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#3 (65), 2018


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Arms Trade

Prospects for the Export of Russian Arms to Libya after Cancellation of Embargo


Since the liberalization of economic sanctions imposed in 1999, Libya has once again become an attractive market for world arms exporters. Prior to the beginning of the 1990’s, Tripoli was the major weapons importer in Northern Africa. Now, Russia has once again acquired good chances to renew military-technical cooperation with its once traditional partner. In the present-day conditions, however, it will be necessary to compete for Libyan orders with the increased number of international exporters.

The Libyan armed forces

Before introduction of economic sanctions, which went into effect in 1992, the creation of an efficient and well-equipped army had been one of the priorities in the policy of the Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’. Funds from oil sales allowed for the purchase of arms and defense technology available on the contemporary mar­ket.

The totalitarian nature of Libya’s political re­gime has predetermined the creation of propor­tionally huge armed forces, totaling more than 60 thousand military personnel in a country with a population of just 6 million. The Libyan army was equipped mainly with Soviet-made weapons and military equipment. The first So­viet-Libyan agreement on military - technical cooperation was signed in 1972. Since the be­ginning of the 1970’s Libya has acquired from the Soviet Union more than 2000 tanks, 2000 armored infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers and an estimated 450 self-propelled artillery guns. The plane and helicop­ter fleet of the Libyan Air Forces for the most part consists of the aircraft of the Soviet manu­facture too, namely models MiG - 21,-23,-25; Tu – 22; Su-20,-22,-24; Il – 76. The Navy was similarly outfitted with Soviet made armaments. The Libyan system of anti-aircraft defense is equipped exclusively with anti-aircraft missile systems delivered by the USSR, namely: S-75 (SA-2), S-125 (SA-3), S-200 (SA-5), “Kub” (SA-6), “Osa” (SA-8) and ZSU-23-4 “Shilka”. Apart from deliveries of a wide spectrum of arms and training from the Soviets, in 1979 the USSR and Libya signed an agreement for the construction of military and military-industrial objects for an amount in excess of $2 billion. Among other as yet unknown agreements, the matter included the construction of repair facili­ties and submarine bases to be used by the So­viet Navy as well1. Military - technical coopera­tion with Tripoli was attractive to the Soviet Union not only in view of the favorable strate­gic geographical position of Libya. At that time, in contrast with the majority of military deliv­eries from Moscow carried out basically for ideological reasons, Libya paid for the Soviet exports with oil and hard currency.

Apart from the Soviet-made weapons, the Libyan armed forces purchased armaments from other socialist countries as well, such as Czecho­slovakia, China, Poland and Yugoslavia. Among western countries, the main armaments suppliers were France, Italy, Greece, Germany, and Bra­zil.

Further development of the army was tied up in 1992 with the introduction of sanctions against Libya in connection with its support of terrorism and refusal to extradite those guilty of the 1988 terrorist bombing of the commercial passenger plane above Lockerbie, Scotland. From that moment on, all contracts for arms de­liveries and defense technology that had been previously signed and were being carried out, mainly with the Soviet Union, were interrupted. The sanctions also covered deliveries of spare parts, dual-use goods and services. Specifically, as a result of introduction of sanctions, the large-scale program of modernization of the Libyan Air Forces, with an estimated value in billions of dollars, was brought to a halt.2 A large important deal for the delivery of MiG-29 (Fulcrum) fighters to Libya was also disrupted.3 Of the $3 billion in total Libyan debts to the USSR/Russia4 the majority was the result of the unfulfilled military contracts caused by the sanctions.

Naturally, the sanctions that were in operation until April of 1999 considerably weakened the Libyan armed forces. In fact, since 1992, arms and military equipment purchases had stopped and Tripoli ceased to be the major arms im­porter in the North Africa region. At present, the Libyan army can be characterized as bulky, out-of-date and not capable of defending the country’s territory effectively, which the Ameri­can bombardments of Tripoli in 1986 proved. The army had already become incapable of per­manent and effective protection of the Qaddafi regime, as was testified by the clashes with the armed pro-Islamic opposition in 1996-1997.

