Russian arms transfers to North Africa: Fuelling an arms race?

© RIA Novosti . collageRussian arms transfers to North Africa: Fuelling an arms race?
Russian arms transfers to North Africa: Fuelling an arms race? - Sputnik International
New SIPRI data on global arms transfers published today reveal that Russia remains the second largest arms exporter in the world.Although the Asia–Pacific region remained the main destination for Russian arms exports for 2005–2009, accounting for 69 per cent of Russian arms exports, Russia has significantly increased its volume and share of deliveries to North Africa in recent years.

New SIPRI data on global arms transfers published today reveal that Russia remains the second largest arms exporter in the world. According to SIPRI data, the volume of Russian arms exports for 2005-2009 is of a similar level to that for 2000-2004. Russia’s share of global exports of major conventional weapons has dropped from 29 per cent for 2000-2004 to 24 per cent for 2005-2009. Although the Asia–Pacific region remained the main destination for Russian arms exports for 2005–2009, accounting for 69 per cent of Russian arms exports, Russia has significantly increased its volume and share of deliveries to North Africa in recent years.

Taking advantage of Soviet legacies in North Africa

Russia inherited recipients in the North Africa that had been dependent on Soviet-supplied arms. Between 1970 and 1991, SIPRI data shows that the Soviet Union accounted for 90 per cent of Algeria’s imports of major conventional weapons and 78 per cent of Libyan arms imports. During this period Libya was the fourth largest recipient of Soviet arms exports, accounting for eight per cent of deliveries, and Algeria was the eighth largest, accounting for four per cent. When president of Russia, Vladimir Putin offered to cancel debts incurred by Algeria and Libya for these Soviet-era arms transfers in exchange for new arms orders. Algeria accepted the offer in 2006, concluding deals worth an estimated $6.5 billion for combat and trainer aircraft, tanks, submarines, and air defence systems (see table below for more details).

Arms race concerns in North Africa

According to SIPRI data, Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia accounted for around three per cent of global arms imports for the period 2005-2009, but the volume of major conventional arms delivered to North Africa in 2005-2009 has increased by 62 per cent in comparison with 2000-2004. Algeria accounted for around 89 per cent of transfers to North Africa during this period, rising from 18th to 9th largest recipient of major conventional weapons globally. However, Morocco has placed significant orders in 2008 and 2009, leading to concerns that Algeria and Morocco are entering into what is regarded as an ‘arms race’.

Some cynical analysts had hoped that Russian arms producers could benefit from an arms race in North Africa. The fact that SIPRI records Russia as accounting for 85 per cent of North African arms imports for 2005-2009 seems to suggest that Russia has succeeded in this regard. North Africa accounted for four per cent of Russian arms exports for 2000-2004 and 11 per cent for 2005-2009. It has therefore become a more significant market for Russia in the face of declining Chinese orders. Russia’s increased share and volume of deliveries to North Africa is mainly thanks to Algeria, as SIPRI data shows it was the third largest recipient of Russian exports of major conventional weapons for 2005-2009.  

Will Russia benefit from an arms race in North Africa?

Morocco has no outstanding orders for major conventional weapons from Russia since taking delivery of the last of the 12 Tunguska mobile air-defence systems and missiles in 2008. It has turned to the USA for F-16C combat aircraft, presumably in response to Algerian Su-30MKA acquisitions, and to France and the Netherlands for FREMM and SIGMA frigates respectively. Russian hopes for follow-on contracts with Algeria have not materialised since the 2006 mega-deal. It is from France, Germany, Italy and the UK that Algeria is seeking to acquire helicopters and naval equipment. Reports in 2009 suggested that Algeria will follow up its 2007 order for six EH-101-400 helicopters and four Super Lynx-300 from the Anglo-Italian company AgustaWestland with an order for up to 100 helicopters for Algerian border security forces. Russia is also missing from the list of potential suppliers for Algeria’s planned acquisition of four frigates, with British, French, German and Italian shipbuilders shortlisted.

