Kenya recently acquired a deadly — albeit old — weapon: The Bell AH-1F Cobra attack helicopter.
Though the Kenya Air Force acquired the aircraft over a year ago, they have not flown any missions and now some pilots and air technicians are quietly raising questions over the airworthiness of the helicopters.
Air Force officers claim that the issue of the Cobra helicopters, which one officer described as “scrap metal”, is being hushed up in the military.
The story of the Cobras, the world’s first production attack helicopters, which were acquired discreetly, first came to light in May last year, when a video was posted online showing the Kenya Air Force (KAF) receiving a stripped down Cobra at the Laikipia Air Base.
A month later, the Kingdom of Jordan announced that it had donated the Cobras to Kenya in a deal in which the US-manufacturer, the Bell Helicopter Company, reported that it would provide training and maintenance for the Cobras.
Recently, the Air Force also acquired the Fennec AS350 B3 light attack and scout helicopter. The Fennec, which was for the first time displayed to the public during the KDF Day, is also yet to be deployed.
Despite increased attacks along the border with Somalia, the Cobras are sitting unused at the Kenya Air Force.
The KDF spokesman, Lt-Col Paul Njuguna, termed the lack of flying for the war machine as “normal”, disputing claims that the helicopters have been grounded.
“Pilot training and conversion is still ongoing. This is to ensure that we remain a mission-capable force that is deeply rooted in professionalism,” Lt-Col Njuguna told the Nation, insisting that the helicopters are in serviceable condition.
This official narrative is disputed by KAF officers who say they have a pool of qualified pilots who have successfully trained to fly the Cobras.
“The excuses for non-deployment range from that the helicopters are too old to fly in critical missions, to lack of spare parts and appropriate ammunition,” an officer in the military well-versed with the issue, said.
The Cobra has a good reputation globally as a top fighter. It was designed, built and deployed to the battlefield in just over two years.
“We are wondering why such a good helicopter with a high reputation globally is not being involved in missions locally or in Somalia?” an officer asked.
The AH-1F Cobra was the backbone of the United States Army’s attack helicopter fleet until the late 1990s when it was replaced by the more lethal AH-64 Apache. Although it is no longer used by the US Army, the Cobra is the primary attack helicopter for the United States Marine Corps.
According to the Marine Corps, the Cobra is well adapted to operating in severe environments and is simple to maintain compared to many of its more complex international counterparts.
The Cobra helicopter’s maiden combat flight was in 1967 in the Vietnam War.
According to reports on respected military and security sites, the Cobras procured by Kenya are believed to have been part of about 60 helicopters, which the Israeli Ministry of Defence, in August 2013, after years of service, declared unsafe to fly and prone to accidents.
When the Israelis put them up for sale in 2014, Nigeria was among the first to bid for them. The deal did not go through as the Obama administration in January 2015 suspended the sale of the US-made helicopters, arguing that they risked being deployed against civilians and thus could be used to perpetrate human rights abuses.
Then in mid-2015, Israel transferred 16 of the Cobras to the Royal Jordanian Air Force, to be used in the fight against ISIS, with the Jordanian Army saying they could be used as spare parts for its 25 Cobras already in service.
Questions are being asked if the Cobras delivered to Kenya were part of the unwanted helicopters in Israel, which were donated to Jordan for use as spare parts.
In July last year, KDF announced that it was receiving an undisclosed number of second-hand Bell AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters from the Kingdom of Jordan. The attack helicopters were to be used in the fight against Al-Shabaab.
Although they were to be deployed to the Kenya Army’s 50th Air Cavalry Division, the Cobras are currently stationed with the Kenya Air Force.
The AH-1F Cobra can fire missiles, has machine guns and can serve as a ground attack support gunship helicopter.
This is not the first time that a military deal between Kenya and Jordan is coming under scrutiny.
In October 2010, Parliament was informed that the Department of Defence had acquired 15 fighter jets from Jordan, which were substandard. A damning report tabled by the then Defence and Foreign Affairs Committee chairperson led to the stepping aside of the Foreign Affairs Minister and his PS.