Eritrea Army

As the second largest army in Africa, Eritrea's Army is well staffed, well trained, and compared to the vast majority of African armies, well funded. Indeed, during Eritrea’s fight for independence from Ethiopia, the Eritrean military was once widely admired as one of the most effective fighting organizations in the world.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, a good military has historically been hard to come by. A 1997 report from the US State Department noted that: "[O]nly seven out of forty-six Sub-Saharan militaries are ‘capable of deploying without significant augmentation an equipped professional battalion for a multinational peace or humanitarian operation,’ that nine state have ‘strong officer corps (experienced, trained, professional),’ that only six of the forty-two militaries can ‘perform engineering tasks such as construction, bridging, and water provision,’ that no Sub-Saharan states can ‘provide sustained transportation of personnel and equipment to a peace or humanitarian operation,’ and that only two states have ‘significant naval capability.’

The Eritrean Army constitutes the main component of the EDF. Eritrea boasts one of the largest standing armies in Africa and is among the most militarized societies in the world. To protect himself and his regime from assassination, coup d'etat, army mutiny, or a foreign commando strike, Isaias created three separate Presidential Guard units of about 2,000 troops each. These elite solders get extra pay, have modern equipment, and receive specialized training. Most are stationed in or near Asmara, including a sizeable group lodged about 800 yards from the DCM's residence. The three units are nominally led by a Major General, but in reality Isaias personally commands each one. In addition, Presidential Guardsmen also serve as jailors for the G-15 (senior Eritrean officials arrested in 2001). Isaias' right-hand man commands the 70-man presidential bodyguard detachment.

By 1977, the EPLF was poised to drive the Ethiopians out of Eritrea. That same year, however, a massive airlift of Soviet arms to Ethiopia enabled the Ethiopian Army to regain the initiative and forced the EPLF to retreat to the bush. Between 1978 and 1986, the Derg launched eight major offensives against the independence movement--all of which failed. In 1988, the EPLF captured Afabet, headquarters of the Ethiopian Army in northeastern Eritrea, prompting the Ethiopian Army to withdraw from its garrisons in Eritrea's western lowlands. EPLF fighters then moved into position around Keren, Eritrea's second-largest city.

At the end of the 1980s, the Soviet Union informed Ethiopia that it would not be renewing the existing bilateral defense and cooperation agreement. With the withdrawal of Soviet support and supplies, the Ethiopian Army's morale plummeted, and the EPLF--along with other Ethiopian rebel forces--advanced on Ethiopian positions. In May 1991, the EPLF established the Provisional Government of Eritrea (PGE) to administer Eritrean affairs until a referendum could be held on independence and a permanent government established.

As of 1993 it was transforming into conventional Army from EPLF force. Forces were divided into infantry and mechanised brigades of around 1,500 men each. As many as 56 brigades were theoretically possible, but number is less than that. The EDF was built out of the fighting forces of the EPLF, which were organised around small units called mäsri composed of three lines/rows of five to ten soldiers each. Three mäsri form a ganta, equivalent to a platoon, with a strength of about 30 to 45 fighters. Three ganta form a haile (meaning power), equivalent to a company, often equipped with heavy weapons and numbering about 100 fighters. Three haile form a battalion, or bot`oloni, and three battalions a brigade. Three brigades supposedly form a division, with three divisions then forming a corps.

The Army had four corps with twenty infantry brigades, one commando division, and one mechanized brigade as of 2005, with their commanders reporting to the Chief of Staff. Other accounts report that each Corps (kflä särawit) contained 20 infantry brigades (brgedä). Following the traditional structure of defense forces worldwide, there should be an additional entity – the Division – between Brigade and Corps levels. However, there is no indication as to the existence of divisions in the Eritrean Army. EDF units are frequently rotated among the regional commanders to combat the formation of loyalty between soldiers and commanders.

