How armies in Africa Great Lakes weigh up

What you need to know:

  • Uganda’s recent acquisition of Mil Mi-28 or so-called Havoc helicopters from the Russian Federation has prompted some observers to forecast an arms race hotting up in the Great Lakes region. In this explainer, Robert Madoi and Emmanuel Mutaizibwa take stock of the different stockpiles of key players in the volatile region.

If you were to size up Uganda’s military strength, what would it look like?

Global Firepower, an agency that assesses the military strength of nations, ranked Uganda 92 out of 142 countries it considered at the start of 2022.

Its index gives much weight to manpower, air power, land forces, naval forces, natural resources, logistics, financials and geography.

In air power, it sizes up “both fixed-wing and rotorcraft platforms from all branches of services.”

When it comes to land forces, a disaggregation of tanks value (main battle tanks, light tanks and tank destroyers); armoured vehicles (APCs, IFVs, MRAPs and armoured cars); and rocket projectors offers remarkable insight into what constitutes might.

While Global Firepower is relentless in putting its finger on the pulse of total assets (“available vessels, including auxiliaries”); aircraft carriers; and submarines (“both diesel-electric and nuclear-powered types”) when it comes to naval forces, “landlocked nations (like Uganda) are not penalised for the lack of a standing navy.”

In January, Uganda maintained its 92nd placement after garnering 2.2436 where a score of 0.0000 is considered the best. The United States—perhaps, unsurprisingly—topped the log with a power index score of 0.0453. Egypt led the way in Africa with a score of 0.1869, good enough to see it place just outside the top 10 in 12th position. In the Great Lakes region, the 2022 military strength rankings confirmed that Ethiopia (65th & 1.0798); the Democratic Republic of Congo or DRC (76th & 1.4171); Kenya (81st & 1.5252); Tanzania (113th & 2.8437); as well as Mozambique (116th & 3.1746) all have skin in the growth game.

So how do the militaries in the Great Lakes region stack up?

According to Global Firepower’s 2022 dataset, Ethiopia retains its powers almost in perpetuity. Its status as Africa’s second most populous country means its dominance in the manpower compositions that matter seem not just possible but perhaps inevitable.

Its 150,000-strong active personnel are only challenged by the DRC (100,000). Pared to its most elemental dimensions of power and force, Uganda has 47,000 active personnel, 10,000 reserve personnel and 1,500 paramilitary.

While both Ethiopia and the DRC don’t have reserve personnel, the latter has 10,000 paramilitary compared to the former’s nought.

Elsewhere, Tanzania has 26,000 active personnel, 40,000 reserves and paramilitary numbering 1,000.

Kenya has 24,000 active personnel, no reserves and 5,000 paramilitary.

When it comes to air power, the numbers are marginally stacked in Kenya’s favour as per Global Firepower’s dataset. It lists the following figures:

Kenya—Fighters/interceptors: 17; Dedicated attack: 0; Transports: 22; Trainers: 23; Special-Mission: 2; Tanker Fleet: 0; Helicopters: 87; and Attack Helicopters: 2; for a total aircraft fleet of 151.

Ethiopia—Fighters/interceptors: 23; Dedicated attack: 0; Transports: 9; Trainers: 26; Special-Mission: 0; Tanker Fleet: 0; Helicopters: 32; and Attack Helicopter: 7; for a total aircraft fleet of 90.

Uganda—Fighters/interceptors: 10; Dedicated attack: 0; Transports: 2; Trainers: 12; Special-Mission: 0; Tanker Fleet: 0; Helicopters: 25; and Attack Helicopter: 5; for a total aircraft fleet of 49.

The DRC—Fighters/interceptors: 1; Dedicated attack: 4; Transports: 8; Trainers: 0; Special-Mission: 0; Tanker Fleet: 0; Helicopters: 32; and Attack Helicopters: 8; for a total aircraft fleet of 46.

Tanzania—Fighters/interceptors: 14; Dedicated attack: 0; Transports: 6; Trainers: 8; Special-Mission: 0; Tanker Fleet: 0; Helicopters: 9; and Attack Helicopters: 0; for a total aircraft fleet of 37.

The inventory composition, when it comes to land forces or power, is decidedly mixed. Uganda’s collection of 1,056 AFVs or armoured fighting vehicles is paralleled. It also has 237 tanks; only six self-propelled artillery; 35 towed artillery; and 26 rocket projectors.

