The Tunisian Air Force will in the second half of this year take delivery of 8 of the 12 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters ordered from the United States last year.
The helicopter deal was sealed in August following a visit to Washington by former Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki who asked President Barrack Obama for urgent and more lethal military assistance to help the country combat the spill-over of militant groups from neighbouring Libya into his country.
The United States in July last year gave approval for the sale of 12 Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters to Tunisia, worth $700 million including equipment, parts, training and logistical support. Delivery was scheduled for between 2017 and 2018, a date which Tunisian says has been brought forward to later this year due to heightened terrorist activity inside the country.
In an interview local radio station Shems FM on Friday, Ministry of National Defence spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Belhassen Oueslati said after fresh consultations, the two governments agreed on a late 2015 delivery after considering the urgent need to contain the worsening terrorist threat.
The UH-60M Black Hawk variant Tunisia will receive is the most advanced model of the UH-60/S-70 series, and features the ability to be armed with rockets and missiles. Tunisia has requested Battlehawk kits that effectively turn the aircraft into attack helicopters with 2.75 in laser guided rockets, Hellfire missiles, 7.62 mm and .50 cal machineguns, and thermal imagers and laser designators.
“These (UH-60) helicopters will be used to carry troops and launch attacks and will represent a qualitative jump in our means for fighting terrorism,” Oueslati said. The Tunisian army has been battling various militant groups allied to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) since late 2012.
The groups, which have dug themselves into the Chaamba Mountains on the eastern border with Libya, have mounted deadly bombing attacks on the security forces operating in the area.
Despite intense and often-repeated bombing campaigns by a combined ground and aerial offensive, the militants have consolidated their hold amid warnings that they are getting fresh supplies of weapons and fighters from Libya and militant groups across the Maghreb.
The Libyan/Tunisian based Ansar Al Sharia is one of a growing number North African offshoots of AQIM which have recently switched allegiance to the Iraq/Syria based Islamic State, effectively setting up the North African arm of Islamic State and opening a new war front for the group.
The expansion of ISIL into Libya and eastern Tunisia has exposed the army’s lack of capacity in the fight against the regional threat of jihadist militancy. According to Oueslati, the army says lacks training in planning and carrying out advanced counter-terrorism operations.
The Tunisian Air Force recently took delivery of a second C-130J from the US as part of efforts to boost the cargo and troop airlift capabilities. The US is also working to strengthen the operational capabilities of the Tunisian navy and donated two 13.5 metre patrol boats to that end last year.
In August last year the United States donated 10 tonnes of protective equipment including helmets, shields and bullet proof vests to equip the special counter-terrorism units of the Tunisian army National Guard and police force.
Tunisia is among the six African countries part of the new US-led Security Governance Initiative (SGI) that will help nations to strengthen security oversight and management. The US has provided Tunisia with military aid worth over $100 million since the uprising which toppled former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali early in 2011. The country is set to receive military aid worth more than $60 million in 2015 and this includes Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) detectors and detonators and an undisclosed number of boats for the navy.