Arming Africa: Small wars, big money: How the arms trade can make a killing

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The Independent Online
What do I need to fight a war? asked Emperor Francis I. "Money, more money, always money", replied the eminent 15th-century commander Marshal Gian Giacomo de Trivulce.

Nothing much has changed in the past 500 years. As the latest revelations about the role of British and South African arms traders in supplying the competing militias in Zaire show, many of the items needed to create some sort of fighting force can be obtained easily, as long as the cash is there.

Suppose a hypothetical Third World leader wishes to create his own army. How would he go about it? A t the top end of the scale, one can spend hundreds of millions. At the moment, the United States is rearming and training the Muslim and Croat forces in Bosnia. A consignment of $100m (pounds 66m) of arms on board a single ship included 45 M-60 tanks, 80 M-113 armoured troop carriers, 15 UH-1 helicopters, 840 light anti-tank weapons and 45,000 M-16 rifles, plus ammunition.

Through much of the summer, the Holiday Inn in Sarajevo was full of Americans carrying laptop computers and preparing presentations to Bosnian and Croat officers. This was a highly professional operation.

Such a package would be more than necessary to arm a small Third World army. Tanks and heavy armoured vehicles are complex to maintain and operate, and to use them as part of a "combined arms" operation requires constant and complex training. Many of the world's armies would be incapable of using them, and have no need to do so.

Central African armies vary in size from fewer than 10,000 to about 40,000. Many of the armed troops are not soldiers in the Western sense, but lightly armed paramilitaries or gendarmerie.

Suppose we want to create a relatively efficient army in a breakaway region: a force of 10,000 is likely to suffice. The first thing you need is to clothe them in a distinctive and practical uniform. Since the appearance of camouflage clothing, armies around the world have started to look increasingly alike, so recognition is important - as important as concealment. HM Supplies of Camberley, which specialises in uniforms, said a tropical jacket and trousers retailed for about $100, but that for a large order of 10,000 you would probably get them for half price. American helmets can be purchased for $30 each; the British Army Kevlar variety is much more expensive - $100.

One of the most costly items for an efficient army is food. The lack of food was one reason why the Zairean army offered little resistance to the Tutsi rebels. Most of the time, our army would subsist on local produce, but when engaged in intense fighting it would not be able to. Ten thousand men in the field for 25 days require 250,000 one-man ration packs, which cost the British Army pounds 7 each. If water has to be shipped in, that adds another pounds 1 a day but our Third World army is likely to be inured to the local water.

But even if the rations could be bought cheaply after passing their sell- by date - the tinned food is, in fact, pretty indestructible - you might be talking $2.5m.

Buying weapons is more difficult, but still not that much. You will find international arms dealers in the Yellow Pages. A single telephone call yesterday produced the prices quoted here. Even if a reputable dealer is unwilling to supply, there are plenty of less reputable ones. Deals involving shipments between foreign countries are not subject to the constraints on arms purchases in this country, as long as the supplier has an end- user certificate showing that the arms are not going to a blacklisted country. And end-user certificates can always be procured.

An assault rifle for every man - probably the successful AK-47 - can be purchased for $100. A thousand rounds of ammunition can be bought for another $80. The force would also need a smattering of machine-guns, perhaps one for every 10 men, and mortars.

One of the most effective ways you can improve the way your army works is to use modern short-range radios of the type now used by security guards and film crews. Tandy of Regent Street, which markets a number of such systems, said providing that a range of more than four miles is not required, hand sets costing about pounds 100 each are adequate.

The most expensive item in setting up your army is foreign expertise, needed to operate the most complex weapons and provide training. Our hypothetical force might decide it needs a dozen helicopters, which would ensure that perhaps nine were available at any time. They would need mercenary pilots to fly them, who would insist on being well paid.

Depending on what we are planning, other specialist equipment might be needed. If attacking another country across a river, we might want some inflatable assault craft, with engines. But the cost of the equipment, mostly second-hand, is relatively small. Large numbers of foreign advisers, trainers and mercenaries would make it a better force, but would cause the cost to escalate rapidly from the $28m our army has cost so far.

Last, but by no means least, there is the profit the organisers and traders might hope to make. That may well end up being the largest element of all, because the chances are that money will "stick" to any intermediaries in the deal; there may well be a number. And, after all, these people are not in it for their health.