ZIMBABWE’S current order of US$200 million worth of advanced fighter jets from China to bolster its national armoury is part of an arms race currently under way in southe
Despite an economy in a deep crisis, shortages of foreign currency, power, fuel, food and basic commodities, Zimbabwe has ordered 12 fighter jets and military vehicles to strengthen its arsenal.
The country is understood to be waiting to take delivery of the FC-1s from Chengdu Aircraft Corporation developed to replace the Chengdu F-7 supersonic jets. The cost of each plane is estimated at US$20 million.
The FC-1 is a lightweight multipurpose fighter based on the design of the MiG-33.
The Defence ministry has traditionally had one of the largest budget allocations in Zimbabwe. The country has now resorted to buying arms from China because its fleet has been badly depleted by Western sanctions.
The European Union, Switzerland, the United States and Canada have imposed an arms embargo on Zimbabwe.
The army is currently phasing out vehicles, planes, guns and other arms manufactured mostly in Europe and North America as a result.
In a bid to enhance military capabilities and outdo countries in the region, Zimbabwe over the past few years has been rearming aggressively.
Military sources said it had bought Russian-made MiG 23 Floggers, supersonic multi-role fighters, currently the most advanced planes in its armoury.
“The MiG-23 is a highly manoeuvrable, principal attack fighter capable of flying faster and higher than any planes currently flown in the region,” a source said.
“It can operate in different weather conditions, day and night.”
The MiG-23s replaced the 1960s era British-made Hunter FGA Mk-9s retired and put on sale last year. They are flown from Thornhill Airbase in Gweru, together with the Chengdu F-7 and BAe Hawk-60 fighter/trainers.
Zimbabwe has also acquired Mi-35 ‘Hinds’, a massively built and heavily armed helicopter gunship.
The Mi-35 – which experts say is a flying tank due to its heavy armour – is deemed one of the most effective attack helicopters flying in the region.
It is said to be only comparable to South Africa’s Atlas CSH-2 Rooivalk in sophistication and efficiency.
The helicopter is part of a fleet that includes the Aloutte IIIs, Augusta AB-412s, and Eurocopter AS-532 Cougars, at Manyame airbase in Harare.
South Africa has also been massively rearming. It has ordered 28 Saab JAS-39 Gripen multi-role fighters from Sweden to replace 120 ageing Mirage and Cheetah fighters.
The single-engine JAS-39 Gripen – whose operational capability is very high – competes aggressively against the US-made F-16, the most lethal fighter in the world.
The plane costs between US$35 million to US$40 million, a price slightly more than the F-16 but less than the French Mirage 2000. SA has also bought 24 advanced BAe Hawk-200 fighter/trainers from Britain and 30 Augusta A109 light utility helicopters from Italy.
“Once these fighters have all been taken delivery of and put into operation, South Africa will become the undisputed lord of the skies in the region,” a military source said.
“It will have by far the most sophisticated and biggest airforce in Southern Africa, if not in Africa.”
Sources say Botswana and Namibia are also in the rearmament race. The two countries are said to have recently bought Nanchang F-8 fighter/trainers from China.
Botswana has also bought a dozen CF-5 fighter-bombers from Canada.
Other countries in the region, in particular Angola and DRC, are said to be also enhancing their military capabilities.