by DAVID AXE
Second-hand F-5 jet fighters belonging to the tiny, untested Kenyan air force are spearheading a risky Kenyan invasion of southern Somalia aimed at destroying a Somali terror group.
On Oct. 17, around 2,000 Kenyan troops invaded southern Somalia. Their goal: to destroy Al Shabab, an Islamic terror group with ties to sea pirates, and whose agents were allegedly behind a string of kidnappings on Kenyan soil in recent weeks.
Reinforcements have boosted the Kenyan invasion force to some 4,000 people.
The attack — Kenya’s first major military operation in decades — began with an aerial bombardment of suspected Al-Shabab encampments near the Kenyan border. The Kenyan’s main target is Kismayo, a southern Somali port town that has been a staging area for Al Shabab and pirates.
Roughly 18 Northrop-built F-5Es and Fs represent the major combat capability of the Kenyan air force. Nairobi originally purchased F-5s from the U.S. in the late 1970s; in 2008 Nairobi spent $23 million to acquire another 15 used F-5s from the Jordanian air force. The Jordanian jets were reportedly in poor shape.
Even in pristine condition, the F-5 is a rudimentary combat aircraft by current standards. The relative inexperience of Kenya’s fighter pilots, combined with their warplane’s intrinsic limitations, could translate into only a very basic fighting capability. In the last decade the U.S. military has provided at least $50 million in training and logistical support to the Kenyans; indeed, Scott Gration, the U.S. ambassador to Kenya, was once an Air Force adviser to the Kenyan military. It’s unclear whether U.S. assistance included systems upgrades for the F-5s.
Considering the small size, poor condition and inexperience of Kenya’s fighter force, it’s perhaps surprising that the F-5s have been so busy over Somalia. But there are signs that the high operational tempo is taking a toll. Two F-5s reportedly collided and crashed near Kismayo last week. And an F-5 mistakenly bombed Somali refugees at a camp also near Kismayo, reportedly killing five civilians.
The U.S. Air Force, the world’s leader in surgical air strikes, uses air controllers on the ground plus aerial surveillance drones to guide warplane attacks. It’s possible that the Americans are helping the Kenyans in that regard. The Air Force recently began flying MQ-9 Reaper spy drones over Somalia from a base in Ethiopia. The Reapers can carry video cameras, radars and designators for laser-guided bombs. The drones themselves can be armed, but those in Ethiopia reportedly do not carry weapons.
The Reapers could be spotting targets for Kenya’s F-5s. If so, it’s not clear how the targeting data is being transmitted from the drones to the fighters. U.S. manned warplanes can interface directly with Reapers and other drones, but it seems unlikely that Kenya’s outmoded F-5s have the same ability.