Report estimates $50m cost for developing Somali air force

MI-17 helicopters like the kind envisioned for Somalia's national air force.

A new World Bank report on security sector financing in Somalia estimates that it would cost about $50 million for the country to build up a modest air force over the next ten years.

Currently Somalia has about 170 Air Force personnel, but no aviation assets.

The World Bank says that the country needs to increase tax revenues in order to be able to maintain its current military capabilities and add new ones like an air arm.

“Given the size of government revenues, the current security sector in Somalia is unaffordable without an above-trend increase in revenue. Estimates for domestic security and justice expenditures range from about $150-220 million per year over the coming ten year period, depending on the cost scenario,” the World Bank reported.

The World Bank considered a scenario in which the country developed an air arm over a 10 year period costing about $50 million.

Historically, prior to the civil war, Somalia operated an air force with a mixture of fast jets, fixed-wing transport aircraft and helicopters, with external support for training and logistics provided by partners, such as Russia and Italy. Somali military aircraft were based at a number of airfields throughout the country but all were destroyed during the conflict and there is now little remaining of the infrastructure or expertise to re-create a Somali air force.

Nonetheless, the Somali National Air Force (SNAF) is currently receiving training from Turkey with the aim of developing an aviation capability. The force would be able to help military units by providing airlifts, rapid resupply, medical evacuation and reconnaissance.

“Building an air force is usually considered to be a complex proposition, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa… Nevertheless operating even a modest Air Force can have significant benefits,” says the report. It cites practical military benefits as well as the intangible value of “flying the flag” as a morale-booster.

Challenges include high maintenance costs, training costs, and the difficulty of retaining qualified pilot and technician talent away from the lure of the private sector. “It is perhaps telling that even AMISOM has faced difficulties in deploying an aviation capability within Somalia,” the report cautions.

What might a Somali National Air Force look like? And what would it cost? As yet, however, there are no detailed plans. But the World Bank referred to “notional” plans for a small air arm with two medium utility helicopters (Mil Mi-17) and two light utility airplanes (Britten Norman Islander) crewed by 10 pilots and with 15 skilled maintenance technicians.

In this scenario the highest costs are the up-front investment for the four aircraft (est. $21.5m), airfield infrastructure (est. $3.1m), and training for the pilots and mechanics ($2.48m), while the operational cost would depend on the number of flight hours flown.

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The scenario depends on a “very conservative estimate” for operational costs based on a modest number of flight hours flown per year per aircraft (250 for the Mi-17s and 500 for the Islanders). This would put the annual operational costs at about $1.75m and costs of wages and “rare skill bonuses” at $450,000 annually.

The cost of building an air force would need to be weighed against other potential priorities, including the army, coast guard, pensions and demobilization and reintegration programs.

World Bank emphasized in its report that it wasn’t making any policy recommendations to develop a national air force in Somalia or not, it was only making an estimate of what it might cost to do so. The report noted that strategic decision-making in the country lies in the hands of the military, finance ministry and political actors like the parliament and president.

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