Nigerian AH-1Z Viper production moving ahead

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Nigeria’s acquisition of 12 AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters from the United States is going ahead, with first payment made last year and sourcing of production components underway.

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 AH-1Z sale is now proceeding, with the US Department of State revealing 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.

The US and Nigeria have enjoyed a strong security partnership for more than 50 years, the US Department of State said, with the relationship “among the most important in sub-Saharan Africa, given Nigeria’s status as Africa’s most populous country.”

Recent highlights include in 2011 and 2015 Nigeria receiving $15 million in defence equipment granted under the Excess Defence Articles programme, including 24 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles and two Hamilton-class US Coast Guard high endurance cutters – the USCGC Chase and USCGC Gallatin – which entered service in the Nigerian Navy as Thunder and Okpabana in 2011 and 2014, respectively.

Since 2000, the United States has had a Status of Forces Agreement with Nigeria establishing the legal framework under which US military personnel may operate when present in Nigeria.

Nigeria participates in multiple bilateral and multilateral military exercises with the United States, including African Lion, Flintlock, and Obangame Express.

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.