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Kenya taps Israeli loan to improve air defense

Kenya is acquiring a high-tech missile defense system from Israel using a Sh1 billion loan from Tel Aviv amid growing security threats in the Gulf of Aden from Houthi rebels and Somalia’s Al-Shabaab.

The anti-missile barrier called the Spyder Air Defense System will be purchased through a loan from Israeli company Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd, for an undisclosed cost, Treasury budget documents tabled in Parliament on Tuesday night show.

The upgrade to Kenya’s defense system comes during a period of heightened security concerns as Iran-backed Houthi rebels fire drones and missiles toward Israel and commercial ships in the Red Sea.

The country still faces threats from al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabaab, which has carried out a series of attacks in the region since it formed more than a decade ago, including a bold 2020 assault on US forces in Kenya.

The timing of the Israeli deal with Kenya also comes against the backdrop of rising tensions in the Middle East following the war between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

The Treasury provided few details about the deal as the country races to modernize the Kenya Defense Forces.

“Procurement of Quantity One (1) Battery Reinforced Medium Range Surface-to-Air Missile System – Spyder Air Defense System,” the Treasury said in budget documents projecting new borrowing for the financial year starting in July.

Israel is not one of Kenya’s major donors. It exported goods worth Sh6.84 billion to Kenya against imports of Sh978 million.

But Kenya has maintained strong relations with Israel and condemned the Oct. 7, 2023, Hamas attack on Israel, which sparked the ongoing war. Kenya has since called for a cessation of hostilities.

The 1 billion shillings loan deal is part of the 168 billion shillings budget allocated to the Ministry of Defense for the fiscal year starting in July.

It comes as MPs continue to pressure the ministry to consider leasing the systems it uses to collect intelligence due to the high costs associated with purchasing kits and their high rate of obsolescence.

“The MoD is considering leasing the equipment and systems it uses as rapid changes in technology make leasing more affordable than purchasing. In this way, the ministry will avoid the risk of investing huge budgets in equipment and systems that become obsolete before the end of their useful period,” the parliamentarians resolved in their report on the Budget Policy Statement (BPS) for 2024.

Kenya does not make its military purchases public and only Parliament has the mandate to review classified spending. Some of Kenya’s largest military expenditures have been revealed through international sources such as the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri).

These include helicopters, transport planes and fighter jets, illustrating the race to strengthen the country’s air power.

In recent years, Kenya has continued to lead its regional neighbors in both budget growth and annual spending, raising fears that it could trigger an arms race in the region. The Spyder air defense unit defends large areas against a broad spectrum of threats.

“System components and interceptors can be flexibly combined, offering different configurations with varying ranges and capabilities. “All Spyder systems have multi-target capability to counter saturation attacks,” says Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd, the company that manufactures Spyder Air Defense Systems.

The system also offers protection against attacks by aircraft, helicopters and cruise missiles.

While the capabilities of this system are not clear in Treasury documents, the Middle Eastern nation has demonstrated strong capabilities to repel air attacks through its Iron Dome batteries.

Israel’s best-known air defenses are its Iron Dome batteries, developed jointly with the United States, which are mainly used to shoot down short-range rockets fired by Palestinian militants.

During recent conflicts with militants in Gaza, the system has intercepted about 90 percent of projectiles that crossed into Israeli territory and targeted populated areas, according to the military.

Israel also defended hundreds of drones and missiles fired by Iran on April 14 using a combination of its own sophisticated air defenses and critical support from Western powers and Arab partners.

Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd is also the manufacturer of the Iron Dome.

The Ministry of Defense has spent more than Sh385 billion in the three years ending June 2023. The ministry’s budget has grown by 38 percent, from Sh122.26 billion in the 2020/21 fiscal year to Sh168 billion in 2024/25.

“The ministry faced several challenges during the implementation of the mandate, but it was not limited to terrorism, radicalization and religious extremism; complex and evolving organized crime; The rapid advancement of military technologies leads to a high rate of equipment obsolescence and a high cost of modification,” notes the Treasury in the 2024/25 budget books.

It notes that among the measures to address the challenges are “the expansion of infrastructure and the improvement of military operations” and that “the acquisition of modern equipment and the development of related infrastructure” will be among the critical key performance indicators for the Ministry of Defense in the medium term.