An arms race in the SADC region?


From a strategic and national security perspective the role of the military is to protect and support the interests of the state and its citizens. Additionally, the task of the military is ordinarily to fight war against another state.

The military also has additional sanctioned and non-sanctioned functions within a society, such as protecting economic interest, emergency services, social ceremonies and guarding important government infrastructures.

Correspondingly, the military may function as a distinct sub-culture within the broader society by building and developing separate infrastructure, which may include schools, housing, health and medical, food production, logistics and utilities.

It should be noted here that modern and future warfare is based on technology and organisational superiority of a country’s armed forces. Broadly stated, in certain period of the history of humankind, there were new military strategies, doctrines, tactics and technologies, which led to an immutable change in the conduct of warfare. Those changes required an accelerated adaptation of doctrines and strategies for the armed forces. Therefore it will be naïve to argue against the need for the military in a country.

There are however, nerve-wracking signs that point to an arms race in the Southern African Development Community Region (SADC) – a region that has been credited, on a conflict-ridden African continent, as a peaceful and stable sub-region. Certain countries in SADC have aggressively bolstered the capabilities of their armed forces by investing billions of US dollars in the purchase of heavy military weapons and equipment.

The justification for the procurement of the state-of-the-art military armament by these countries varies: “to develop effective capabilities of the armed forces to prevent would-be attackers”; “to respond to the fusion of security coercions; and in response “to the evolving global security landscape”. Unwittingly this might trigger a regional arms race in SADC – if it has not already.

It is instructive to describe what an arms race denotes. An arms race is described as a competition between two or more parties or groups to have the most powerful armaments and best armed forces. An arms race signifies a rapid increase in the quantity or quality of devices of military power by contending states during peacetime.

Each party competes to produce or acquire larger numbers of weapons, mobilisation of bigger armies and superior military technology. In turn, this may create increased rivalry that may result in an impasse.

According to international experts, including Smith (1980), from 1891 to 1914, a naval race between the United Kingdom and Germany took place. British concern about rapid increase in Germany naval power resulted in a costly building competition of the Dreadnought–class ships. This tense arms race lasted until 1914, when World War I broke out.

Moreover, the buildup of arms was also a characteristic of the Cold War between the United States of America and the Soviet Union, which had vast social and economic consequences. For example, each country used propaganda to convince their people that the other country was evil. This resulted in distrust between the two countries.

An arms race in SADC region has extensive consequences. Economically, the arms race will result in each country in the region spending a great deal of their governments’ scarce financial resources on mobilising soldiers, and training and acquiring expensive military weapons.

Similarly, countries will incur additional cost for replacing old weapon systems that have become obsolete. Obviously, in an attempt to block each other’s military dominance in the region, countries will allocate huge amounts of their budget to their militaries at the cost of other significant national developmental priorities, such as construction of roads and railways, schools, health facilities and food production.

As some countries in the SADC region heighten their armed forces by acquiring military weapons and equipment, this is likely to create insecurity in the region as a whole. One may suggest that this has already created a security dilemma in the region.

As John Herz, a scholar of international relations and law observes that ‘the self-help attempts of states to look after their security needs tend, regardless of intention, to lead to rising insecurity for others as each interprets its own measure as defensive and measures of other as potentially threatening’.

Regrettably, what is currently taking place in the SADC region creates a situation whereby action(s) by one country to improve its security by increasing its military strength may lead other countries in the region to respond with similar measures.

In the final analysis the prevailing inclination by some countries in the SADC region – of heightening their defense forces through procurement of heavy military armaments and equipment – may increase tension that may create conflict in region, a situation that should be avoided at all costs.

* The views expressed herein those of Dr Vincent M. Mwange and do not in any way reflect those of his employers. The author can be contacted at


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