Why Algeria is Arming Itself Militarily?

Why Algeria is Arming Itself Militarily?

September 10, 2018

In the last few years, Algeria has managed to maintain the first rank of the most armed country in the African continent, as the rate of weapons import is about 52% of the arms imported by the entire continent, according to the Stockholm Institute Report (SIPRI) for 2017. The report also pointed out that the Algerian defense budget has maintained its level in the recent years and estimated at 10.1 billion dollars in 2017, ranking 20th in the world and the third in the Arab world.[1] This comes at a time when Algeria witnesses an internal security and stability situation that may not justify such a huge armament, in turn, the country having  deep social problems at all sectors needs  an allocation of huge financial budgets similar to those spent on  weapons. At the external level, Algeria is not involved in the war outside of its borders, and there is no significant threat facing the national security of the state, as in the case of Iran). On the contrary, Algeria has very good diplomatic relations with all major powers alike - which have a competing interests-, all of that contribute strongly to asking a serious question about the reasons stand behind the Algerian leaning towards such a massive armament. This article will attempt to address the different dimensions of this armament by using some helping analytical theories, dividing these dimensions into three levels of analysis, the international, regional, and internal levels.

1. International Projects: The International Rivalry in North Africa

The distinguished geography of North Africa gives vital importance to its countries in the big strategies of the global actors. Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, France has not remained the only influential foreign actor there, the first features of the ancient colonial France influence have faded with the growing of the American interest in the region exclusively since the 9/11 events, while the new recovery of the rising powers of the East has led to the emergence of new competitors on the stage of North Africa, such as Russia and China, and we will not exaggerate if we say that Turkey is also a growing influential actor in the region at the expense of the old colonizer in an unprecedented manner since the end of the Ottoman presence there. 

"Algeria witnesses an internal security and stability situation that may not justify such a huge armament, in turn, the country having  deep social problems at all sectors needs  an allocation of huge financial budgets similar to those spent on  weapons."

What characterizes Algeria's relationship with these powers is its diplomatic ability to maintain one distance from all major powers, especially the United States, Russia, and China. Algeria, together with these three countries having strong competing strategies in the world enjoys a strategic partnership that saved Algeria from engaging in bilateral polarizations and conflicts of axes, as occur to the most of countries in the "Middle East" today. Russia is the main supplier of Algerian weapons, the Russian weapon represents more than 75% of the Algerian army's weapons and Algeria also ‎holds for 52% of the Russian arms market in Africa,[2] while China is the first investor in the country that overtook France since 2012,[3] with both powers, Algeria has deep historical ties since the French occupation days.  As for the United States and the European Union, Algeria is seen as an important partner in maintaining the security stability of the North African region, especially after these countries recently experienced multiple security problems that a failed state (Libya) on the southern bank of the Mediterranean caused  such as laying a breeding ground for transnational terrorist and, circulation of arms, drugs and , illegal immigration and other forms of dangerous and threats. . For these countries, Algeria is, therefore, an important buffer state, in the geopolitical sense.

Despite Algeria's good diplomatic and strategic ties with these powers, the rivalry between them in the North African region (especially between France and the United States) has pushed them to exploit some of Algeria's regional differences with its neighbors (the Western Sahara issue)[4] in order to achieve some political or economic earns alike. If Algeria, for example, refuses to respond to some of the imposed issues by those powers, they will turn to show their support for the Moroccan position in the Western Sahara issue or will tend to raise some security problems on the border by providing some logistical support to some transnational terrorist groups for example, this is not new behavior for the United States in particular, which has similar behavior in supporting terrorist groups such as PKK and the PYD terrorist groups against the interests of its Turkish "ally" in the Middle East.

