first flew in December 2000. The Viper model features a 10 000 flight-hour airframe, higher rated transmission system, a new four-bladed tail rotor and drive system, upgraded landing gear and new foldable four-bladed hingeless and bearingless main rotor system. The new rotor configuration provides greater agility, a higher top speed, faster climb rate, and reduced vibration. Top speed is 370 km/h and cruise speed 260 km/h.

New avionics include a full digital/glass cockpit with large multifunction liquid crystal displays and TopOwl helmet mounted displays. The TopOwl system has a day/night capability and its visor projects forward looking infrared or video imagery.

The AH-1Z is powered by two General Electric T700-GE-401C engines (1 800 shp each) that greatly increase its ordnance payload compared to older AH-1 models. The engines have infrared suppression systems to reduce the exhaust signature.

The AH-1Z’s primary weapon system is the Hellfire missile, 16 of which can be carried. In addition two AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles can be carried, together with rocket launchers. The helicopter’s main gun is a 20 mm cannon.

Apart from the AH-1Zs, the Nigerian Army is acquiring 12 MD 530F Cayuse Warrior helicopters from MD Helicopters, and in November last year received the first of six T-129 ATAK helicopters from Turkish Aerospace Industries.