Western defense companies looking for sales in Libya are increasingly reliant on export sales because of hefty military spending cuts in their home countries.
But those arms contracts may not materialize for some time as oil-rich Libya -- it has reserves of 76.4 billion barrels, the largest in Africa and the fifth largest in the world -- grapples with restoring stability 2 1/2 years after the eight-month conflict to oust dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.
Libya's oil exports, the country's economic lifeline, have been drastically reduced since July, when eastern militias blockaded three terminal ports to reinforce their demand for autonomy for the region, known as Cyrenaica.
The shutdown reduced oil production from around 1.5 million barrels per day to some 200,000 bpd. That eased in January when the Tripoli government succeeded in ending the closure of a southern oilfield.
But the state, the country's largest employer, has lost more than $10 billion in oil revenues and has had to dip into its foreign reserves to the tune of at least $7 billion, leaving it unable to pay salaries, or place orders for military equipment to replace the big losses in the NATO-backed insurrection that ended Gadhafi's 42-year rule.
Besides that, years after Gadhafi was toppled and killed, Libya remains wracked by lawlessness, marauding ethnic or tribal militias and political tension between the three main regions, Cyrenaica in the east, Tripolitania in the west and Fezzan in the south.
The transitional government of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan is powerless to bring these militias to heel because it has no effective military or security forces.
Even so, the U.S. and Britain, having destroyed much of Gadhafi's armed forces during the 2011 bombing campaign, are spearheading the effort to rebuild Libya's military.
In January, the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency at the Pentagon announced it had notified Congress it has approved foreign military sales to Libya worth several million dollars. It also disclosed that Tripoli had requested the sale of training and expertise for 6,000 to 8,000 troops.
"The training includes services for up to eight years for training, facilities sustainment and improvements, personnel training and training equipment, 637 M4A4 carbines and small arms ammunition, U.S. government and contractor technical and logistics support services, organizational clothing and individual equipment, and other related elements of logistical and program support," the DSCA said.
Meantime, 340 Libyan recruits arrived in Italy in January for a basic, 14-week training course at an Italian army base outside Cassino, south of Rome. Italy will train 2,000 Libyans over two years.
Libya paid Britain $2.5 million to reopen an old military base at Bassingbourn in eastern England to train another contingent. Turkey's also providing facilities.
Building a military force is the first priority, but at some point Zeidan's government will have to address the need for new weapons systems as well as radar, communications networks and other equipment. During much of Gadhafi's rule he was at odds with the U.S. and Europe over his support for terrorism. Libya was under a U.S. and European arms embargo until October 2004 when Gadhafi surrendered his secret nuclear weapons program.
So most of Libya's military hardware was Russian, although Gadhafi bought French and German weapons systems after the embargo was lifted. A lot of this weaponry was destroyed during the NATO air campaign supporting the rebels.
Libya has not disclosed what systems it needs, although the list is likely to be extensive.
Tripoli may switch from Russian to Western weapons systems. That will pretty much mean re-equipping Libya's armed force from the ground up, an expensive proposition.
Otherwise, Moscow may find itself with a golden opportunity to sell Libya new Russian aircraft, tanks, warships and other equipment.
So far, the Europeans appear the most aggressive in selling arms to Libya. U.S. companies have been inhibited by the post-war anarchy in Libya, particularly the Sept. 11, 2012, killing of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and four other Americans at the consulate in Benghazi.
However, the U.S. publication Defense News reports Col. Ibrahim el Fortia, the Libyan defense attache in Washington, recently told a American Chamber of Commerce gathering on Libya: "We'd like to see priority go to American companies."
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