Since his first days in the White House, the US President Donald Trump announced his biased attitude beside Morocco on Western Sahara issue,[5] which raised Algeria's fears of the possibility of a changing occurrence in the balance of power in North Africa in favor of Morocco. Algeria's recent arms deal with Russia may be a message to Trump's administration that Algeria has always some serious alternative strategic options in the case of the bilateral relations between the two countries face some troubles because of Western Sahara issue. This, of course, would not be in the interest of the US, which benefit from Algeria's geographical characteristics in its war on terrorism or in the investment of its oil companies in the Algerian wide Sahara, or in its management of crises in the region, such as the current Libyan crisis. Experts point out in a military study conducted by the US Air Force Research Center that: "The nature of the weapons that Algeria is buying from Russia recently are strategic weapons such as the S-400 Triumph defense system, which are designed to counter big powers, and that the Algerian air force to defend the territory is among the best 10 defense systems in the world, which raises puzzling questions about why Algeria has to have such air defense system which has no justification only the Algerian fears of the possibility of sudden air attack by a big power.”[6]

2. A Troubled Neighborhood: The Regional Crises in North Africa

The regional conditions surrounding Algeria are the greatest justification for the armaments it has been pursued for years, the North African region is considered to be an unstable area in terms of security despite what it appears, it is exposed to a serious security disturbances at any time due to the political, social and economic problems experienced by the peoples of this region, the democratic deficit of its countries, the spread of extremist and terrorist groups along the region, in addition to the international rivalry hidden there. Today, Algeria finds itself surrounded by a siege of crises from all the sides: from the east Algeria shares with a failed state, Libya, a land border of 982km, making it a very difficult task to secure these hot desert borders, which know a very active movement of many terrorist groups such as "Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb", in addition to a 965km land border with Tunisia, as has been known, the country has been witnessing an internal political turmoil since 2011, bringing some political interventions from foreign powers what made the security situation there more complicated. On the western side, there is Morocco, the borders between the two countries has been closed since 1994, and relations are tense because of the Western Sahara crisis in which we will talk about later. To the south, Algeria shares a very large borders with Mali (1376km) and Niger (956km), which is also known with the activity of separatist and terrorist groups that pass easily along the African Sahel. We may refer here to "the Azaouad" separatist and "the Tuareg minority", which also wants to establish a state that includes part of Algeria's southern borderland. Therefore, Algeria's vast territory and the flaming borders surrounding it (7,000km of land borders) require it to be always ready, especially after the hostage-taking incident at "the Tiguentourine natural gas plant" in the Ain Aminas region in the depth of Algerian Sahara in 2013, Terrorists waged attack on the facility and arrested a number of Algerian and foreign hostages, then the Algerian army responded very strongly without negotiated with terrorists and ended the crisis by liquidated them, which caused the death of many hostages . Based on the above, let us imagine the huge number of soldiers stationed on the borders and the military equipment that Algeria needs to secure itself from such dangers and endless threats!

A Security Dilemma, not an Arms Race: Western Sahara Crisis We continue here using the regional level to highlight one of the important issues relevant to our subject, the issue of Western Sahara. Analysts often misdescribed the tension between Algeria and Morocco as an arms race which drives both of them to take some defensive actions. The arms gap between the two sides denies that the case is "an arms race". Algeria, as mentioned above, is the most heavily armed African country. It receives 45% of the arms imported by the whole continent, according to the Stockholm annual Institute report (2017), while it ranks seventh in the world in terms of imports. The report also points out that the defense budget of Algeria has maintained its level over the last years, estimated at $10.1 billion in 2017, ranking 20th in the world and third in the Arab world,[7] while Morocco's defense budget is estimated at $3.4 billion and ranks 55th globally.[8] The military gap is very large between the two countries in the favor of Algeria, thus, the tension between them can not be described as an arms race.

