Sudan’s Fighting Forces: A Study in Numbers
This article emerges from an assignment which the author completed for Dr. Jo L. Husbands-Rosenberg at Georgetown University in Spring 2009. Using only open-source material — whatever could be obtained with a library card and the World Wide Web — students were asked to profile the commercial defense habits of a particular state actor. What could be known about their purchases on the licit market? On the black market? Here, I pose these questions with respect to the military capabilities of both the Sudan People’s Armed Forces (SAF) and Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).
Assessments of this kind are useful for several reasons. First, they can inform analyses of the balance of power in Sudan today, which, presuming that both the NCP and GoSS are rational actors with access to similar information, may help us judge whether or not large-scale violence is likely in 2011. Second, they can help indicate the probable nature of such violence by casting light on the capabilities of either combatant. Third, they can clarify commercial relationships and strategic dependencies external on which actors might apply pressure in order to affect the outcome of hostilities.
The starting point for my assessment is the International Institute for Strategic Studies World Military Balance (hereafter “MilBal”), which provides annual updates on the orders of battle for every recognized nation on the planet. This data is supplemented with reporting from the Jane’s Group, which offers analysis on defense developments worldwide; conflict history from the International Crisis Group, which speaks to the relative battlefield performance of both the SAF and SPLA; situation updates from United Nations arms watchdogs, which utilize both on-sight inspectors and local eyewitness accounts to track potential violations; and briefs from arms monitoring and human rights organizations interested in Sudan. Additional information on defense acquisitions by the SAF can be found in the Small Arms Survey, in the databases of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, and the U.N. Register of Conventional Arms. In a few instances, my analysis has benefited from the thoughtful observations of Sudan observers.
The resulting picture is murky, at best. Military spending by the Sudanese state has often defied easy tabulation: multiple sources provide data that are only rarely in step. The MilBal itself provides a poor picture of the SAF’s evolution over time. Weapons appear to rotate into and out of service, and the data only occasionally accords with reporting by SIPRI and the U.N. There is no indication whether fluctuations over time indicate the retirement of old systems, losses sustained in combat, rotation into service depots, or new purchases of the same type of weapon. It is also possible that the reappearance of older weapons reflects their transfer to service with domestic security forces, rather than combat units.
Neither Khartoum nor Juba provides official reporting on defense acquisitions. Both have a vested interest in concealing the nature and extent of their purchases from each other, as well as the international community. For the NCP, the last few years represent the crescendo of an increasingly active procurement program that began in the late 1990s. The SPLA is only several years into its own restructuring. According to Jane’s Defense Group, Khartoum has outpaced the South in both the quantity and technical complexity of its purchases. China is the main supplier of military equipment to the SAF. Secondary suppliers are found primarily in Eastern Europe. In violation of the CPA, Juba has contracted primarily with the Ukraine, transshipping via Kenya.
The Sudanese Armed Forces
In 2009, the MilBal reported that the Sudanese military comprised 109,300 active personnel. The army is said to number 105,000 (80,000 regulars, alongside an estimated 20,000 conscripts). One Sudan expert has indicated that these figures are incorrect; in fact, about 450,000 men appear on the government payroll in the SAF and Popular Defense Forces, while another 150,000 are deployed in the security forces. The SPLA is estimated to possess as many as 300,000 troops (including reserves) — ten times the MilBal figures.
According to the MilBal, the SAF possesses about 350 main battle tanks, including 20 M-60A3, 60 Type-59, and 270 T-54/55 models, as well as 115 light tanks of Chinese manufacture: 70 Type-62 and 45 Type-63. Since 1998, the SAF has acquired about 75 BMP-1/2 infantry fighting vehicles, some of which possess turrets mounted with 30mm cannon and anti-tank missiles. Reconnaissance vehicles include 60 BDRM-1/2, at least 50 ‘Ferret’ scout cars; 42 Humvees; and a minimum of 30 ‘Saladin’ FV601 armored cars. The SAF reportedly fields 66 tracked armored personnel carriers, and 343 wheeled carriers. These figures are incomplete; SIPRI recorded the sale of 10 WZ-551 APCs by China in 2004, and 20 Rakhsh APCs from Iran in 2006. In 1998, Jane’s reported that the government had also obtained a number of mine-protected and mine-clearing vehicles from South Africa. The SAF can field 778 pieces of artillery, including 10 122mm 2S1 Carnation self-propelled howitzers, and at least 90 BM-21 Grad multiple launch rocket systems, as well as nearly one thousand air defense cannon capable of being utilized for ground combat.