The Eritrean Army is reportedly composed of four corps, each broken down into twenty infantry brigades, one commando division and one "mechanized" brigade (Defense & Foreign Affairs Handbook 2006, 590; US Sept. 2005, 15). Information on when this organizational structure came into effect could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate. Information on the current number of divisions of the Eritrean Army could not be found among sources consulted. According to the Defense & Foreign Affairs Handbook, in early 2000, before the army's organizational structure went into a "condition of flux," there were 24 divisions (2006, 590).

The ranks of the Eritrean Army, include Major General, Brigadier General, Colonel, Lieutenant Colonel, Major, Captain, Lieutenant 1st Class, Lieutenant 2nd Class, Master Sergeant, Staff Sergeant, Sergeant, Corporal and Private 1st Class (n.d.).

Information on whether all divisions of the Eritrean Army are involved in military operations could not be found among the sources consulted; however, several sources indicate that soldiers may engage in certain non-military activities. Cited in a 19 May 2005 article by the United Nations (UN) Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), an Eritrean government spokesman stated that "[i]n a time of relative peace, 90 percent of the army works in productive sectors ... [Eritreans] have never lived in a situation where the army is simply a fighting force." The article notes that, according to the Eritrean government, the army engages in non-military activities such as farm work and construction of houses and infrastructure (UN 19 May 2005).

The strength of the EDF is difficult to evaluate. Most of their manpower is provided by Eritreans between 18 and 40 years of age who are conscripted into military service. According to the 2015 CIA World Factbook, the Eritrean army had between 250,000 and 300,000 troops. Recent reports, however, indicate that the actual number of troops is lower, with some units operating half-strength. This is allegedly due to the number of potential or actual conscripts fleeing the country.

Eritrean defence forces are deployed throughout Eritrea, and the country is divided into five military operation zones or command zones, created out of the fighting zones defined in 1965 by the Supreme Council of the ELF and maintained by the EPLF. The operation zones are: Gash-Barka (Zone 1); West (Zone 2); South (Zone 3); East (Zone 4); and Centre, including Asmara (Zone 5). Each of them is headed by a general. Again, there is almost no information on how operation zones are staffed and structured. They seem to integrate all three elements of military power.

Reports indicate that operation zone commanders have gained power since the border conflict with Ethiopia, to the extent that they supersede civil administrators in many regions. It has also been reported that President Afwerki routinely shifts zone commanders around, apparently to encourage rivalries between them, distribute profits, and prevent them from building up too close a rapport with the units under their command. Similarly, deputy commanders are reportedly carefully selected for their loyalty to the President, who maintains control over zonal commanders through them.

The Eritrean army had an estimated 150 main battle tanks in 2005, 40 reconnaissance vehicles, 40 armored infantry fighting and personnel vehicles, 100 pieces of towed artillery, 25 pieces of self-propelled artillery, 35 multiple rocket launchers, 100+ mortars, 200 antitank guided weapons, and 70 air-defense guns.

Paragraphs 5 and 6 of Security Council resolution 1907 (2009) require all Member States to take the measures necessary to prevent the sale or supply to Eritrea by their nationals or from their territories or using their flag vessels or aircraft, of arms and related materiel of all types, including weapons and ammunition, military vehicles and equipment, paramilitary equipment and spare parts for the aforementioned, and technical assistance, training, financial and other assistance, related to the military activities or to the provision, manufacture, maintenance or use of these items, whether or not originating in their territories.

As recently as late 2014 Eritrea continued to violate UN Security Council resolution resolution 1907 (2009) by importing weapons and ammunition from eastern Sudan on a regular basis and with the knowledge and direction of Eritrean officials affiliated with the President’s Office. The weapons include Kalashnikovs, Sudanese-made rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, mortar tubes, and SPG-9 guns.

The UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea identified Nusredin Ali Bekit, who was the manager of the Teseney branch of the Red Sea Corporation until July 2014, for his role in the trafficking of weapons from Eastern Sudan. At the time, Mr. Bekit was reporting to Colonel Tesfaldet Habteselasie, who is understood to be in charge of security and the financing of armed groups in the President’s Office. Mr. Bekit has since then been promoted to Minister of Trade and Industry.

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