Change of guards in Africa

It happened slowly and mostly during the past decade, but so far I didn't write about it: There has been a change of guards in Sub-Saharan Africa. The once ubiquitous T-55 is no longer the go-to tank for African armies. An (East) African army that expects or fears an inter-state war in the next years instead imports 100+ T-72 tanks.

The list of Sub-Saharan operators according to Wikipedia is
South Sudan

The concentration in East Africa is obvious. Angola is the one not East African country in this list (Congo is clearly in Central Africa, but large enough to border on East Africa, its main security issues are related to Rwanda/Burundi).

The price for a serviceable T-72 is sometimes said to be about 500,000 $, albeit corruption, updates and refurbishing can drive this up by much and the purchase of tanks with worn components can be much cheaper.

The operating expenses do no doubt severely restrict training until wartime, and thus it would be foolish to expect more than assault gun tactics (fire support for infantry, possibly ambushes against hostile tanks) from such tanks.

The much better protection of T-72s compared to T-55 means that the old inventories of ATGMs (which are almost certainly past shelf life and were most likely not stored optimally) are obsolete. Likewise, a RPG-7 without the rare 105 mm warhead is not really a defence against such tanks.

The import of T-72s is likely to provoke arms races in the region (see the example links above, with the suspicious focus on East Africa). The most expensive approach to arms racing - symmetrical arms racing - appears to be the favoured one. Well, tanks are versatile even in poorly-trained hands while dedicated anti-tank assets are rather specialised.

Armoured cars such as the classic AML-90 had great difficulties against T-55s, now even high-end armoured cars with a 105 mm gun would struggle to defeat a T-72 frontally (mostly the lower glacis is vulnerable to them).

The availability of munitions (in case of tanks mostly high explosive cartridges*) and spare parts is important for such countries. They must not make themselves dependent on supply from a single supplier such as France or the U.S., which appears to doom many developments of superficially efficient armoured fighting vehicles and AFV armaments from the West. The Jane's yearbooks on armour and artillery (upgrades) are full of examples of Western designs that found no or hardly any customers.
Meanwhile, the second-hand T-72s are so extremely widespread  and the supply of spare parts and munitions is so diverse that T-72s almost look like a very manageable choice - if there wasn't the inability to economically sustain a decent amount of peacetime training.

P.S.: I still don't understand why the West never produced a 100mmx695R low recoil gun (that's the calibre of the ubiquitous T-55's D-10T tank gun) for 6x6 AFVs. The easy availability of HE cartridges for this calibre would have made this gun much more attractive than the weaker 90 mm and more powerful 105 mm calibres.
By the way, there's a similar change in regard to African Air Forces. Ethiopia and Eritrea purchased Russian supersonic combat aircraft and hired Russian mercenary pilots in the 90's for their '98-'00 war. Now Ethiopia invests in drones instead.
*: Tanks rarely shoot at other tanks, but a tank platoon can go through multiple full sets of HE cartridges in a single small battle for a small village. The HE consumption is enormous during infantry fire support. It is very likely that the African armies purchased rather many tanks (highly visible and prestigious) and rather small stocks of cartridges (hidden from sight, hardly ever mentioned in publications).


  1. Let me get this straight, both Ethiopia and Eritrea hired Russian pilots, who were then shooting other Russians?

    1. https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/report/15359/eritrea-ethiopia-eritrea-accuses-ethiopia-using-mercenaries

      I remember an article that claimed large quantities of AA-10 missed their targets (mostly Su-27s), as they were dodged. IIRC the mercenaries were not eager enough to enter AA-11 range.

    2. Thank you for the information. It says Russians and members of the former Soviet Union. I wonder whether Russians were fighting each other or whether one side hired from Russia and the other from the former Soviet Union. Such fault lines could predate the current conflict in Ukraine for example and have been an indicator that conflict in Europe was possible. If Russians fought each other, maybe semiofficial institutions such as the Wagner Group were instituted to avoid future fratricide?

      Could it be that for the tanks specialists are or will be hired abroad?

  2. The pilots back then were factory pilots of sukhoi and mig, so the pilots were from different factories.

  3. RPG-7s are only obsolete from the front. They are still an ample threat from the side, top, and rear.

    Just because someone is wearing Level IV body armor doesn't mean that your 5.56/7.62x39/308 rifle is "obsolete" and it doesn't mean that they can just casually waltz up to you.

    What it does mean is that you need to adjust HOW you use your weapon. You encourage pelvis and headshots, rather than just shooting center mass. RPG-7s you would train to use them for side/rear/top ambushes. You would also use them to draw fire away from your more advanced ATGM teams. Instead of simply having 4 ATGM launchers firing guided munitions at an advancing armored column, you have 20 RPG-7 teams joining in to saturate the enemies ability to correctly identify the ATGM launchers. Or you load the RPG-7s with anti-personel rounds to suppress the infantry.

    1. Normal RPG-7 HEAT can be defeated pretty well by slat armour that I could improvise in an ordinary metal workshop from scrap in a few days. They are obsolete.

      RPG-7 with HE exists, but is rare, weight inefficient, the backblast is a problem that you don't have with normal 40 mm UBGLs and the accuracy past 100 m is still horrible with crosswind (or no more than about 100 m effective range for HE without sustainer rocket).

      Western tank gun 90 mm HEAT had huge problems against T-55 in actual combat, with few ballistic windows promising a good chance of both hitting them and good behind-armour effect. The same is very likely true of all those old 70...85 mm RPG-7 HEAT munitions.
      The PG-7VL and PG-7VR should be fully satisfactory against a baseline T-55, but they, too, appear to have issues with slat armour due to their fuse concept.