The world is entering an era of instability – IISS

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The world has entered a more dangerous period in the last twelve months, with increased tensions and conflict reshaping the global defence-industrial landscape, according to  the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

Data published in the new The IISS Military Balance 2024 shows how countries are reshaping their equipment and spending plans and how their regional ties are changing in accordance with geopolitical reality.

The IISS Military Balance shows the deteriorating security environment which is exemplified by a mounting number of conflicts, such as the Hamas–Israel war, Russia’s continued aggression against Ukraine, Azerbaijan’s takeover of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, coups in Niger and Gabon, as well as China’s more assertive manoeuvres around Taiwan, in the South China Sea and elsewhere.

In Ukraine, Russian equipment losses continue on a large scale. IISS analysts assess that its full-scale invasion has cost Russia more than 3 000 main battle tanks, roughly as many as the Kremlin had in its active inventory before February 2022. Russia has been drawing on stored equipment to replenish losses.

Ukraine, meanwhile, has relied heavily on Western equipment to maintain its inventory levels and help underpin its deep battle to strike targets beyond the frontlines. But Kyiv also continued to demonstrate its ingenuity in other ways, using Western and indigenously developed systems to put Russia’s Black Sea Fleet on the back foot. It has also shown the utility of uninhabited maritime vehicles (UMVs), giving the technology that other navies have been exploring a boost.

The combination of Russia’s war on Ukraine and rising tensions between with China and Western countries have been principal drivers of military spending. Global defence spending is up 9% to a record $2.2 trillion from the previous year and poised to rise further in 2024, based on already announced spending commitments.

This era of insecurity is also resetting the global defence-industrial landscape. The US and Europe are ramping up production of missiles and ammunition and while progress has been slow, those efforts promise to soon deliver a greater defence production capacity after decades of underinvestment. Russia’s focus on equipping its armed forces is causing some long-term buyers of arms from Moscow to look elsewhere.

The IISS revealed that non-US NATO countries now spend a combined 32% more than they did when Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, showing how Moscow’s actions have driven a response in the West. But that spending is only fixing long-standing issues and there are suggestions that inflation remains a concern, with costs for some types of ammunition more than doubling. The West’s basic inability to keep up with demand is being addressed, but gaps remain glaring.

While the West ramps up spending, so are China and Russia, which now dedicates more than 30% of government outlays to total military expenditure. The past year has also shown how some armed forces are reviving interest in equipment that had been neglected, such as artillery and air defence, while also embracing new technology, such as hypersonic glide vehicles and cruise missiles, or direct attack munitions. Nuclear weapons are also very much back on the agenda, with China adding missile silos and the United States modernising warheads and delivery systems.

Sub-Saharan Africa

The ISS noted that Niger suffered a coup in July 2023, adding to the list of countries in the Sahel region where the armed forces ousted an elected government. The coup was particularly shocking for some Western countries, such as France and the US, that had embraced working with Niger’s military to battle Islamic terrorists in the region. Some African states considered intervening in Niger to restore the elected government but held off. The US, which had suspended counter-terrorist UAV operations in Niger after the coup, resumed those later.

Unrest in Ethiopia has driven a large increase in the country’s defence spending as it tries to restore order. Addis Ababa more than tripled its defence budget from ETB22 billion ($430 million) in 2022 to ETB84 billion ($1.5 billion) in 2023. Ethiopia’s Amhara region witnessed mounting tensions with local forces ready to confront the Ethiopian National Defense Force.

Mali asked the UN to cease its operations in the country. The UN Security Council in June agreed to sunset its operations in the country that had lasted about a decade.

Angola’s defence spending level has eroded somewhat in recent years as the country dealt with currency depreciation and years of recession. Angola’s defence budget in dollar terms in recent years has been consistently behind Nigeria’s, the second-highest in the region after South Africa.

Africa has become an increasingly important market for relatively new defence exporters. Turkiye won Nigerian shipbuilding deals in the past year and its companies struck deals in Senegal, Togo and Chad for items such as UAVs. The United Arab Emirates also has begun supplying arms to some African countries. The exporters are making inroads at a time Russia has focused on satisfying domestic equipment needs.

Gabon, in late August, suffered a coup after a disputed election that would have returned Ali Bongo to power and extended his family’s more than 50 years in office. The coup appeared to be driven more by the way the election unfolded than by the terrorism concerns that sparked such overthrows in other parts of Africa.

South Africa

The IISS noted that spending in 2023 across the region remained dominated by large countries with high population numbers, with six states comprising over half of the region’s defence spending. In 2023, South Africa allocated R52 billion to defence, representing the region’s largest military budget despite longer-term funding cuts. As a percentage of GDP, South African defence spending fell below 1% for the first time in 2016 and the level has eroded further since then. In real terms, defence spending has declined consistently since 2021 since rising budgets have failed to keep pace with inflation. To respond to financial instability, the South African government curtailed budget allocations, seeking to control debt and reduce economic risk.

Although debt levels are expected to stabilise earlier than forecast, the 2022 Medium Term Budget Policy Statement suggests defence funding will increase, with additional spending going to enhance border security. Pretoria also emphasised the procurement and maintenance of deployable medical and naval equipment, though reduced funding has undermined modernisation ambitions, the IISS reported.

Although military spending rebounded in 2023, defence-industrial capabilities remained hampered by the region’s historical lack of sustained spending. South Africa has the region’s most developed arms industry, although it has struggled in recent years. A South African defence department strategic plan stated that an unfavourable economic outlook and the need to curtail defence outlays will lead to significant industrial challenges. In 2022, Denel was in line for a roughly R3.4 billion bailout via the 2022 Special Appropriation Act, which required the company to implement a turnaround plan and provide greater clarity on how it will develop a sustainable business model. That included steep staff reductions, with employment levels falling by 33% from 2021. In 2023, Denel reported a profit of R390 million and aimed to use its improved financial position to rebuild its skilled labour force, after the loss of highly specialised staff.