Major arms suppliers to Libya (1981-1985)



Total Delivery Value ($ mln)

























Source: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress of the United States

Arms deliveries to Libya in 1985-1997 ($ mln)

Years 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997
Value 2193 1602 777 1186 1318 425 453 86 1 10 1 10 5

Sources: Center for Strategic and International Studies; World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers’98, US Department of State, Bureau of Verification and Compliance

The absence of necessary spare parts, service and the appropriate experts, chiefly Soviet military advisers, explains why the majority of military hardware in the Libyan armed forces is no longer functional. This is especially the case concerning armored troops and the Navy.

During the years of embargo the majority of Li-byan armaments became obsolete. Approximately 150 T-72 tanks, more than 250 T-62 tanks and more than 200 T-54/55 tanks, as well as about 700 BMP-1 AIFVs and wheeled BRMD-2 ar­mored reconnaissance vehicles5 form the basis of the country’s land forces. The other part of Libya’s 2000-strong tank armada is in poor re­pair. The Libyan Air Force is primarily repre­sented by outdated models of Soviet manufac­ture, namely various modifications of MiG-21(Fishhed), MiG-23(Flogger), Su-20/22(Fitter), as well as by the French-made Mirage-5 and Yugoslavian J-1.

Necessity of reforms

After liberalization of the sanctions in 1999, Li-byan leadership acquired assets from oil sales designated for the restoration of the country. Naturally, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi faces the task of restoring the capacity and fighting ef­ficiency of the national armed forces too.

First of all, it will probably be necessary to put in order the military equipment already avail­able. This mainly entails the repair and mainte­nance of faulty armored equipment as well as the country’s Navy ships. To realize this task, it is essential that Libya acquire shipments of spare parts, assembly units and other special equip­ment. It will also be necessary to attract foreign experts who will both carry out repairs and train Libyan personnel.

It is possible to achieve the needed increase of fighting capacity of the armed forces in two ways. First, in some cases it will be more favor­able to carry out the modernization of separate kinds of arms. In this area Libya is most likely to attempt the modernization of its battle air fleet: the Su-24(Fencer) ground attack aircraft; the MiG-21, the MiG-25(Foxbat) fighters as well as the T-72 main battle tanks and its anti-aircraft defense system.

Secondly, it is also possible to assume that Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, providing funds are available, will undertake the purchase of new systems of armaments and military equipment, as he had already done in the past years before the embargo. Thus the nature of the arms to be purchased will be in accordance with the practical execution of strategic military-po­litical tasks.

The first and top-priority task of the Libyan leadership is the protection of the country’s own territory against possible attacks from the western states, primarily the USA and NATO. To achieve these goals, an emphasis will be made, above all, on the elaboration of a modern system of anti-aircraft defense. Such as system should be capable of repelling massive air and cruise mis­siles attacks from an opponent and also enable the capacity to strike sea and ground based tar­gets of potential opponents in the Mediterranean region. Therefore, such a defensive system would have to include medium-range “surface-to-sur­face” missiles (SSM), in addition to attack and fighting aircraft. Secondly, since Libya aspires to play an active part in regional affairs, both in the Middle East and in Africa, it will need appropri­ate forces and means. In the given context the emphasis can be made again on ballistic missile systems capable of, in case of need, striking Is­rael. Attack aircraft along with modern and mo­bile land troops for participation in regional con­flicts will be needed as well.

And lastly, in accordance with the totalitarian character of the Qaddafi regime, the Libyan army has a role, apart from its purely defensive functions, as a support mechanism of the Libyan political leadership, specifically the demonstra­tion of force and the need to maintain the stabil­ity of the existing state system. Should one con­sider the reformation of the Libyan armed forces as part of Qaddafi’s effort to strengthen his own political leadership, the top-priority emphasis will be made on perfection of the land forces.

Libya’s military - technical cooperation after liberalization of sanctions

After liberalization of sanctions the Libyan leadership already began drawing up plans for the modernization of its armed forces and making choices among contractors for the execution of works. The major western arms manufacturers - Germany, UK, France, Italy, as well as the CIS and Eastern European countries, have shown interest in military deliveries to Libya. Russia is also interested in re-acquiring the lions share of Tripoli’s defense orders, especially in view of the fact that most arms and military engineering of the Libyan army are of the Soviet manufacture.

