Why fishy smell on US arms deal just won’t go away

Friday March 10 2017

The Congress

The US Congress in session. The Senate easily passed the bipartisan measure that funds government until December 22, by a vote of 81 to 14. PHOTO | ALEX WONG | AFP 

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One of Chile’s many fascinating economic achievements is that it is the world’s second largest producer of salmon, after Norway. Interesting because salmon are native to the North Atlantic and Pacific, hence Norway’s dominance; Chile’s are farmed. Why and how a sub-tropical country would develop a competitive edge in salmon is one of the marvels of international trade.

Here’s the funny thing. On the very day last week that I became acquainted with this fact, I was a lunch guest of US Ambassador Robert Godec. You can imagine my bemusement that when lunch was served, I would find myself mulling whether the elegantly laid out chunk of pink salmon was Chilean or Norwegian. Ambassador Godec happens to be an old acquaintance of at least 20 years standing, but even then, there is no such thing as a free lunch and pink salmon ain’t tilapia. The lunch was an occasion to clear the air on a certain military equipment deal that has subsequently failed my good friend John Githongo’s smell test.

In a nutshell Amb Godec’s proposition was (i) that the US arms sale regulations is the most stringent and transparent in the world, meaning if there was anything fishy, it was sure to be discovered, (ii) the quoted $418 million (Sh42 billion) value of the deal does not reflect the actual prices. It is routine to put a higher ceiling than the actual cost so as to accommodate any other requirements and variations without seeking another approval.

This is my take after the tête-à-tête.


Most of us ordinary citizens, whose knowledge of military airpower is informed by the Jamhuri Day fighter jet fly past, have been intrigued as to why we would want to replace those graceful beasts with souped-up crop dusters. My amateur research on the subject seems to suggest that indeed they are fit for purpose.

Fighter jets are good for fighting militaries with their own fighter jets. They are very expensive and may not be very effective at fighting guerrillas. The conversion of crop dusters for military purposes is analogous to the conversion of ordinary vehicles into bulletproof limousines or armoured vehicles. Mr Godec described them correctly as "flying tanks". They are not alternatives to jet fighters but to attack helicopters and drones. They are not only cheaper, they are reportedly more effective than both.


First the facts. The US authorities approved the sale of $418 million to Kenya, by a company called L-3. This package includes 12 “weaponised” crop dusters and two training aircraft, manufactured by a company known as Air Tractor. The supplier, L-3, is a manufacturer of "avionics" or aircraft communications. L-3 is a progeny of an old and famous company Lockheed Martin that has vanished in mergers and acquisitions. L-3 will acquire the crop dusters from Air-Tractors, "weaponise" them, and sell them to us.

There is as yet no disclosure of the price. The only information we have is the contention by Congressman Ted Budd of North Carolina that the aircraft are overpriced, and his claim that he has “credible allegations of faulty contracting practices, fraud and unfair treatment”. The allegations seem to have convinced the US Congress to initiate an investigation. Budd contends that a company in his district known as Iomax can sell similar aircraft much cheaper.

Iomax is in the business of weaponising crop dusters. In fact, it used to weaponise Air Tractors but stopped doing so some time ago, reportedly on account of some differences with the Air Tractor company. Iomax now works exclusively on another crop duster known as Thrush, and after it has modified them, it sells them under its own brand name, Archangel. The Archangel is the aircraft that Congressman Budd is lobbying for.

It has subsequently come to light that L-3 may have lied, showing Iomax’s Thrush based Archangel as its weaponised Air Tractor product. According to the authoritative Jane’s Defence Weekly, the switch from Iomax to L-3 as the mission-systems integrator requires a new weapons certification, and it is unclear whether this has been granted. From the look of things, we are to be L-3’s guinea pig. The idea that our military could be misled with a glossy brochure on a deal of this magnitude and significance seems to me to be a bit of a stretch. 

Smell? Fishy!


This question has both a military and political, that is civilian, dimension. What hardware the military chooses to buy is its business, but whether they fight wars and which wars it fights is a political question. I have no expertise or locus standi on the former, but every citizen has a right to engage the latter question.

For several months now, a large swathe of the North Rift region has been a veritable war zone. A few weeks ago, bandits shot dead a Chief within shouting distance of the Deputy President’s political rally. But it is not until a white conservancy owner in Laikipia was killed by herders who have occupied the ranch he co-owns, that the gravity of the situation received hysterical media coverage both locally and internationally. For a day and a night, the body could not be retrieved because the place was too dangerous. This is after the Government denied that the Inspector General’s helicopter had been shot at, a report that was subsequently corroborated. The mighty Kenyan state was held at bay by a few herdsmen perched on a hill.

