The Somali Digest’s newest analysis seeks to answer the question of whether the SNA’s new helicopters can advance the fight on al-Shabaab. On an unknown date in July, the Somali National Army (SNA) received two twin-engine Bell 412 multipurpose helicopters, with another three reportedly on their way to Mogadishu. The helicopters should significantly increase the SNA’s capabilities.
SOMALIA. Analysis by Phillip:
While the origin of these aircraft remains unknown, the U.S. Defence Security Cooperation Agency highlighted their ability to “execute counterinsurgency operations, border security, search and rescue, and support for the civilian population.” An unnamed military official also praised the multi-role nature of the aircraft as well as its ability to carry out medical evacuations and combat operations.
These aircraft are likely or may have already been deployed in a medical evacuation role. Video footage the Minister of Defence Abdulkadir Mohamed Nur recently shared on X shows one helicopter firing rockets at an unidentified location, which may indicate that they are already being used in combat. Nonetheless, the army likely still undertakes live-fire training, too.
Added firepower for the SNA
While providing air support in the form of rockets and machinegun fire will provide a valuable source of firepower against al-Shabaab insurgents, the Bell 412 can also transport up to 14 combat-equipped military personnel at a time. With training, this would allow the SNA to use its new aircraft to interdict groups of insurgents and engage them with a dismounted assault or even conduct snap checkpoints on roads to interrupt the movement of fighters, weapons and other supplies.
SNA soldiers would also be able to insert into areas suspected of containing insurgents to conduct search-and-clear operations with the helicopters overwatching them from the air. Such operations will be most useful in rural and remote areas. The risk of al-Shabaab having DShK/Type-85 12.7mm, KPV/ZPU 14.5mm heavy machineguns, or the rarer ZSU23-2 23mm anti-aircraft cannons deployed there is less than other areas closer to major military bases, larger settlements and cities. Nevertheless, the fire from RPG-7/Type-69 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, PKM/Type-80 7.62×54mm machinegun and even the common AKM(S)/Type-54 7.62×39mm assault rifle would still lose a very real threat the helicopters.
Lessons from Nigeria and Algeria
Of interest will be whether the SNA will use the Bell 412 similarly like the STTEP International, a private military company, and the Nigerian military, in 2015 against Boko Haram. Employing the strategy of ‘relentless pursuit’, the Nigerian military liberated significant amounts of territory and inflicted heavy losses on thje insurgents. In this strategy, light infantry turns the tables on an insurgent by “running him to ground, exhausting him, and then killing him with overwhelming firepower”; with helicopters used to leap-frog soldiers into positions to block their line of retreat. Counter-insurgency campaigns in Algeria (1954-1962) and Rhodesia/Zimbabwe (1964-1979) employed similar tactics.
In the case of Algeria, the French military established commandos de chase tracking units for the specific purpose of hunting down, exhausting and then eliminating bands of insurgents. An example of this occurred at a place called Djebel Ergou in March 1958. The 9th Régiment de Chasseurs Parachutistes destroyed a band of insurgents by ruthlessly driving them in one direction while deploying personnel to cut off any avenue of retreat via a helicopter-borne aerial envelopment.
Lessons from Rhodesia
In the case of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), soldiers used helicopters to aggressively engage or block the movement of insurgents. The teams deployed only three or four soldiers per aircraft due to the limited space available on the RhAF Alouettes that were on loan from the South African Air Force. Each ‘Fire Force’ or ‘Stick’ then responded to insurgent attacks on farms, ambushes or calls for support by patrols in contact with the enemy.
This tactic allowed Rhodesian soldiers to possess the tactical initiative and carry out an aggressive fight against the enemy, which resulted in a high kill count of insurgents and high morale among personnel. The speed and the aggression of the tactic also helped allow the Rhodesian Security Forces, which numbered at their height no more than 15,000 personnel, to successfully take the fight to an enemy that was at least three times its size by the end of the conflict.
Taking the war to al-Shabaab
It remains to be seen how the SNA will deploy its new Bell 412 helicopters against the Somali insurgents. Unlike the French army in Algeria or the Rhodesian Security Forces, the SNA will have the benefit of technologies such as drones to assist them in finding and engaging in a ‘relentless pursuit’ the al-Shabaab fighters. It would therefore be a matter of training its Danab and Gorgor special forces on how to conduct air-assault operations, a tactic that international partners such as the United States, United Kingdom, Turkey and others have extensive experience with.
However, even if the SNA does not attempt to conduct air assault operations similar to those seen historically in Algeria and Rhodesia, as well as more recently in Nigeria, the introduction of helicopters capable of providing air support or medical evacuation represents a significant boost to its capabilities.
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