What Kind of Army Has Eritrea, russia's Ally, and Does its Special Force Even Exist

S-125 missiles demonstrated by Eritrea at a military parade in 2020, although, without the launchers / Open source photo
S-125 missiles demonstrated by Eritrea at a military parade in 2020, although, without the launchers / Open source photo

Total militarization of an African state sometimes can manifest in the most unusual forms

Recently, there was a video going around social media allegedly showing an episode of training of the special forces of Eritrea, the country that has been consistently supporting russia during various votes in the UN regarding the russian invasion of Ukraine.

The mentioned footage has gone viral even though Eritrea doesn't have a "special force" as such. But at the same time, this country is an interesting case of how a total militarization in Africa looks like.

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The eritrean army on a military parade
The Eritrean army on a military parade / Open source illustrative photo

Eritrea has a population of 6 million, yet the Armed Forces comprise 200,000 regular soldiers and 120,000 more reservists. That is due to a conflict with Ethiopia, its former metropole, that accepted Eritrea's independence in 1993.

Over the past 30 years, these two countries we're at war twice: a full-scale war in 1998 to 1999, and in 2020 to 2022, Eritrea supported the Tigray insurgency in their battle against the Ethiopian government. Notably, in May 2022, russia tried to receive permission to open a military base in Eritrea in exchange for eight ZALA-Kub kamikaze drones. The Eritrean side took the drones but didn't issue the permit.

A column of Tigray insurgents supported by Eritrea
A column of Tigray insurgents supported by Eritrea / Open source photo

According to The Military Balance 2022, the Eritrean land forces consist of 200,000 troops divided into four army corps. They have 270 T-54/T-55 tanks, 40 BRDM-1 and BRDM-2 armored cars, 15 BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicles, 10 MT-LB tracked multipurpose armored vehicles, and 25 BTR-152/BTR-60 armored personnel carriers. Available anti-tank weapons include D-44 guns, Malyutka and Konkurs ATGMs from the Soviet era (numbers not specified).

Artillery equipment: approximately 258 self-propelled systems, including 13 units of 2S5 Giatsint, 32 units of 2S1 Gvozdika, 19 M-46 130mm guns, an unspecified number of D-30 towed howitzers, 35 BM-21 Grad and nine Uragan multiple launch rocket systems; around 150 mortars of calibers 82 mm and 120 mm. Air defense equipment includes some Strela-2 MANPADS, approximately 70 ZU-23-4 Shilka and ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft guns.

MiG-29UB of the Eritrean air force
MiG-29UB of the Eritrean air force / Illustrative photo credit: Madote

Also, The Military Balance 2022 says there are no special operations forces and the armed forces of Eritrea. Even if there are units with "special" status, those are more like an analog of the paramilitary forces in Donbas under russian command in Ukraine. In Eritrea's case, this description applies to the units that were deployed as part of Tigray's forces for war against Ethiopia in 2020-2022.

The Eritrean air force has only 350 regular personnel. they have two Su-27 and 12 MiG-29 fighters that were engaged in the war against Ethiopia, too, as well as 20 various light aircraft for training, four Mi-17 and four Bell 412EP Twin Huey helicopters.

The air defense in its common meaning is almost non-existent, however, there are some photos of individual Strela-10 missile systems and spare missiles for the S-125 system (without launchers) that were allegedly used by the Eritrean army.

Su-27 of the Eritrean air force / Open source illustrative photo
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