The most appropriate concept here is "the security dilemma," a concept invented in 1950 by an American researcher, John Herz. It is a very different situation from the arms race meaning the continuing state of doubt and uncertainty in the security perceptions of decision-makers in two countries,usually close to each other geographically . In this case, the security and military measures are taken by one of the two countries, let's say the Country A (such as the purchase of weapons for example) for reasons considered defensive, on the other side (Country Z), are interpreted as an offensive measures, in which the Country A seeks to threaten the national security of the country Z and thus require similar security and military measures. Security perceptions of the decision-makers play, here, the most important role, as we have said, and this is exactly the case in Algeria and Morocco for years.

We can say that Western Sahara is the arena in which Algeria and Morocco compete for regional status. While Algeria relies on a huge budget devoted to military spending thanks to its oil wealth, Morocco depends on weaving a network of regional and international alliances to besiege Algeria. (For example, recognizing "the state of Israel" and establishing her embassy on its territory at a time when Algeria considers that as a red line), the Western projects that Algeria may refuse to pass in North Africa, may be approved by Morocco easily (for example, the German Solar Energy Project). Also, there is a negative historical precedent in the memory of Algerian decision-makers when Morocco tried to invade a nearby Algerian territory in 1963 (Tindouf region but it failed) after the independence of Algeria directly in the so-called "The sand war". Since then, Algeria has been preparing militarily and spending huge sums of money on armament to avoid repeating a similar scenario in the future if the balance of power change one day in the favor of Morocco. In addition, Algeria has taken a preventive action in this regard when it maintained the support of the Saharan people against the Moroccan occupation of their territory. Algeria annually spends hundreds of millions of dollars to training, equiping, Housing, and teaching Sahrawi combatants. Algeria has succeeded to a large extent by keeping Morocco busy with another cause threatens his national security, as he believes, keep him away from pursuing an aggressive behavior against his neighbor Algeria, as well as what Algeria would gain of a geopolitical advantage if Western Sahara becomes an independent country one day,  Algeria would have an access on the Atlantic, what may provides for it some logistical military services in Africa and even some significant economic advantages.

3. A Military Elite: The Military Nature of the Algerian Decision-Makers

The Algerian political system is characterized by its military nature. From the independence of Algeria up to now, the Generals control the major decisions of Algeria from behind the curtain. Civilians have no important role to play except for the stage of President Boumediene, who was originally a military person or the Bouteflika phase, which to some extent neutralized the power of the Generals, but they return now leading buy El-Qaied Saleh Chief of the Army Staff.[9] Therefore, the military mentality of Algerian decision-makers has contributed significantly to the successive rise in the size of the military budget of the country at the expense of budget allocated to other sectors, according to the Finance Act of 2018, which approved a budget for management estimated at $39.93 billion, the national defense budget alone is 9.9 billion of it, or in other terms, 25% of the state budget,[10] ¼ is a huge proportion  compared to other ministries.

Also, in the same way that the security perceptions of the Algerian decision-makers toward the regional environment full of neighbors living in security unrest play an important role in their ongoing arms deals, the internal security situation that the country is still living in is also driving to that, albeit to a lesser extent. Algeria has gone through a decade of complete security chaos and bloody terrorism. Despite the fact that the country has overcome this period very dramatically, the cells of terrorism are still becoming active from time to time, albeit at a very low level. For example, at the end of last July, the Algerian army engaged in a large-scale combing operation in the northeast of the country after the death of 7 Algerian soldiers because of terrorist attacks against them there. Such operations have become frequent operations targeting the police and army forces, in particular, this is what encourage always the military officials to maintain a steady range of armament in anticipation of such operations.  In addition to the internal counterterrorism operations that justify the continued rise in the defense budget, there are bad social and economic conditions the country has been living for years, requires a strong security grip, according to decision makers, such as the continuous strikes and manifestations by all sectors such as education, health sectors, labor unions, and others, which has been seen by the political system as a tool may be exploited by foreign hostile powers to destabilize the security and political stabilization of the country, especially after they experienced similar examples in the region (Libya), or in the Middle East in general in the so-called "The Arab Spring revolutions".

