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Central Europe's defence companies spy African opportunity

A fighter plane manufactured in Czech Republic

Photo by Reuters

15th November 2023

By: Reuters

  

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Central European defence companies are negotiating new deals to sell more weapons, military equipment and related services in Africa as they seek to poach customers looking for alternatives to Russia, companies and government officials say.

Though now part of the Western NATO alliance, former Warsaw Pact members such as the Czech Republic, then part of Czechoslovakia, delivered a steady supply of weapons to African countries during the Communist era and so are well-placed to maintain or upgrade those systems.

"The best new markets are the African ones because they still use Soviet-era equipment but now want Western technology added to it," Jiri Hynek, president and director of industry trade group the Defence and Security Industry Association of the Czech Republic, told Reuters.

"We call it the westernization of Soviet products."

Take Czech aircraft maker Aero Vodochody. The company is in talks to sell its L-39NG training and light attack aircraft to new buyers as well as provide upgrades for older versions, its executive vice president of sales Filip Kulstrunk told Reuters.

"We see increasing interest from new potential customers, who are looking to abandon Russian or Chinese equipment and wish to westernize their armed forces," he said, declining to give details on which countries it was talking to.

The Czech Republic in 2022 exported ammunition, guns, aircraft and other military supplies valued at around €32-million to ten sub-Saharan African countries, many which rely on Soviet-era weapons manufactured with different standards and calibres than those used in the West. This was up from just under €2-million in 2011.

UKRAINE DIVERSION
Reuters spoke to around a half dozen Czech and Polish defence companies and government officials who described renewed efforts to carve out a bigger share of the African arms market as the Ukraine conflict diverts Russia's attention.

While the companies declined for the most part to outline specifics or countries they were targeting for competitive reasons, deals being discussed included for guns, ammunition and other military equipment and services, they said.

Privately-held defence and civil manufacturing company Czechoslovak Group - the biggest Czech defence company - said its ability to maintain and modernize armoured vehicles using Soviet-era standards has helped it win business in Africa.

"CSG has exceptional capability to maintain and modernise military land systems of Eastern origin so that African customers needn't depend on Russian suppliers," spokesman Andrej Cirtek told Reuters. "We have already used this in a number of business cases in Africa."

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia overtook China as the leading arms seller in sub-Saharan Africa with a market share rising to 26% over the past five years from 2018 to 2022.

While it has not yet fully processed data on all recent exports to Africa since the start of the Ukraine war, Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher in the organisation's arms transfers programme, told Reuters that reliability concerns could spur some nations to look beyond Russia.

"Czech industry has the kind of expertise on former Soviet weapons which can be useful when selling equipment, components or servicing of weapons used by African countries," he said.

Sebastian Chwalek, chief executive of Poland's state-owned PGZ – which controls dozens of companies making weapons, ammunition, armoured transporters, unmanned air systems and other equipment – told Reuters the company has stepped up talks over the last 12 months to tap African markets.

Polish military technology company WB Group - whose products include unmanned drones and missile systems - has also seen an uptick in interest from potential African customers on its home turf over the past year.

"We attended a recent trade exposition. ...in Poland where our stand was visited by numerous delegations from African countries that appeared here for the first time," WB Group spokesman Remigiusz Wilk said.

"It is always beneficial for any other supplier if someone who previously existed on a given market disappears from it, or is less represented."

TRADE MISSION
Underlining the push into Africa, a Czech trade mission visited Ethiopia, Kenya, Ghana and the Ivory Coast earlier this month. A key aim, said Prime Minister Petr Fiala, was boosting opportunities for the defence industry.

Czech national security advisor Tomas Pojar, who took part in the trade mission, said defence deals under discussion as a result of the trip were worth billions of crowns and included talks with Ethiopia about modernizing its aircraft and upgrading Soviet technology.

"Our focus is to re-open and strengthen relationships with our traditional partners in Africa by committing ourselves to what they want and need the most," he told Reuters.

Tomas Kopecny, a Czech government envoy and former deputy minister of defence charged with leading business missions to Africa, added that inviting African leaders to visit Prague represented another way to stir up new defence deals.

This included the Czech-speaking president of Mozambique, whose visit in August marked the first of a sub-Saharan African leader to Prague for more than two decades, he added.

"One part of these activities also includes defence industry cooperation, since it has been an integral part of what we have engaged in together in the past," Kopecny said.

As a nation of 10.5 million, the Czech Republic has long punched above its weight when coming to arms production and has been a leading supplier of ammunition, military equipment and other weapons to Ukraine since Russia's 2022 invasion.

The effort to supply Ukraine has pushed Czech companies to boost production and expand supply lines, something Czech-based independent defence analyst Lukas Visingr said has burnished the region's reputation.

"The Czech arms industry is stepping up its efforts towards certain African countries still using Soviet-style equipment but who start to see Russia as a problematic supplier," Visingr said.

Edited by Reuters

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