in Defence / Features

Africa's arms race

Posted 30 November 2018 · Add Comment

Many believe that Africa will be the big growth market for the global defence industry, thanks to burgeoning security requirements and vast oil and natural gas reserves. Jon Lake takes a look at the situation.

A number of nations are competing to meet emerging African defence requirements. China, in particular, is making real inroads on the continent and displacing Russia in many of its traditional markets.
But, while the African defence market has experienced rapid growth in some years, arms sales to the continent have proved to be variable, inconsistent and unpredictable. Thus, in 2015, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) judged that military hardware was flowing to African countries faster than to any other region, and that African governments and rebel groups had imported 45% more weapons in 2014 than they had done in 2005, though this still represented just 9% of global arms deliveries.
The previous year, the Economist reported that two out of three African countries had substantially increased military spending over the past decade and that the continent as a whole had raised military expenditure by 65%, which had stagnated for the previous 15 years.
Last year, however, in a world in which SIPRI reported a global rise in arms sales, Africa provided a major exception, recording a fall of 22% between 2008-12 and 2013-17.
Figures may not always be accurate, with a low level of participation in the UN register of conventional arms (UNROCA) among African nations. Only seven African countries, for example, ratified the UN arms trade treaty that came into force in December 2014.
On a volatile continent, different African nations have featured among the region’s top buyers. In 2014, Uganda rode high in the list of big spenders, not least due to its assumption of the role of regional policeman, intervening in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, and Somalia.
But the top of the list has remained more stable, with Algeria, Morocco and Nigeria accounting for 52%, 12% and 5.1% of African arms imports, respectively. These actors are, perhaps unsurprising, representing as they do some of the wealthiest of the continent’s nations, all facing some degree of threat from insurgent forces.
For Algeria, that threat is posed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which aims to overthrow the Algerian Government and institute an Islamic state.
In Morocco, the Polisario Front represents the main threat, aiming to establish a Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in the former Spanish Sahara.
Nigeria’s arms imports grew by 42% between 2008-12 and 2013-17, and the country now reportedly spends twice as much on defence as it does on education, thanks largely to the on-going campaign it is waging against the Islamist Boko Haram insurgent group.
But outside of the wealthier African nations, and those receiving US support as part of its ‘global war on terror’, many African nations are economically weak and unable to buy advanced new equipment, while others are forced into illegal or black-market deals.
China has exploited demand at this lower end of the market, initially by offering cheaper and less sophisticated equipment than Russia could supply, but which was often a better fit for African militaries and air arms.
It has been able to build defence relationships on the back of a wider and deeper economic and political engagement with Africa, providing much-needed trade and investment.
China now has the world’s second-largest defence budget and its arms industry has grown apace. In 2017, the Chinese defence budget stood at $150 billion, compared to the USA’s $602 billion.
With a strong domestic market for indigenously designed and manufactured weapons, China has gained growing importance as a global arms supplier in recent years. It is now ranked fifth among the world’s arms-exporting nations with figures rising by 38% between 2008-12 and 2013-17.
This puts China behind the USA, Russia, France, and Germany, and ahead of the UK.
China sold weapons to 48 nations during 2013-17 (including 22 sub-Saharan African countries), and its arms exports to Africa rising by 55% between 2008-12 and 2013-17, increasing its share of the African market from 8.4% to 17%.
Its share of the sub-Saharan market has grown from 16% to 27%.
Two-thirds of African countries now operate some Chinese military equipment, much of which is relatively basic. The Harbin Y-12 transport, for example, is operated by 11 African air arms (Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Namibia, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia), while Sudan and Tanzania operate the larger Shaanxi Y-8.
The Harbin Z-9 helicopter serves in Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Namibia and Zambia.
The Chengdu F-7 (a MiG-21 copy) is, perhaps, the most basic supersonic fighter aircraft in service in Africa, and serves with six African air forces – Egypt, Namibia, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.
The Hongdu JL-8, also known as the Karakorum K-8, jet trainer serves with six African air forces – Egypt, Ghana, Namibia, Sudan, Zambia and Zimbabwe, while Sudan also operates the rival Guizhou JL-9.
But China also includes more sophisticated weapons systems. The Rainbow CH-3 has been used operationally in Nigeria, and has been evaluated or purchased by Algeria and Egypt, while the more advanced Predator-like Rainbow CH-4 UCAV is being actively marketed in Africa.
As well as exporting weapons to Africa, China has established a base in Djibouti and has increased the number of ‘advisors’ placed with African armed forces.
Russian arms exports to Africa, meanwhile, have been squeezed by increased Chinese and western (especially US) exports, falling by 32% compared with 2008-12.
However, Russia does still account for 39% of total arms exports to the continent, which remains an important market for its arms industry.
Algeria is Russia’s most important client in Africa, taking 78% of its arms transfers to Africa in 2013-17. Last year, Russia delivered six Su-30MKA fighters and six Mi-28NE attack helicopters to Algeria, as well as T-90 tanks, rocket launchers, and surface-to-air and ballistic missile systems.
Angola also began taking delivery of Su-30s, while Egypt is receiving large numbers of MiG-29M2 fighters and Kamov Ka-52 attack helicopters.
Elsewhere on the continent, small numbers of Mi-17/171 and Mi-24/35 helicopters have been delivered to Burkina Faso, Kenya, Nigeria and Mali.
Israel has been increasing its defence exports in recent years, mainly to the Asia Pacific region, which took about 58% of Israel’s arms exports in 2017.
Europe took 21%, with North America accounting for 14%, Latin America for 2% and Africa 5%.
The Israeli ministry of defence reportedly plans to increase exports of military hardware to Africa and, in March, Israeli Defence Minister, Avigdor Liberman, visited Tanzania, Rwanda, and Zambia to discuss security cooperation and weapons sales.
Rwanda already uses Israeli assault rifles and self-propelled howitzers, and Israel hopes to export more weapons there.
Cameroon, Chad, Ethiopia, and Senegal have taken delivery of Israeli armoured and combat vehicles, while Angola has received Cessna Citations equipped with Israeli avionics and mission systems for maritime surveillance.
The US and European share of arms exports to Africa increased from 34% to 37% between 1999-2002 and 2003-2006. The US – the world’s leading source of arms exports – accounted for just 11% of arms exports to Africa in 2013-17, growing by 25% over the period. These exports included small batches of weapons and eight helicopters for Kenya and five for Uganda, which were supplied as US military aid.
At the same time, the US is becoming more engaged in Africa, hosting and facilitating multi-national exercises and encouraging greater security cooperation. The purchase of US equipment is likely to increase as its new allies seek to achieve greater interoperability.
Defence cooperation between the US and Africa increased after the establishment of Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2007, with the creation of a network of forward operating bases.
US special forces have played an ever-greater role in training and assisting allied forces, especially in combat operations against Islamist insurgents. US troops deployed in Algeria, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Niger, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Tunisia and Uganda qualify for combat pay.

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