After Tripoli was released of sanctions, Russian’s renewed cooperation with Libya has once again come under state control. After a trip of the Rus­sian delegation to Libya in 1999 led by the vice-premier Ilya Khlebanov, who supervises the mili­tary-industrial complex and military-technical cooperation matters in the Russian government, a joint committee on military-technical cooperation was created.  The joint committee declared that all potential orders from Libya should be ad­dressed to the Russian Ministry of Trade, instead of being immediately directed to specialized export agen­cies. Matters of Russian participation in modernization of the Libyan armed forces were discussed in Moscow at the session of the bilateral commission on trade and economic co­operation in October 1999 and at the meeting of Russia’s President with Libya’s Minister of Foreign Affairs in July 2000. According to the statements made by Moscow, in contrast to any offers made by other countries, Russia is ready to carry out the comprehensive program of moderni­zation of the Libyan armed forces.

The Ukraine and Belarus may become Russia’s competitors in regard to the distribution of Libyan contracts, first of all for the repair and modernization of the Soviet-made military equipment. Both of these countries possess the appropriate capacities, including experts and technologies inherited from the Soviet military-industrial complex, to service the equipment. Both the Ukraine and Belarus have noticeably their diplomatic contacts with Libya after the suspension of the embargo in the hope of receiving their share of orders. It is necessary to point out that making use of their ally status, the Byelorussians had more than once played a role as a “trans-shipment point” for deliveries of Russian weapons to those countries where their shipments, if made directly from Russia, might cause disruption in East – West diplomacy.

At the present moment the Russian state arms intermediary “Promexport,” has already begun to carry out a contract for the delivery of spare parts and ammunition for the Soviet equipment as well as for repair works of armor and antiair­craft systems,6 having signed a contract with Libya in the spring of 2000 for $100 million. The Ukraine and Belarus also hope to receive such repair and modernization contracts. The Ukraine possesses appropriate technology and programs for the modernization of Libyan T-72 tanks as well as for Libyan naval equipment. Byelarussian enterprises can provide for major repairs of Libyan T-54/55, T-62, T-72 tanks, BMP-1 AIFVs, Su-22 aircraft, anti-aircraft systems and radars7. Russia has the advantage that its facto­ries are outfitted to carry out repair and modernization of the whole spectrum of Soviet-made armaments in the Libyan army. Russian en­terprises are potentially in a condition to offer Libya modernization of the following aviation complexes: Su-24 ground attack aircraft, MiG-25 fighters, and also the upgrading of MiG-21 second-generation fighter planes to the MiG-21-93 fourth generation version8.

By all appearances, the Libyan leadership has not yet made any final decisions concerning pur­chases of new arms and military hardware.  It has already become clear, however, that the pri­ority focus of future imports will be for the pro­tection of the country from any possible assault on the part of the USA and NATO. This means the Libyan purchase of antiaircraft and non-stra­tegic antimissile armaments.

It was still during the sanctions that the Libyans developed their own project of the Al-Fatah me­dium-range missile with prospective range of 300 km. The project was developed with the help of Egypt, Iraq and China.   China concluded a con­tract with the Libyans for the construction of a wind tunnel.9  The obvious purpose of these rockets was to hit the surface missile carriers of a possible opponent. In autumn of 1999 Libya signed a contract with North Korea for the deliv­ery of 50 NoDong-1 surface-to-surface missiles (SSM) with a range of up to 800 km.10 The first lot of these missiles, equipped with conventional warheads, mobile launchers and accompanying equipment was delivered to Libya in August 2000 and deployed on the country’s Mediterranean coast. The targets of this missile system are the NATO sites in Southern Europe. Moreover, in October 2000 Qaddafi began new negotiations with North Korea for the purchase of a large amount of similar missiles, including missile complexes of new modifications11.

Libya expects to strengthen its anti-aircraft sys­tem with the help of Russia. During Russian vice-premier Ilya Khlebanov’s visit to Tripoli, the question of delivering modern fighters and anti-aircraft missile complexes to Libya was dis­cussed.12 Russia offered Libya to create a new system of national anti-aircraft defense based upon S-300PMU1 (SA-10) and S-300PMU2 (Favorit) missile complexes. Modernized systems of anti-aircraft defense from the previous genera­tion still in use in the Libyan army may form ad­ditional elements of this system13. Representa­tives of the Russian defense industry believe such an option will be cheaper for the Libyans than purchasing completely new systems. Long-range MiG-31 (Foxhound) interceptors and the MiG-29SMT (Fulcrum) fighters may reinforce the Libyan Air Forces14.

