Africa’s air forces are on a buying spree. Flush with oil cash, many African states are investing heavily in modern multirole jet fighters, deadly helicopter gunship and even sophisticated air-defense systems with radars and surface-to-air missiles.
The deals are worth hundreds of millions of dollars in countries still lacking many basic social services. So it’s worth asking exactly what Uganda, Angola, Sudan and the like are planning to do with their new air forces.
Some of the most interesting acquisitions involve modern, or modernized, Russian hardware. The Sukhoi Su-30—NATO codename “Flanker-C”—is a particular favorite of African governments. In just the last six years, African states together have acquired no fewer than 50 Su-30MKs.
Algeria and Uganda have the most, with 18 more planes slated to go to Angola. With a unit price hovering around $37 million, these twin-engine, tw0-seat fighters don’t come cheap for countries that still rank low on development indices.
The Su-30 is a highly advanced multirole fighter with capabilities comparable to those of the American F-15E Strike Eagle. It boasts a powerful radar, a heavy payload and a range of 3,000 kilometers. In Africa, only South Africa with its 26 Swedish-made JAS-39C Gripens can match the Su-30s.
The new fighters are the crown jewels of Africa’s air arms, but a variety of other modern weapons systems made it to the continent, as well. They include at least 64 Mil Mi-24 gunship helicopters for the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and Sudan.
The Su-25 ground-attack plane is popular in Africa, as are the Brazilian EMB-314 Super Tucano attack turboprop and China’s K-8 and F-7 light fighters, the latter an improved version of the venerable MiG-21.
In addition to all this flying hardware, several countries have also invested in surface-to-air defenses.
The Stockholm International Peace Institute estimates that African aerial weapons deals doubled in volume in the six-year period 2008 to 2013, compared to 2002 to 2007. So what is Africa equipping for?
We can assume African states aren’t investing in air power in order to suppress domestic uprisings, according to Siemon Wezeman, a senior fellow with SIPRI’s arms-transfer program.
Advanced combat aircraft such as the Su-30 in conflicts like that in Sudan’s Darfur region is “total overkill,” Wezeman tells War is Boring. And almost none of the countries which are currently acquiring new fighters—among them Uganda, Ethiopia, Angola and South Africa—are actually under threat of internal conflict at the moment.
Likewise, ground-based air-defense systems are also useless in civil war, Wezeman explains. After all, rebel groups almost never have combat aircraft for the defenses to shoot down.
Rather, in purchasing Gripens or Su-30s, countries like South Africa and Uganda are trying to build up forces for regional power projection. Geopolitical posturing is also a factor.
“The new South Africa feels that is to some extend a regional power and with these ambitions come military force ambitions,” Wezeman says. “Angola feels that is has a very serious stake in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Angolan air force has been used there in the past.”
“Uganda” he adds, “is preparing itself to defend its new-found oil fields, if necessary. Right now Uganda supports the government of South Sudan [in its civil war]. There have been air strikes far up in the north of South Sudan which I think only the Su-30s are capable of, considering the range.”
The River Nile, which counts six East and North African countries in its basin, looms in the minds of African military strategists, according to Wezeman. Colonial-era treaties reserve the lion’s share of the Nile’s waters exclusively for Sudan and Egypt. Both countries are almost entirely dependent on the river.
But recently Ethiopia has questioned the status quo—and is in the process of building a massive dam close to its border with Sudan. Egypt has already threatened to take military action against the dam, if it results in less water reaching its domestic agricultural sector.
“Considering also that Sudan is busy re-establishing its airfields in the south of the country, which are not facing Darfur but are facing South Sudan and Ethiopia, I have the feeling that Sudan is getting ready to make sure that the Nile waters are not disappearing,” Wezeman says.
Apparently in response, Ethiopia is beefing up its air defenses.
All these countries have well-equipped conventional forces, including modern tanks and field artillery. It makes sense, in theory, to have equally modern air arms.
But in practice, modern—and correspondingly expensive and complex—fighters have yet to prove themselves in Africa.
Cost to own
The first issue is maintenance. Traditionally, African air forces have struggled to keep their hardware in a serviceable state, owing to a lack of money to buy spares and the absence of the highly-skilled maintenance professionals.
While many countries’ finances have improved in recent decades, the old logistical problems persist.
South Africa has grounded most of its Gripens because flying them on a regular basis is prohibitively expensive. In many countries, Eastern European fly the helicopters and fighters because there aren’t enough qualified African aircrews. Again, it’s prohibitively expensive to train them up.
Even if Uganda and Angola can keep their Su-30s and other modern assets flying, they might still end up not getting their money’s worth. “You need the whole maintenance system, you need good training, an air-defense system for your airfields, radar coverage for your own air space and neighboring countries,” Wezeman explains.
So it’s possible we’re currently witnessing the slow-motion waste of hundreds of millions of dollars by African governments. That said, it’s better that all this new aerial weaponry go to waste, if the alternative is some huge war that actually puts it to use.
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