Ruto secures 16 helicopters from US amid aging fleet concerns

Kenya police helicopter in action during the Equator African Rally Championship on April 25, 2021. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

In a move aimed at bolstering Kenya's security and peacekeeping capabilities, President William Ruto secured 16 US-made helicopters during his recent State visit to the United States of America.

This acquisition, announced by the White House, includes eight Hueys for regional peace and security operations and eight MD-500s for peacekeeping missions.

The delivery of these helicopters is expected to begin in late 2024 and continue through 2025.

“The delivery of the 16 helicopters marks a significant milestone in U.S-Kenya defense cooperation. The Hueys will enhance Kenya’s regional security capabilities, while the MD-500s will support peacekeeping missions,” the White House said.

But why did the president seek such assistance? We met and spoke to the men and women who use the country's supply of Aircrafts in our security services and can now reveal that Kenya's Defence Forces (KDF) currently face significant challenges with their aircraft fleet.

Of the 130 aircrafts acquired in the last 46 years, only 27 remain fully operational. The remaining aircrafts have either crashed or been grounded due to maintenance issues. This operational constraint is starkly evident in the Kenya Air Force (KAF), where out of 19 aircrafts, only seven are dedicated to security operations, while 12 are allocated for Very Very Important Persons (VVIPs), who as we found out in our investigations, engage mostly in political activity.

The president has at his disposal three Agusta AW 139 helicopters, while his deputy has two Agusta helicopters, all designated for VVIP use and operated by the Kenya Defence Forces. The two AW 139 helicopters in Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua’s fleet were formerly utilised by the police for surveillance purposes.

They were also among the aircraft acquired by the police for Sh4 billion but moved to the deputy president's office after the Kenya Kwanza government took over. The KDF-controlled National Air Support Department (NASD) transformed and rebranded them for use by the DP's office.

NASD was launched on December 20, 2020 by then president Uhuru Kenyatta, as a multi-agency aviation department to coordinate and provide centralised management of all state-owned aircrafts to enhance efficiency and cost-effectiveness in service delivery to the public.

Before an aircraft can earn its wings in service with the Kenya Air Force (KAF), it undergoes rigorous acceptance trials conducted by a specialised military unit within the KDF known as the Air Force Squadron Unit. This elite group of engineers, pilots, and skilled personnel meticulously test each aircraft to ensure it meets operational standards.

Once certified, the aircraft is officially registered with the Kenyan Air Force and operated from Laikipia Air Base in Nanyuki, which is the main fighter base. The other bases are Wajir Air Base in Wajir County and Moi Air Base in Eastleigh, Nairobi, which is the headquarters.

Other bases include Forward Operating Base (FOB) Mombasa (Moi International Airport), FOB Mandera, FOB Manda, and FOB Nyeri, focusing on helicopters and small planes.

“We are also facing challenges in Eastleigh because of the tall buildings, which are coming up, we have had to move our larger aircrafts like the Spartans and the Presidential Jet to JKIA,” said a top official.

However, beneath the facade of certification lies a troubling reality—outdated technology that poses a grave risk to both KDF personnel and the public, both in Kenya and beyond.

Speaking in the National Assembly on April 23 (last month), National Assembly Majority Leader Kimani Ichung'wah requested a considerable budgetary allocation for the modernisation of military equipment, including aircrafts. Ichung'wah also requested the purchase of a modern presidential jet.

"Including the aircrafts that we use not just in the military but also in the police and the Presidential Jet, which was purchased in the late 1980s by then-President Daniel Moi. This offers that opportunity to reconsider all this equipment," he told the house.

Ichung'wah's sentiments were confirmed by top KDF officials and the Ministry of Defence, who are not allowed to speak to the media. 

“As we consider the next few years' budgets, [let us] consider the modernisation of our military equipment, including the aircrafts that are used not just in the military but also in the police, including the presidential jet,” Ichung'wah said.

Records  show that in 1978, Kenya bought 12 SA 330 Pumas from Aerospatiale of France. These helicopters, bought brand new, were the backbone of Kenya’s helicopter fleet for a long time. Since their purchase, eight have crashed, and two were decommissioned due to old age and a lack of spare parts.

In March 2009, a Puma helicopter transporting former President Mwai Kibaki was compelled to abort mission due to smoke emanating from its engines, highlighting its advanced age, according to KDF officials and officials working at State House. The late President was supposed to attend an event in Kitutu Chache.

Later, in November 2009, another Puma helicopter carrying Interior CS Fred Matiang’i and Devolution CS Eugene Wamalwa had to divert to Eldoret International Airport due to adverse weather conditions. The Interior CS was en- route to Kapenguria to assess areas in West Pokot affected by landslides. The helicopter, lacking requisite equipment of flying in poor weather and low visibility, returned to Eldoret to await repair.

Speaking to the BBC, Andrew Franklin, a former US Marine and security expert working in Kenya, said that maintenance has always been a problem for the military because of the multiple aircrafts purchased from different foreign sources. Andrew, now based in Nairobi, added that each aircraft model needs different spare parts, which can be expensive and have tedious inventory processes.

"As Kenya's military expenditures are strictly confidential, it is difficult to oversight the spent money. The defence ministry is not obliged by law to submit annual reports to the president or parliament for scrutiny," he told the international broadcaster.

A spot check by The Standard established that a good number of local aircrafts are using outdated technology, putting the lives of Kenya's military and the public at risk. The bad state of the aircrafts includes the president's aircraft, the Fokker 70 Extended Range (ER) plane, known as Harambee One when the President boards, which arrived in Kenya and was received at the Moi Air Base on December 20, 1995. Since then, it has served four presidents -

Moi, Kibaki, Uhuru and the incumbent William Ruto.

Harambee One was manufactured in the Netherlands by Fokker Industries, according to the Kenya Air Force's commemorative book "Kenya Air Force Story 1964-2014." The plane, which cost taxpayers Sh2.9 billion according to media reports, was originally designed as a 70-seater regional airliner but was later modified to carry 26 passengers in a VVIP role. It was also fitted with security features, including anti-missile systems, and registered as KAF 308.

However, the manufacturing company collapsed on March 15, 1996, according to an article published by the Washington Post on the same date, which complicates government's access to spare parts.

"This means the end of 77 years of aircraft history in the Netherlands,” said Fokker Chairman Ben van Schaik. KDF and State House officials said its outdated technology and limited range limits to approximately 3,078 Kms before refueling makes its replacement urgent.