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Strong Defence on a Shoestring Budget: How Capable Are Ethiopia’s Armed Forces?

Source: Military Watch Magazine

Ethiopia has long faced a precarious security situation, enduring threats from a number of sources including the Al Shabab militant group operating from neighbouring Somalia, territorial disputes with neighbouring Eritrea which is highly militarised and fields a relatively well trained force of over half a million, and the Egyptian Air Force due to ongoing possibility of attacks on Ethiopian damming infrastructure over water rights. Despite this, Ethiopia has maintained one of the smallest defence expenditures on the African continent relative to the size of its economy – allocating just 0.8% of GDP to the military. By contrast, the higher income economies of neighbouring Sudan and Egypt spend 2.6% and 1.7% respectively, while Eritrea is estimate to spend over 4% of GDP on its armed forces. Ethiopia’s expenditures amount to around $330 million per year, a very low figure to maintain a modern military. Despite its very conservative budget, the East African state has become a potent force capable of securing itself against numerous threats, with the European Union’s representative in East Africa Alexander Rondos having stated to this effect that the Ethiopians “scare the hell out of everybody” – Al Shabab included.

Ethiopia has in recent years invested in modernising its air defence capabilities, deploying Russian Pantsir air defence combat vehicles from 2019 and modernising its S-75 high altitude systems with modern electronic warfare countermeasures. Modernised S-75 systems have demonstrated the ability to seriously threaten fourth generation fighters in the past when properly used, and Ethiopian forces have compensated for one of the system’s primary weaknesses, their lack of mobility, by mounting them on the chassis of T-55 battle tanks to considerably improve their survivability. The Ethiopian Air Force is also among the most capable in Africa, ranked fourth on the continent in 2020, with a buildup of modern fourth generation fighters having begun in the mid-1990s during the country’s war with Eritrea. At the time, with Eritrea purchasing of MiG-29 medium weight fourth generation jets, Ethiopia acquired a sizeable fleet of 12-16 Su-27 heavyweight aircraft which were the most capable fighters available for export at the time. The Su-27 fleet has since seen some conservative modernisation efforts, although Ethiopia has not sought to expand their capabilities with more costly investments in R-77 active radar guided air to air missiles or Irbis-E radars as Russia has done under the Su-27SM2 program. Even without such upgrades Ethiopian Su-27s are still considered the sixth most capable fighters in Africa, after having been comfortably in first place when initially purchased. They are the only Su-27s in the world which have seen air to air combat against other fighter aircraft, downing four Eritrean MiG-29s during the war for no losses with kills primarily achieved within visual range.

Ethiopian Air Force Su-27 Heavyweight Fighters | ©Military Watch Magazine

To provide air support for its ground forces Ethiopia has reconfigured its second class of fighter, the third generation MiG-23, to deploy almost exclusively for such a role. It also deploys an unknown number of Su-25 attack jets and 18 Mi-24/35 attack helicopters, all of which are capable of providing close air support to ground units. Looking to ground units, the country deploys a respectable 135,000 man strong professional army, with North Korean Ch’onma Ho battle tanks and second hand Ukrainian T-72 tanks forming the bulk of its armoured units. Approximately 200 of each are in service. North Korea has also supplied VTT-323 APCs and M-1977 self propelled artillery systems, and has provided extensive assistance in developing a domestic arms industry capable of producing BM-21 rocket launchers, rocket propelled grenades, small arms and ammunition. These were set up in the mid 2000s, and Ethiopia has continued to benefit greatly from its defence ties to the East Asian state since.

The Ethiopian military appears to have learned from its war with Eritrea that relying on large numbers of poorly trained and scarcely armed personnel would expose it to massive casualties. A focus on large manpower, while attractive given the size of the population and the very low living costs in the country,  proved almost entirely ineffective against the Eritrean military in the early stages of the war, and only the rapid development of a more elite force with better training, better arms and proper air support allowed it to push back and recover territory lost in the war’s initial stages. Indeed, the Ethiopian military received support and training for both its People’s Militia and its special forces from North Korean specialists at the Tarek Army Camp and other facilities. The relatively small size of the country’s armed forces today, and its reputation for very high training standards and effectiveness, has largely come as a consequence.

Egyptian Air Force Su-35 Heavyweight Fighter | ©Military Watch Magazine

Ethiopia’s military today remains a highly trained and experienced force, and is the fourth largest contributor to international peacekeeping missions in the world in manpower which has provided operational experience in a number of theatres. Reliance on an elite but relatively small military, a highly elite Air Force, well trained pilots, soldiers and special forces, and close military cooperation with North Korea which has provided valuable knowhow and technologies, have helped establish it as a formidable military power and highly secure state in the face of a number of major threats. Eritrea for its part, observing the causes of its neighbour’s success, has itself since 2000 also invested in both developing military ties to North Korea as well as acquiring Su-27 fighters for its Air Force. Nevertheless, security challenges remain very serious, with instability in neighbouring Sudan following following a Western-backed coup removing one of Addis Ababa’s closest security partners and a bulkwark against possible Egyptian interventionism. Moreover, the rapid modernisation of the Egyptian Air Force since 2013 has ended Ethiopia’s considerable former qualitative advantage, and Egypt’s acquisition of Su-35 aircraft has for the first time provided it with a fighter with the endurance needed to carry out effective strike operations against Ethiopian targets.

Reports of Egyptian plans to build a military base in neighbouring Somaliland have only made the security situation more tense, and could lead Ethiopia to invest in more advanced weaponry – possibly including new fighter aircraft such as the Russian MiG-35 or new air defence platforms like the North Korean Pyongae-5 or its more recent successor. With the country continuing to enjoy high levels of economic growth, far exceeding those of its neighbours including Egypt, Ethiopia’s defence budget is likely to increase considerably over the coming decade. This will provide greater opportunities for its traditional arms suppliers such as North Korea, Russia and Ukraine, and could see it emerge as a much more formidable military power.