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Defending South Sudan - where next?

By Peter Chuol, Juba


According to data from the World Bank, in 2015, South Sudan had the third highest military spending as a percentage of GDP in the world. This places it just behind Oman and Saudi Arabia. Despite a lack of credible data, ongoing instability in the region would indicate that this level of spending is a constant necessity.


Indeed, it is instability which characterises both the foundation and existence of South Sudan as the newest sovereign state in existence. Having gained its independence in 2011, our nation has been involved in brutal and protected civil war. Violence continues to plague the country, despite the efforts of state and non state actors to stabilise the region and the efforts of international courts to prosecute the worst belligerents.

Nevertheless, the most recent reliable data on South Sudanese military capabilities (published in 2019) appears to indicate that defence infrastructure remains well organised, with the upper echelons of the military hierarchy still very much loyal to the state and few signs of a forthcoming destabilising coup or revolution.


Led by the Chief of general staff General Johnson Juma Okot, the South Sudanese Peoples Defence force - as it is known - can be clearly divided into four distinct sections; the Ground Force, Air Force, Air Defence Forces and an undisclosed (likely small) number of men forming the Presidential guard. Of these, the least is known about the Air Force, it being the newest branch of the military in this young nation.


Foreign suppliers of arms and armaments indicate few bloc based allegiances, not conforming to the east/west dichotomy which defence analysts typically look for. Supports are known to include Israel, China, The United States as well as a variety of surrounding African nations. This strongly suggests that procurement is conducted on the basis of expediency rather than calculated diplomatic decision.


However, the majority of South Sudanese vehicles and aircraft appear to be Russian in origin. These include the T-72 tank, the main battle tank of the South Sudanese forces, as well as their attack jets and helicopters (the Mi-35 attack helicopters and the L-93 Albatross trainer fighter jet). Ground forces are also supported by a variety of Eastern vehicles, though there is little to suggest that any of these posses a capacity to pose a threat at ranges beyond 50km, and it would be an act verging on national suicide were this unstable fledgeling state to threaten the marginally more stable states which surround it.


Opposing non-state actors in the region still pose a significant military threat to South Sudan, despite not being democratically represented in the national political process. In particular, the ‘Sudan People's Liberation Movement-in-Opposition’ founded in 2013 possesses an armed wing of insurgents hardened by the Civil War, composed primarily of the Nuer ethnic group. Since 2013, formal military structure of this organisation has continued to crystallise, and intelligence gained over the last two months strongly suggests that national stability could be improved significantly were such non-democratic rebel groups dealt with by western military capabilities. Perhaps here there may be an opportunity to utilise non-state assets for reasons concerning international optics.


The region is unstable, and has been long preceding inception of the State of South Sudan. It does not necessarily have to be this way. Military support for incumbent state structures might perhaps be the most cost effective way of stabilising this region of Africa. Blessings be upon our nation!

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