Russian hopes for more major deals in North Africa in the near future lie with Libya. Like Algeria, Libya has enjoyed increased revenues from natural resources and has enjoyed being courted by major arms suppliers in recent years. It was expected that after the lifting of the UN arms embargo in 2003 Libya would seek to modernize, upgrade and replace some of the significant quantity of major conventional weapons that had been acquired in the 1970s and 1980s. However, for the period 2005-2009, Libya was the 110th largest arms importer in the world, according to SIPRI data. Libya is not expected to lag behind its neighbours with regard to holdings of modern military equipment for long. Ghaddafi has enjoyed the attention lavished upon him by visiting heads of state from France, Italy, Russia and the UK in recent years, and each head of states has been accompanied by arms company representatives and rumours of multi-billion dollar deals for arms and military equipment.

Will Russia secure Libyan orders ahead of France?

France offered a package of arms and military equipment to Algeria when it announced plans to embark on a major modernisation of its armed forces at the turn of the millennium. There were high hopes that Algeria would be the first export customer for France’s Rafale combat aircraft. France lost out on the combat aircraft order to Russia, but still has a chance for the Algerian frigate order. France has also been a strong contender for securing major arms deals with Tripoli, but thus far only appears to have secured firm orders for MILAN-3 anti-tank missiles and the refurbishment of Libyan Mirage-F1 combat aircraft, which were supplied by France in the 1970s. It is unclear what progress has been made on negotiations relating to the supply of combat aircraft, helicopters, corvettes and patrol vessels.

Libya did not accept Putin’s offer in 2008 to place a large order for major conventional weapons in exchange for a cancellation of Soviet-era debt. However, reports in the Russian media in 2009 claimed that Russia had concluded deals with Libya for three Project 12418 Molniya fast attack craft worth an estimated $200 million and the overhaul of 145 Libyan T-72 tanks. During January 2010 there were premature reports that Libya had ordered $2 billion worth of arms - 12-15 Su-35 combat aircraft, four Su-30 combat aircraft and six Yak-130 trainer aircraft and air defence systems. Negotiations continue for these systems, although Russian officials expect contracts to be signed in 2010. However, Russia will face competition for Libyan orders, as the former international pariah is no longer considered a threat to international peace and security but rather a potentially lucrative arms market. For example, we are now seeing a potential loosening of restrictions on arms exports to Libya by the USA. It remains to be seen who will take the ‘leopard’s share’ of the Libyan arms market. Russia appears well-positioned at present to benefit from Libyan orders, but looks set to miss out on more major deals with Algeria and Morocco.

A selection of Russian exports of major conventional weapons to North Africa, 2000-20091


Type of conventional weapon Order and delivery period Number ordered Number delivered
Algeria Il-78 tanker/transport aircraft 1998; 2000-2001 6 6
MiG-29 combat aircraft 1999; 2000-2001 8 8
Su-24 combat aircraft 1999-2000; 2001-2005 (25)2 (25)
Mi-17 helicopter 2002-2004 42 42
BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles 2005; 2006-2009 300 240
Pantsyr-1 mobile air defence system 2006; 2008-2009 38 (15)
                     S-300PMU-2 surface-to-air missile system 2006 (4)
Su-30MK combat aircraft 2006; 2008-2009 28 28
T-90S tank 2006-2008 185 185
Type-636 (Kilo) submarines 2006 2
Yak-130 trainer combat aircraft    2006 16
MiG-29 combat aircraft 2006 34 Cancelled
Libya ‘Molniya’ Type-1241 fast attack craft (2009) (2)
Morocco Tunguska mobile air defence systems 2005-2008 (12) (12)


1Source: SIPRI Arms Transfers Database,

2(…) - Indicates estimate

Dr Paul Holtom, Director of the Arms Transfers Programme, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) (exclusively for RIA Novosti)

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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