The Ultimate Luxury Good
By Taylor Marvin
Last month, Peter Dörrie took a fascinating look in War is Boring at the weapons shopping spree going on in Africa. Across the continent, a number of countries are spending heightened oil revenue on new, high-profile military acquisitions — for uncertain goals. It isn’t just that countries like Algeria, Angola, and Uganda could better serve their impoverished citizens by spending resource income on bolstering public institutions or development projects. Instead, these acquisitions, which include advanced Russian-sourced fighter aircraft, serve little obvious immediate military need.
Many African states face interstate security concerns, but the conventional, peer-on-peer wars multirole fighters are most suited for remain rare. Instead of immediate defensive aims, Dörrie writes citing SIPRI fellow Siemon Wezeman, these fighter purchases are mostly intended “to build up forces for regional power projection” and that “geopolitical posturing is also a factor.”
But why would African states purchase costly arms that appear out of step with their practical security needs, and that they are unlikely to be able to effectively maintain anyway? Restricting the question to just fast jets — “the crown jewels of Africa’s air arms,” in Dörrie’s words — several explanations arise. The first is the simplest. As Dörrie notes these states do perceive themselves as having real military need for airpower. African military acquisitions are also likely partially due to an arms race dynamic, where one state’s newly-acquired military advantages give its neighbors a powerful incentive to match it on the battlefield. This dynamic can play out even when two states are not rivals. For example, Brazil’s decision late last year to select the Saab Gripen NG as the culmination of a long-delayed fighter acquisition program seems partially driven by neighboring Venezuela’s 2006 purchase of Sukhoi Su-30MK2 fighters. Venezuela and Brazil have no serious rivalry; while the Brazilian government may be worried by political instability next door, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose anointed successor is the current Brazilian executive, publicly endorsed Venezuela’s current administration in the last election.
Secondly, while the weak states, internal conflict, and decrepit economies that characterized most of post-independence Sub-Saharan Africa meant that only a few of the region’s countries, most notably apartheid-era South Africa, could afford to build formidable militaries, today this is no longer the case. (It has been argued that these weak states also discouraged interstate war by giving everyone an incentive preserve a norm discouraging territorial conquest and secession, which could further discourage weapons purchases suited to interstate warfare.) Growing economies and resource booms have given more African governments the fiscal ability to invest in expensive weapons — it is no surprise that of the states Dörrie lists Algeria and Angola are major oil exporters, and South Africa was until recently seen as Africa’s largest economy.
This leads to the most interesting explanation for Africa’s fast jet purchases: prestige. Beyond their practical role in credible posturing and power projection, advanced combat aircraft are enormously prestigious military assets, making them a useful tool for status seeking states. Few states have the resources to maintain fleets of modern fighter aircraft, whose allure grants them public attention outsized compared to their military impact. For countries without major navies, it isn’t wrong to view fighter aircraft as flagships. This is particularly true of the Sukhoi Su-27 derivatives highlighted in Dörrie’s report. Sukhoi Su-27 variants and derivatives — in NATO parlance, “Flankers” — are a family of extremely formidable Russian multirole aircraft with its origins in the closing decades of the Cold War. Designed to counter advanced Western fighters over the Cold War battlefield, since dissolution of the USSR the Su-27 and its many, many derivatives (the aircraft family is notoriously confusing) have found wider success on the global export market than their European rivals.
For numerous reasons, the Su-27 family has proven popular among poorer states than its Western rivals: in Africa, the Su-27 is flown by Angola, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, and the Su-30 by others. This isn’t to discount the aircraft’s abilities, which by most accounts matches or exceeds Western 4th generation fighters. But the family’s buyers are an interesting demonstration of the role of prestige-seeking in military acquisitions.
Effective military organizations are extremely difficult to build, because military efficacy is not only determined by equipment. Other determinants of a military’s ability to effectively operate, like doctrine, training, an educated, politically independent officer corps, and so on, are far harder to buy. For states that find themselves unable to make the society-wide reforms necessary build these institutional resources, highly-visible acquisitions can provide a shortcut to international military prestige. This shortcut is particularly available for oil states, who are able to channel funds more or less directly from oilfields to arms exporters, and states whose aircraft are piloted by foreigners — during the 1998-2000 Eritrean-Ethiopian War aircraft were famously flown by European pilots, for example — where fielding advanced combat aircraft boils down to essentially writing a check.
Of course, buying advanced aircraft without investing the time and resources to build a similarly capable military organization does not translating into combat effectiveness — or “effectiveness” at anything, as the clumsy Malaysian response to the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 has shown. As Dörrie writes, many African states have had trouble maintaining their air equipment, and training their pilots. But even if African states prove unable to keep sophisticated aircraft combat-capable, these acquisitions are still worrying. Most obviously, prestige military purchases divert funds that could be better spend on development and providing social services. But that isn’t the only worry. When you have a hammer, nails, and so on.
Update: I should add that a comment by Howl at Pluto blogger LFC regarding rumors late last year that Angola would acquire an aircraft carrier is remarkably applicable to this question: “Rulers and govts care about status, and weapons — even if operated on a somewhat token basis due to shortage of trained personnel etc. — continue to confer status.”
Correction: I originally listed Sudan as an oil exporter; after the secession of South Sudan its oil production has fallen significantly.