It did not stop Major General Foot-in-Mouth from reassuring tourists and diplomats that our wildlife sanctuaries could not be safer. There is something fundamentally pathological about a State which gets hysterical when a white person, tourist or resident, comes in harm's way, but is indifferent to the slaughter of its indigenous citizens.

This is precisely the myopic, knee-jerk hysteria that led us to invade Somalia. There is no evidence that Al Shabaab was ever going to be a greater security threat to Kenya than the episodic domestic flare-ups such as we are experiencing now.


The title of a November 2011 Time magazine article by Alex Perry posed the question: ‘Kenya Invades Somalia. Does it Get Any Dumber?’ “If the history of war teaches us anything, it’s that invading a foreign country is dicey. Storming across too many borders was the undoing of many of the world’s great conquerors, from Alexander the Great to Napoleon to the Nazis. The last few decades of US foreign policy — Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq — only underline how tricky invasions are, even for the most powerful. The last 20 years have also seen Somalia emerge with a particularly consistent record of chewing up anyone who arrives carrying a gun, including the UN and US special operations troops (1992-3), Ethiopians (2006-9) and Ugandans and Burundians from an African Union peacekeeping force (2008-today). So what does Kenya think it’s doing?”

“Starting a war is not an obvious way to bolster a country’s reputation for safety and security. Starting a war with an al-Qaeda affiliate who have previously carried out attacks abroad (in Kampala in July 2010 two al-Shabab suicide bombers killed 76 people) and who have been itching for an excuse to do the same to you carries even more obvious risks. But starting a war in which your invading forces are outnumbered from the beginning (al-Shabab has around 2,500 men at arms), and doing that just as the rainy season starts, is bat crazy.”

Let’s do the math. Holiday tourist arrivals fell from 1.119 million in 2011 to 1.059m in 2011, and every year since to 945,000 in 2015, 16 percent below the pre-invasion arrivals. Earnings have fallen. This is the first time in history that we’ve experienced more than two successive years of decline. This is against the backdrop of a booming African tourism industry. Over the same period, Ugandan arrivals have grown 13 percent, and Tanzania’s by a torrid 27 percent.


Assuming Uganda’s lower growth of 13 percent, the damage works out to 800,000 holiday visitors over the four years, at an average revenue of US$1000 per visitor, translating to forgone revenue of $800 million (Sh80 billion). This is only the direct revenue loss. It does not include the multiplier effect of tourism in the local economies, particularly the Coast, which has been the most hard hit. This is in addition to the human and economic toll of the attacks themselves, as well as the financial cost of prosecuting the war.

It is far from evident that our military failures are due to inferior equipment. In El Adde, our troops were caught napping. In Kulbiyow, they reportedly had the benefit of a surveillance drone. It did not help. They were tactically outfoxed. The aircraft that would have responded to the Garrissa University attack was out on a joyride. This was on top of a pile of operational blunders including ignoring intelligence, and by Major General Foot-in-Mouth’s own admission, poorly coordinated response. There are no armaments on earth that can make up for mediocrity. An army that cannot fortify its camps cannot be helped.


In the seminal study of guerrilla warfare The War of the Flea: A Study of Guerrilla Warfare Theory and Practise, rescued from obscurity by the Iraq-Afghanistan wars, Robert Taber, a pro-Cuban American journalist, set out succinctly the nature of what we are now calling asymmetric warfare. “The guerrilla fights the war of the flea, and his military enemy suffers the dog’s disadvantages: too much to defend; too small, ubiquitous, and agile an enemy to come to grips with. The flea bites, hops and bites again, nimbly avoiding the foot that would crush him. He does not seek to kill his enemy at a blow but to bleed him and feed on him, to plague and bedevil him, to keep him from resting and to destroy his nerve and morale.”

Writing in 1965, a decade into the Vietnam war, Taber spelled out three alternatives for the US “(1) to wage a relentless, full scale war of subjugation against the Vietnamese people, with the aid of such Vietnamese allies as remain available; (2) seek a solution acceptable to the Vietnamese people, a step that would clearly entail negotiating with the Viet Cong; (3) quit the field and the Vietnamese work out their own solution.” It would be another decade before the US cut and ran.

Perry concluded his TIME article thus: “History may be littered with warnings about just this kind of action but still, rarely has disaster been so plainly foretold.”

The US dropped seven million tonnes of bombs on Vietnam, three and a half times more than all the bombs dropped in World War II, and still lost the war to guerrillas who did not have a single aircraft.

The war of the flea.