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Libya fuels North African 'arms race'

Oct. 20, 2009 at 12:20 PM   |   Comments

TRIPOLI, Libya, Oct. 20 (UPI) -- Libya's reported intention to buy 20 Sukhoi attack jets in a $1 billion weapons deal with Russia underlines a pattern of sizable military acquisitions by North African states that some analysts view as a regional arms race.

Russia's Interfax news agency reported Monday that Col. Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Tripoli planned to purchase 12-15 Sukhoi Su-35 multirole fighters, four Su-30s and six Yakovlev Yak-130 combat training aircraft.

It said the contracts could be signed by the end of this year or early 2010 with Rosoboronexport, Russia's state-run arms exporter.

Most of the weapons systems in Libya's arsenal were bought from the Soviet Union during the Cold War and are now virtually obsolete.

Libya, long shunned by the international community through the 1980s and much of the 90s over its support for terrorism, has been seeking to modernize these aging systems since it was rehabilitated after Gadhafi abandoned his clandestine nuclear arms program in December 2003.

France has sold Libya missiles and other equipment, but on a far smaller scale than Russia. But it is currently making a big pitch to sell Gadhafi 14 Dassault Rafale multirole jet fighters, patrol ships, helicopters and armored vehicles worth $5.8 billion.

The current rundown state of Gadhafi's military, denied new equipment for more than two decades, left it lagging behind its regional neighbors, who have been conducting major upgrades of their armed forces.

An April 2008 visit to Tripoli by Russian President Vladimir Putin and a subsequent visit to Moscow by Gadhafi in early November 2008 -- his first since 1985 -- raised expectations that Libya was planning to buy aircraft, missiles and armor worth $2.5 billion from Russia.

Putin agreed during his visit to write off Libya's Cold War debt to Moscow of $4.5 billion in return for lucrative energy and arms deals.

The Moscow business daily Vedomosti reported at the time that Gadhafi was seeking two squadrons of Su-30MK2s -- 36-40 aircraft.

Other Russian sources said he was also interested in the long-range, high-altitude S-300 air-defense system, the shorter-range Tor-M2E and BUK-M1 surface-to-air missile systems as well as combat helicopters, T-90 tanks and at least one diesel-powered submarine.

The Arab states of North Africa, known as the Maghreb, began significant military upgrades in 2006.

In March of that year Algeria, which had been ravaged by a civil war with Islamist militants throughout the 1990s, concluded a March 2006 agreement with Moscow for weapons worth $7.5 billion.

Although Algeria, a stalwart Soviet client during the Cold War, was opening up to the West, particularly after Sept. 11, 2001, Moscow won the contract by writing off $4.74 billion of Algeria's Soviet-era debt.

Soon after, Morocco, Algeria's traditional rival with whom it is locked in a decades-old dispute over the mineral-rich Western Sahara, announced it planned a major upgrade of its military.

Although short of funds, it started with a French deal to upgrade its Dassault Mirage F1 fighters.

That triggered concerns that the Maghreb states, never the best of friends, were engaging in a regional arms race, with the United States, France, Italy and Britain likely to trail far behind a resurgent Russia in arms sales.

Since then Morocco, a stalwart U.S. ally starved of meaningful procurement for two decades, has opened negotiations with France about buying at least one FREMM frigate.

The United States offered 24 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters for $2.5 billion, effectively edging out potential French aircraft purchases.

"The timing of Morocco's foray into the international weapons market has increased the perception that Rabat felt the need to respond to Algeria's deal with Russia," Jane's Foreign Report observed recently.

Libya's return to the global arms market was generally expected since, Jane's noted, its military "is, if anything, in a worse state than any of its Maghreb rivals."

But it added that "coming on top of the Moroccan and Algerian deals, it is easy to see why Libya could be seen to be joining a Maghreb arms race."

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