Ethiopia is evenly matched across the board with 340 tanks; 110 AFVs; 67 self-propelled artillery; 470 towed artillery; and 183 rocket projectors. 

Kenya, meanwhile, has only five rocket projectors. However, it has 959 AFVs; 109 tanks; 30 self-propelled artillery; and 50 towed artillery.

The DRC’s inventory reads thus: 212 tanks; 201 AFVs; 16 self-propelled artillery; 125 towed artillery; and 55 rocket projectors. Tanzania undoubtedly holds the wooden spoon here with a measly 42 tanks; and 89 AFVs.

Should one read too much into those numbers?

Yes and no. A recent piece by The Economist newspaper on the future of tank warfare brought to light some uncomfortable truths about the heavy armoured fighting vehicle that has been in use on countless battlefields since 1916. The Economist shone the light on an argument proffering “that the vehicle is ponderous, expensive and ill-suited to modern combat.”

Basing on empirical evidence adduced by Oryx, a blog that has its finger on the Russia-Ukraine war, The Economist says the fact that Russia has lost at least 774 tanks (nearly half of those destroyed) should not be glossed over.

The Economist proffers thus: “The war in Ukraine has underlined two potent threats to armoured vehicles. One is the anti-tank guided missile … The second threat is armed drones, which offer a cheap and simple way of attacking from the air.

The newspaper, however, offers a caveat: “It would be wrong, however, to write the tank’s obituary based on its performance in the [Russia-Ukraine] war, precisely because Russia has made such poor use of it.”

Can Uganda’s troops engage in asymmetrical warfare?

Asymmetrical warfare involves unconventional strategies and tactics adopted by a force when the military capabilities of belligerent powers are not simply unequal but are so significantly different that they cannot make the same sorts of attacks on each other.

One of the latest illustrations of this unorthodox method of fighting has been exhibited in Ukraine where the Russian army, which has a superior fighting arsenal, has become mired in a protracted war that has left hundreds of its fighters—including Generals—killed in the fighting fields.

Usually for armies to succeed in such wars, they need a cohesive fighting force to defend sovereign territory and rely on combat and guerrilla tactics to draw the superior army into cul-de-sac.

Uganda’s military has been tried and tested in peacekeeping missions in Liberia and the Horn of Africa enclave to fight the al-Shabaab insurgents, a terror outfit which enjoys global support.

Uganda has also fought in the DRC against Rwanda, as well as during ‘Africa’s first world war’ after the collapse of the Mobutu regime. The ascension of the erratic Laurent-Désiré Kabila created a power vacuum that drew Rwanda, Angola, Zimbabwe, Chad, Namibia and Sudan into a regional conflict.

Robert Mugabe’s administration dispatched elements of the Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) to DRC in 1998.

Mugabe, perhaps the most ardent supporter of intervention on Kabila’s behalf, was the only major player involved in the conflict able to marshal a reasonably modern and experienced air force. Zimbabwe’s military was also regarded as being one of the better equipped and professional of the region. The ZNA’s combat performance was, however, inefficient and its forces suffered defeat at the hands of Ugandan and Rwandan fighters through asymmetrical tactics.

Does Uganda have a navy?

Yes. Although Uganda is landlocked, it maintains a navy. The Uganda People’s Defence Force Marine Wing operates on Lake Victoria. It’s unclear why Global Firepower doesn’t quantify its naval power.  Other countries have patrol vessels at their disposal—the DRC: 16; Tanzania: 10; and Kenya: 7.


What financial outlay does Uganda work with to maintain her manpower composition, as well as air, land and naval fleets?

 In two words, a lot. Even the pandemic was powerless at stopping the voracious appetite. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), an independent global security think tank based in Sweden, for one captures a threefold increase in Uganda’s military spending from $346.7m in 2017 to $1.066 billion in 2021.

This placed it within eyeshot of Kenya’s military expenditure of $1.113 billion in 2021. In its Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2021 fact sheet, Sipri says the staggering amounts should come not as a shock but rather troubling inevitability.

“Over the decade 2012–21, Kenya and Uganda have both faced insurgencies that have influenced their military spending. Between 2012 and 2021, military expenditure rose by 203 percent in Uganda but remained relatively stable in Kenya,” the fact sheet reads in part.

The 2021 defence bill of other selected countries in the Great Lakes region was Ethiopia: $487.8m (despite waging a civil war against Tigray forces for a couple of years); Tanzania: $742m; Rwanda: $164m; and Burundi: $68m.