Algeria splashes out on arms

Algeria splashes out on arms

Algeria Interface, 01.12.2000,

Windfall oil earnings and reduced debt burden have revived the Algerian army’s determination to modernise.

Paris, 1/12/00 – Rising oil prices and the easing of its debt burden have prompted Algiers to splash out on military hardware to modernise its army. Despite a social and economic austerity policy, the government is using oil income of some $20 billion dollars this year to step up the purchase of modern weaponry.

The last three months have seen a flurry of activity with military delegations toing-and-froing between Algiers and foreign capitals. Deals have been struck with traditional suppliers like Russia and China and relatively new ones like Qatar and South Africa.

The Algerian army has been itching to resume modernisation initially undertaken in the mid-1990s when the country’s foreign debt was rescheduled and it purchased equipment and armoured vehicles for its land forces from Egypt, Turkey, South Africa and Japan.

But the oil price slump which cost Algeria $3bn in 1998 — one-quarter of its hydrocarbon earnings — put the buying spree on hold.

Algeria’s new eagerness to buy weapons caused an international stir in July of this year when The Sunday Times newspaper revealed how the country had got round the western arms embargo in place since the outbreak of civil strife. Qatar bought $7.5 million of military equipment from UK firms Land Rover and Pilkington with BAE Systems brokering the deal. It then « donated » 70 rapid deployment vehicles and 500 night vision devices to Algeria to help it in its the counter-insurgency struggle.

Aerial power to fight guerrillas
The fight against Islamic guerrillas was the chief motive behind Interior Minister Yazid’s Zerhouni’s visit to an international trade fair in Doha devoted to internal state security and organised by Milipol International, a French arms consortium.

Among the regular attendants Zerhouni met at the trade fair were three of Algeria’s arms suppliers: Russia, South Africa and China.

It is reported that Zerhouni plans to set up a heliborne police unit, a recurrent wish since 1994. To get round the arms embargo, the Interior Ministry ordered upgradable transport helicopters that could be equipped for counter-insurgency operations.

A more modern air face is Algeria’s uppermost internal security concern. According to website Maghreb confidentiel 120 Algerian officers have received training from US corporation Northrop Grumann. In May 1998 it supplied Algeria with air radar systems under the terms of a $50 million contract.

Algeria’s air force, which currently stands at 130 helicopters and 200 fighter planes, is to be further strengthened by a new deal 22 SU-24 fighter bombers with Russia, Algeria’s premier arms supplier over the last 30. The two countries also signed a fresh contract in November – a « a military and technical cooperation agreement that also provides training for personnel ».

South African uproar
The Algerian army has also placed an order with South African firm Denel for four Drones, remote guidance reconnaissance craft. The contract, which provides for training, was actually signed in 1998 with delivery slated for this year. It caused uproar in Pretoria because though Algiers claims the Drones were for border surveillance and oil field safety and fire prevention, they could be upgraded to aerial backup craft for long range artillery regiments fighting against Islamic guerrillas. Arms accounts for the bulk of the $15 million trade between Algeria and South Africa.

Little is known of likely forthcoming deals with China except that top Algerian and Chinese officials met in 1999 and again in November this year. China assisted in building two munitions and small farms factories in the early 1980s that work at full capacity to supply the security forces and paramilitary groups.

The Defence Ministry is Algeria’s biggest government spender, its budget having doubled 1990. While belts are tightened elsewhere in the country, military expenditure is likely to reach $2bn in 2001, roughly equivalent to Algeria’s budget deficit in 2000.

Djamel Benramdane