Kenya's firm foundation

Kenya's expanding air force is one of the most efficient and best equipped in Africa that does not rely on Russian equipment or support.


Two of Kenya Army Aviation’s recently-delivered MD530F Cayuse Warriors at Embakasi Barracks, Nairobi. PICTURE: Combined Joint Task Force-Horn

Kenya’s 2023 defence budget showed a small increase over 2022’s to US$1.3 billion.

Its armed forces are mainly concerned with threats from al-Shabaab fighters from neighbouring Somalia, while its troops are deployed to support the United Nations missions MINUSCA in the Central Africa Republic and MONUSCA in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and with the African Union’s African Transition Mission in Somalia.

Kenya has reaffirmed its defence and security agreement with the United Kingdom, which provides a permanent UK training unit within the country. It also has a strong relationship with the United States and the Cooperative Security Location Manda Bay remains an operational base for US AFRICOM.   

In January 2020 Manda Bay’s nearby Magagoni Airfield was attacked by al-Shabaab militants who destroyed six US aircraft and one Kenyan. During the raid a Kenyan helicopter provided close air support to suppress the raiders and a separate Kenyan helicopter transported a wounded US serviceman to a civilian airport for evacuation. Lt Gen Basham, deputy commander of US Air Forces in Europe and Africa said: “Without question, the swift, skillful, and courageous response of the Kenyan Defense Force saved many lives that day.”

The Kenya Air Force’s motto is “We are firm in the sky” and it is one of the most efficient and best equipped in Africa that does not rely on Russian equipment or support.

Moi Air Base in Eastleigh, Nairobi Moi Airport, is the headquarters while other bases include forward operating bases (FOB) at Mandera, Wajir and Nyeri.

The Kenya Air Force’s (KAF’s) number two squadron flies 17 Northrop F-5EM and four F-5FM Tiger II, former Jordanian fighter aircraft from Laikipia Air Base in Nanyuki, while basic and advanced training is carried out by eight former RAF Scottish Aviation Bulldog 103s, nine Grob G120TPs with two more on order, and 11 Short Tucanos.

The KAF’s latest acquisition has been three Leonardo C-27J Spartans which are operated by No 1 Squadron alongside three former USAF PZL C-145A Skytrucks. Kenya does have ties with China and has operated eight Harbin Y-8 light transport aircraft that are being replaced by the Skytrucks after three had been lost in accidents. The C-145A aircraft will be use for medical evacuation and aerial resupply. They also can be reconfigured for precision combat airdrops, search and rescue and disaster relief missions.

China also supplied six Harbin Z-9WE helicopters, which are among a diverse KAF rotary-wing fleet that includes 10 Aerospatiale SA330 Pumas, seven Bell UH-1H Huey IIs, three AgustaWestland AW139s and a single Mil Mi171E. Three Bell AH-1F Cobras donated by Jordan in 2017 are the air force’s only attack helicopters although its eight Airbus Helicopters H125M Fennecs can also be armed.

The air force AH-1 Cobra helicopters together with the Army's 50th Air Cavalry helicopters are controlled by the Joint Helicopter Command based at Embakasi Garrison. The Kenya Army Aviation operates a fleet of 33 Hughes 500M/MD Scout Defenders and has recently taken delivery of six MD Helicopters MD530F Cayuse Warrior scout and light-attack helicopters.

A Rapid Deployment Squadron (RDS), the newest special forces unit among all three branches of the Kenya Defence Forces, is predominantly tasked with the recovery of downed airmen in hostile territory, but it can carry out other specially assigned tasks. The unit was established after a downed F-5 pilot went missing in action in al-Shabaab held territory in Southern Somalia. This led to the need of a tactical quick response unit to respond in such emergencies as the search and rescue mission for the downed airman was hampered by the lack of a dedicated response unit. This RDS is headquartered at Laikipia Air Base and it also maintains an FOB at Wajir Airport in North Eastern Kenya.

The Kenya Air Force has a much better safety record than those of other African nations, but it suffered a spike of helicopter accidents in 2023. On July 20 an H125M Fennec operated by No 655 Squadron, struck a tree during a take-off attempt from a school in Baringo County injuring two crew members. On September 18 an UH-1H crashed in Lamu County with eight fatalities and on November 9 two Kenya crew members were injured after their Fennec crashed in the Kisamis area of Kajiado West.

However, one type of aircraft so far not included in the Kenya Air Force’s itinerary is a dedicated training helicopter.

David Oliver

David Oliver

David has been a photojournalist for more than 40 years specialising in aerospace and defence.