The acquisition by Angola of eight Su-30KNs, Uganda of six Su-30MK2s, Gabon of two Mirage F1AZs, and Zimbabwe of twelve K-8s, are just some of the examples of recent African air force acquisitions that were performed mostly in secret, with little to no civilian oversight, and without the guidance of a public defence strategy.
Such acquisitions have resulted in public distrust, fears of corruption, and a perception that equipment is being acquired that is unsuited to defence needs. It also raises tensions with neighbouring countries, even in cases where the equipment may have been acquired cleanly and for legitimate purposes.
These factors apply to all defence and other public spending, but, given the high visibility and significant per unit cost of aircraft purchases, it’s worth focusing on air force acquisitions and how they might be improved across the continent to attain public trust, avoid regional misunderstandings, and prevent both corruption and unnecessary spending.
By far the most comprehensive and reliable comparative look at the institutional strength, resistance to corruption, openness and accountability of the world’s armed forces is Transparency International’s Government Defence Anti-Corruption Index, published biennially. Using publicly-available information, as well as a team of researchers, analysts, and peer-reviewers, it scores countries across 77 indicators to assess how vulnerable their armed forces are to corruption in acquisitions, personnel, operations, and oversight. Each is scored with a value out of four, with the researchers’ work checked by two separate and independent reviewers.
The indicators are then combined to create a score out of 100 that represents the country’s corruption risk index. Countries are ranked in five bands, defined as follows:
Amongst the 20 indicators relating specifically to acquisitions are questions like:
‘Is the defence procurement cycle process, from assessment of needs, through contract implementation and sign-off, all the way to asset disposal, disclosed to the public?’,
‘Is defence procurement generally conducted as open competition, or is there a significant element of single-sourcing (that is, without competition)?’
‘When negotiating offset contracts, does the government specifically address corruption risk by imposing due diligence requirements on contractors?
Does the government follow up on offset contract performance and perform audits to check performance and integrity?’
All these are reasonable requirements that significantly reduce opportunities for corruption and political interference, yet when well-managed have no real negative impact on a country’s security.
Remarkably, and despite the progress many countries in the continent have made in other areas of democracy and good governance, not a single African country is ranked higher than Band D. Even then, only seven (South Africa, Kenya, Namibia, Tunisia, Benin, Ghana and Cape Verde) reach that level. Nearly half of the remainder are ranked in the woeful Band F. Worse, aside from one or two exceptions, most countries, including South Africa, are regressing and becoming less open, less transparent in acquisitions, and more exposed to corruption risks.
Yet nearly every member of NATO scores at C or above, with nine in B and one (the United Kingdom) attaining a coveted position in Band A. You can, of course, be cynical and point to problems that exist in those high scoring countries, and their readiness to exploit corrupt practices when selling arms, but even a brief look at how they run new aircraft acquisitions versus any African country shows that the scores are fair. The level of detail on processes, costs, suppliers, and requirements made public throughout the procurement cycle is mind-blowing for anyone accustomed to trying to research the acquisitions of African armed forces.
As a case in point, let’s compare two recent UAV acquisition programmes: Australia’s (Band B) purchase of Northrop-Grumman MQ-4C Tritons and South Africa’s (Band D) purchase of Denel Dynamics Seeker 400s.
The Australian requirement was first specified in the Defence Capability Plan of 2012, which stated a need to have seven High-Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) UAVs, specifically for maritime surveillance, by 2019. Thereafter, the AIR 7000 Phase 1B Multi-mission Unmanned Aircraft System project was created and made public, along with an expected price tag and in-service date. Since the recent Defence White Paper confirmed requirements and the project was greenlit, it has gone through multiple departmental and parliamentary reviews, with public protest and comment available at each step. Australia is now in the final stages of negotiating the specific terms of the purchase, which will be performed through the Foreign Military Sales process, after which it will go through another open review before the contract is signed and its final cost and timelines made public.
In contrast, the recent acquisition of four Seeker 400s by South Africa has been shrouded in secrecy. Originally a South African Air Force (SAAF) requirement, the aircraft were instead acquired in secret for the defence force’s Defence Intelligence (DI) division, itself an opaque and unaccountable institution, with the funds routed via the unaudited Secret Defence Account. No official confirmation of the acquisition even existing has been provided – even after defenceWeb revealed its existence – let alone any details on what requirement they’re fulfilling, what their cost is, or whether a competitive evaluation was conduction. Nor has Parliament been informed or permitted to provide proper oversight. Whether or not the acquisition itself was above board, the potential for corruption in the process is clearly high.
What’s more, there is no valid reason why the Seeker 400 purchase had to be kept so secret, and not made an open and transparent project like Australia’s Air 7000 Phase 1B. While Defence Intelligence naturally needs to conduct its operations in secret, it would do no harm to it for this and other similar acquisitions to be conducted in the open with proper controls. After all, the capabilities of the aircraft itself are well-known, and it stood to reason that the organisation’s use of the aircraft would become public sooner or later, so it’s easy for any enemy country to accurately determine DI’s capability in this area. The only actual benefit is for the organisation to avoid oversight, public protest, and proper auditing.
This is not limited to DI, however. None of the known South African Air Force requirements, ranging from new light and medium transport aircraft to new maritime patrol and surveillance aircraft, are truly being conducted out in the open. There is no reliable and official information on the expected costs, timelines, unit numbers or requirements for these aircraft.
South Africa at least had an admirably public and open recent Defence Review, which laid out some of the needs and justifications in broad terms, even though the actual implementation of the Review has remained secretive. Most African countries lack even that, with requirements seemingly emerging out of thin air with no public justification, and defence acquisitions being excluded from oversight or public procurement regulations. Angola’s Su-30KN purchase may, for example, be an entirely reasonable, just, and cost-effective way to replace its Su-27s for a legitimate reason, but we can never know for sure because no single part of the process, except the quiet announcement of a done deal, was public.
Such secrecy also has implications for regional stability, as it becomes difficult for neighbouring countries to properly assess each other’s intent after secret aircraft acquisitions and will often default to a paranoid and cautious approach that requires their own re-arming and sets off arms races. Morocco, Egypt, and Algeria’s tit-for-tat fighter acquisitions of recent years are an interesting example of this.
It’s clear that until African countries are able to reform their defence procurement systems and processes, to ensure they are free from corruption, that they are done according to valid and legitimate requirements, and that the right equipment is acquired, they’ll struggle to attain public trust, and reduce regional tensions. What’s more, given that a high rate of corruption is negatively correlated with economic growth, they’ll be unable to achieve sustainable and inclusive growth until this and other public corruption risk is resolved.
Of course, many of those countries with low scores in this index are going to be unwilling to conduct these reforms on their own. They have little public pressure to change, and their top officials and elites benefit from corruption. Therefore, it’s something that has to be driven by supranational institutions like the African Union (AU), along the lines of the (sadly defunct) Peer Review Mechanism. Ideally, the AU could even adopt the Government Defence Anti-Corruption Index as its standard measurement mechanism, requiring member states to meet target bands by certain dates. It’s unlikely to ever happen, but it would go a long way towards making African countries more democratic and accountable, without compromising their security.
For those air forces that do want to improve their processes and approaches to reduce corruption, the Index offers numerous examples, suggestions, and case studies as guidance.
No African air force should be happy with a rating in Band D or lower, nor should they expect to be trusted by the public and their peers until they’re able to correct the deficiencies that create corruption risk and the possibility of requirement and acquisition mismatches. They will be judged by the direction they choose to take.