In the end, we say, as long as the Generals in Algeria dominate the political decision of the country, this "militarization phenomenon" will continue, and the massive arming will continue too, and those Generals will continue to be the biggest beneficiaries personally (getting commissions to pass some weapons deals) or professionally (strengthening their position within the system) as a result of these huge arms deals.


Based on the foregoing, we can see the compound dimensions which stand behind Algeria's huge military spending and its high-level of armament, they are integrated causes. The geographical advantage of Algeria and the surrounding turbulent geography also oblige it to assume major regional responsibilities that require good military preparation, as well as the international rivalry in North Africa which requires a "self-help doctrine" to confront any foreign ambitions threaten its national security, in a way reminding us the classical military famous phrase of the Roman General Vegetius which used often by the Realist scholars in their literature: "Si vis Pacem, para bellum", or "if you want peace, prepare for war". The military mentality of the decision-makers also play a key role, that constructs the security perceptions, distinguish the friend from enemy, and define the military doctrine of the country.

"As long as the Generals in Algeria dominate the political decision of the country, this "militarization phenomenon" will continue, and the massive arming will continue too, and those Generals will continue to be the biggest beneficiaries personally (getting commissions to pass some weapons deals) or professionally (strengthening their position within the system) as a result of these huge arms deals."

However, before concluding this article, an important point for readers should be made clear, related to the relationship between this huge armament and the bad political, economic and social situation of the country. It is natural for any country with regional or global responsibilities to have such large arms budget, the largest defense budget in the world (more than $600 billion annually) belongs to the largest developed country in the world, the United States. Also, China has the world's second-largest arms budget (more than 200 billion dollars annually), however, it has a huge economy and pursuit the largest contemporary technological revolution in the history of mankind. What we would like to argue here, is the absence of an inevitable relationship between the state allocation to a large military budget and its degree of civilizational backwardness or its fragile democracy, so it is wrong to link Algeria's allocation of a huge budget for armaments and the state of democracy deterioration or its fragile social and economic level of life, the cause here is the neglect of Algerian political system to the other sectors as a system dominated by the military not the civilian actors. The natural wealth and human resource of Algeria and may make miracles if they are well utilized and it could really push the country to an unprecedented renaissance, which would develop a conception of national security in the minds of the decision-makers in the country to go beyond the purely military senseof the security concept toward a more comprehensive and complex one including all sectors,starting primarily from the human.

[1] Nan Tian and others, Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2017, SIPRI Fact Sheet May 2018, p: 4 https://goo.gl/GRdmpY
[2] ديبلوماسي روسي: أوضاع لـيبيـا تدفع الجزائر لشراء نصف الأسلحة الروسية المصدرة إلى إفريقيا، بوابة افريقيا الإخبارية،11/07/2018  https://goo.gl/XA4Dzj
[3] John Calabrese, Sino-Algerian Relations: On a Path to Realizing Their Full Potential? Middle East Institute, American University, Oct 31, 2017, USA.
[4] For mor informations about this dispute see: Djallel Khechib, The Revenge of Geography; Can Morocco ignore the geography surrounding it in its foreign policy? INSAMER, 15 August 2018.
[5] See: Bryant Harris, “Trump administration sides with Morocco in the Western Sahara dispute,” al-Monitor, May 1, 2018. https://goo.gl/vy6TYY
[6] محمد بن أحمد، سـلاح الجو الجزائري ضمن أفضل منظومات دفاع، صحيفة الخبر الجزائرية، 25 مارس 2015
[7] Nan Tian and others, Trends in World…, p. 4
[8] “2018 Morocco Military Strength,” Global Firepower, 2018.
[9] For more informations, see: Djallel Khechib, “The crisis of democracy in Algeria; Why was the "Arab Spring" stumbled there? INSAMER, August 8, 2018.
[10] هذه أهم المخصصات المالية للوزارات برسم قانون المالية التكميلي ، موقع إيكو ألجيريا، 04 مايو 2018.