If impressive on paper, the Sudanese Army is not necessarily well-disposed for new fighting. First, many of its vehicles are of early Cold War vintage, and vulnerable to man-portable weaponry in the SPLA arsenal. Second, the SAF operates equipment from a variety of different sources, including the former Warsaw Pact, the PRC, the United States, United Kingdom, Iran, Egypt, and France. Quartermasters must become proficient in a variety of different technologies, and stockpile non-interchangeable spare parts for each at high cost in money, man hours, and battlefield flexibility. Third, Sudanese army troops have developed a reputation for being ineffective, poorly-motivated, and politically unreliable. In 2003, Sudanese regulars were unable to adapt to the mobile style of warfare predominant in western Sudan, while in 2005, tens of thousands of ethnic Darfuris, and much of the best leadership, were cashiered for political reasons. The army’s performance continues to be poor. In October 2006, one unit, deployed near Chad without adequate ammunition, rapidly disintegrated under rebel fire. (The logistical shortcomings implied by this example are in curious contrast to the government’s apparent capacity to keep allied militia resupplied by air.) Rebel forces continued to win victories in Darfur in 2009, while multiple sources reported on the low morale of SAF units. The army’s showing in western Sudan is in keeping with trends first identified during the North/South civil war. Probable manpower shortages arising from the need to deploy forces on two fronts (west and south), as well as lack of enthusiasm for renewed hostilities in the north, may further complicate a Northern offensive designed to take and hold ground in the south, where road and rail networks are virtually non-existent.
By contrast with the Sudanese Army, the Sudanese Air Force has complete dominance in the air (the SPLA has no air force), and has recently placed relatively large orders for fighter and ground attack aircraft. The Military Balance reported 63 combat-capable airframes in 2009, including 15 A-5 Fantan ground attack aircraft, and more than 20 MiG-29 aircraft. The UN Register also reported the sale of 11 Su-25 Frogfoot ground attack jets in 2008. The death of a Russian mercenary shot down during the JEM’s 2008 strike on Omdurman suggests that the operators themselves may be foreign contractors. Eastern European pilots have already appeared elsewhere in the Horn of Africa; they featured prominently in the latest hostilities between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Khartoum frequently leveraged air power during the North/South civil war, targeting civilian and humanitarian as well as military targets, though it lacked purpose-built bombers. In both the south and Darfur, the Sudanese Armed Forces have also made extensive use of helicopter gunships; it now possesses at least 23 (Mi-24V) dedicated platforms, doubling the capabilities it possessed during the civil war. The considerable number of ground-attack assets purchased in the last few years suggests that any future air campaign would have much greater effectiveness than those of years past.
Air transport is also important: without food, fuel, and munitions, an army cannot fight. The Sudanese augment their small contingent of 25 transport aircraft by contracting with private commercial airlines operating out of Khartoum. From September 2006 through July 2007, Sudan is estimated to have logged 409 flights into Darfur with a total of 230 separate aircraft, most of them contractors from civil aviation firms — the kind of activity ignored by “conventional” statistical breakdowns of military procurement. As one Sudan observer has suggested to this author, the possibility of northern victory in a future clash with the South will turn heavily on its capacity to keep troops supplied through the rainy season.
The Sudan People’s Liberation Army
As the military component of a quasi-state (the GoSS is not technically sovereign) dependent primarily upon small arms and light weapons, the SPLA has not received the same amount of attention as the SAF. According to the Small Arms Survey, “the SPLA’s capabilities remain dwarfed in comparison to the sustained and increasing flows of military equipment to the SAF since 2000.” Both Jane’s and the Small Arms Survey speculate that much of the range of small arms and heavier weapons captured by the SPLA during decades of fighting with the central government are no longer serviceable.
Although the South Sudanese already possessed some T-55 MBTs, Jane’s Defense Group suggests that they recently ordered about one hundred T-72M1 main battle tanks, a number of which were identified northeast of Juba in summer 2009. The Nairobi Star has alleged that about 300 Kenyan troops are in the South, training SPLA fighters to operate newly-purchased equipment, a claim that the SPLA denied in September. Jane’s also indicates that the South has acquired trucks (invaluable for supporting forces over great distances), BM-21 MLRS systems, new anti-aircraft guns, “a large quantity of RPG-7V grenade launchers,” and SA-16 air defense missile tubes.
The SPLA is also working to improve its fighting capability beyond the acquisition of a superior arsenal. Wired Magazine recently indicated that the US State Department contracted security provider USIS to offer training and advisory services to the SPLA in order to assist in their transition from a guerilla force to a conventional army. These advisers are distinct from thousands of current and discharged Kenyan servicemen now being recruited by private security firms based in Kenya and the United States for future service in a North/South war. According to one source who spoke to Jane’s contributor Simon Nicol, recruitment focused in part on obtaining specialist troops such as tankers, artillerymen, “specialist infantry.” The introduction of skilled technicians and vehicle operators may provide a valuable force multiplier for the SPLA.
On paper, the SAF has acquired a fearsome arsenal. In practice, its offensive capabilities appear to be limited. Despite significant numerical advantage, its equipment is, for the most part, decades old, and will therefore be vulnerable to light weapons already in use by the SPLA. The large number of tanks and infantry fighting vehicles suggest the possibility of an armored thrust southward, but, as the same Sudan observer mentioned earlier has pointed out, Juba now fields a similar strike force of its own — and Khartoum is only a few hundred kilometers by road from Upper Nile State. The most significant change in the past several years has been the increase of ground-attack assets within the Sudanese Air Force, which now pose a critical threat to the South. Nonetheless, the Sudanese Army would necessarily have to exploit any inroads made by air power, and has recently been shown up as a largely ineffective fighting force.
Matthew S. Sinn recently obtained an M.A. in International Security from Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he focused closely on African security issues.