Former US president Barack Obama approved the proposed sale of arms to Kenya and submitted the proposal to Congress a day before he left office last Friday — signalling his resolve to strengthen Nairobi’s fight against terrorism in the Horn of Africa.
If approved by Congress, the Sh43 billion deal will see Kenya acquire 12 Air Tractors, capable of launching air to ground missiles with precision, two trainer aircraft and an unspecified ‘weapons package.’
The US Defence Security Cooperation Agency made public the planned weapons acquisition on Monday through the US State Department.
“The government of Kenya has requested a possible sale of up to 12 Air Tractor AT- 802L and two AT-504 trainer aircraft, weapons package, technical support and programme management,” the agency said on its website adding that the stockpile would cost $418 million (Sh43 billion).
The US agency cites Kenya as a regional security leader which is involved in the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) and that the arms support is meant to strengthen Nairobi’s hand in the war against Somali-based Al-Shabaab terrorists.
The deal came only days after Mr Trump questioned US support to Amisom troops in the Horn of Africa nation, saying the assistance had lasted 10 years without significant results.
The Business Daily’s queries to the US Defence agency on details of the arms consignment classified as ‘weapons package’ went unanswered.
International weapons experts, however, said the package is likely to consist of guided bombs and light air-to-surface missiles.
“It is reasonable to assume it will include guided bombs and light air-to-surface missiles. That is what these planes are optimised for,” said Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), an arms trade monitoring agency.
At Sh43 billion, this could be Kenya’s single-largest weapons purchase, a reality that has touched off concerns over the government’s priorities in resource allocation.
The amount is more than double what Kenya spent (Sh19.8 billion) on new stock of arms between 2010 and 2014, according to SIPRI.
In the four-year period, the value of Kenya’s arms consignment from the US stood at a paltry Sh103 million ($1 million).
The manned Air Tractors are expected to modernise the Kenya Air Force’s fire power that is currently comprised of aging F-5 fighter jets from Jordan.
“The proposed sale supplements Kenya’s aging F-5 aircraft as it will be more fiscally efficient and able to be pre-positioned much closer to the conflict area than the F-5 fleet,” the US security agency said.
Security experts yesterday said Air Tractor aircraft are more accurate in conducting air strikes, linger longer in air space and carry heavier loads compared to Kenya’s current fleet.
“The militarised Air Tractors are essentially airborne artillery; their ordnance package includes automatic cannon, air-to-ground rockets and various types of bombs whose use is determined by the nature of the targets,” said Andrew Franklin, a Nairobi-based security expert, adding that the aircraft have been most recently used in the fight against insurgents in Libya, UAE and Yemen.
The aircraft also have an edge in the battlefield because they are armoured to continue their mission even when hit by small arms and Soviet-era Anti-Aircraft fire that is commonly found in war-torn Somalia and South Sudan.
Besides, they can linger on station for up to six hours awaiting targets to be identified and briefing from troops on the ground, according to Mr Franklin.
“Had Amisom been able to access Air Tractors as an integral component of its forces within Somalia the Al-Shabaab attack on El Adde could have been repulsed with significant casualties inflicted on the terrorists,” he said.
SIPRI said the surveillance planes are not too high-tech and should not take the Kenyan military long to master.
“As far as arms can be considered an answer to the security problems of Kenya or East Africa, this seems to be one of the better choices that can be made,” the arms trade monitoring agency said, adding that the Air Tractor is low-cost and does not require a well-equipped air base.
Nairobi has recently been keen to bolster its security ties with Washington in the face of growing terrorism and other security threats in the region.
Kenya last month received six Huey II helicopters at a cost of $106 million (Sh10.9 billion) for deployment of Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) troops to battlefields.
The Kenyan government does not make public its military purchases, and only Parliament is mandated to scrutinise classified expenditure of the security organs.
Economists, however, questioned the value for money in the military hardware plan, saying the Sh43 billion was too much, given the multiple competing public needs like food security, better healthcare and education.
“That’s a huge sum and we need to question value for the expenditure,” said Kwame Owino, the chief executive at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
The planned arms spending accounts for nearly a third of the Department of Defence’s budget of Sh124 billion in the current financial year.
Mr Owino said the parliamentary committee on Defence should open an audit on the arms deal to ensure value for taxpayers’ cash.
“Amisom has no budget for air force operations in Somalia, so where is that cash going to come from?” asked Mr Franklin.
The prime contractor for the Air Tractor aircraft is L-3 Communications, Platform Integration Division, of Waco, Texas.
Though the State Department has approved the sale, it must still get Congress’ approval before it can be executed.
“Implementation of this proposed sale requires the assignment of at least five contractor representatives in Kenya,” said the US security agency.