On the whole, Russia is ready to take an active part in modernization of Libyan armed forces. Apart from the armaments mentioned Russia may satisfy practically all-Libyan military requests, from the Kilo class submarines up to the multiple launch rocket systems and prospec­tive armored vehicles. However growing concern has been caused by the fact that up till now Libya had not made any decision as to develop­ment of its military - technical cooperation with Moscow on a broad scale. The reasons here may be that in Tripoli they regard the Russian pro­ducers as overpriced and thus try to maintain communications with Belarus and Ukraine - ex­porters that may offer similar production but at a lower price - for future contracts. At the same time the other CIS countries cannot deliver the newest arms systems in which Libya is most in­terested and such an activity in their relations with the Russia’s competitors by the Libyans may have the purpose of forcing Russians to re­duce the prices for their armaments. On the other hand, Russian arms exporters may stand a real chance to lose dominance in the prospective Libyan arms market. According to some sources, Tripoli has already concluded with the Ukraine, Slovakia and Bulgaria the majority of the con­tracts, the singing of which Russia might have counted15.

Breaking into the Libyan arms market will be a proof of not only the high competitive qualities of Russian weapons, but also of the abilities of Russian arms exporters to successfully promote their production outside the traditional countries of military-tech nical cooperation with Moscow, namely China and India.

Contracts on deliveries of arms and military equipment to Libya after lifting of the embargo


Subject of contract

Date of conclusion

Delivery date


($ ml)

North Korea

50 NoDong 1 SSMs

October 1999

August 2000



Spare parts and ammunition


Spring 2000



Construction of a wind tunnel18

Autumn 2000


no data available


An-124(Condor) heavy transport plane19


Autumn 2000

no data available

Source: CAST

1 Nikita Petrov, «Nikakikh printsipov - tolko konku­rentsiya», Business in Russia, # 120, March 2001.

2 Olga Bereznitskaya, «Rossiya gotova pomoch’ Livii

vsem», Kommersant-daily, # 197, 27.10.99, p.10;

3 Mikhail Kozyrev, «Podarok druzei iz Severnoi Af­riki», Kommersant, 01.06.2000;

4 Yury Golotyuk, Elena Suponina, «Vse luchshee - liviitsam», Vremya novostei, #93, 01.08.2000;

5 Nikita Petrov, «Nikakikh printsipov - tolko konku­rentsiya», Business in Russia, # 120, March 2001.

6 Yury Golotyuk, Elena Suponina, «Vse luchshee - liviitsam», Vremya novostei, #93, 01.08.2000;

7 Alexander Alesin, «Chto urvali, to prodali. A chto dalshe?», Belorusskii rynok, #47, 2000

8 «Zhestkaya konkurentsiya», Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, electronic version, #024 (147), 25.06.1999, range 6;

9 Yossef Bodansky, Libyan NoDong SSMs Targeting NATO Sites, Israel, Defense and Foreign Affaires Strategic Policy, October 2000, International Media Corporation

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Olga Bereznitskaya, «Rossiya gotova pomoch’ Livii

vsem», Kommersant-daily, # 197, 27.10.99, p.10;

13 Yury Korotchenko, «My amerikantsam kak kost’ v gorle», Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, electronic version, #015 (138), 23.04.1999, range 5;

14 Interfax News Agency, Moscow, in English, 09.07.1999;

15 Nikita Petrov, «Nikakikh printsipov - tolko konku­rentsiya», Business in Russia, # 120, March 2001.

16 Yossef Bodansky, Libyan NoDong SSMs Targeting NATO Sites, Israel, Defense and Foreign Affaires Strategic Policy, October 2000, International Media Corporation;

17 Yury Golotyuk, Elena Suponina, «Vse luchshee - liviitsam», Vremya novostei, #93, 01.08.2000;

18 Ibid.

19 Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, electronic version, #44 (217), 24.11.2000

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© Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, 2018