Armed Forces Overview: Following its independence from Ethiopia in 1993, the Eritrean government planned an armed forces strength of around 30,000. By the late 1990s, the armed forces had grown to 50,000 troops, and with the start of hostilities with Ethiopia, the army expanded dramatically, to nearly 300,000. A demobilization of about 50,000 soldiers took place in 2003, although aggressive efforts to round up men aged 18 to 40 who were avoiding national service continued as lingering tensions with Ethiopia failed to reach a peaceful resolution. Eritrea still has the second largest army in Africa. According to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, an estimated 1 million antipersonnel mines remain in Eritrea, approximately 400,000 of which were laid by Eritrean and Ethiopian forces during the 1998–2000 conflict.
Foreign Military Relations: Eritrea’s government generally is not favorably disposed to multilateral institutions, and relations with neighboring Ethiopia and Sudan are poor. Eritrea has had a close security relationship with China since independence. In early 2005, security cooperation with Yemen began with the signing of a joint security agreement and the creation of a joint ministerial committee. U.S. military cooperation with Eritrea, suspended during the war with Ethiopia, has resumed on a modest basis.
External Threat: The continuing border dispute with Ethiopia represents the most immediate and clear external threat to Eritrean security and stability. Relations with Sudan also remain tense, as for the past decade Khartoum has accused Asmara of supporting rebel groups in southern, eastern, and western Sudan. In turn, Asmara accuses Khartoum of backing the Eritrean Islamic Salvation Movement (Eritrean Islamic Jihad) in attacks on local and Western targets in Eritrea.
Defense Budget: In 1997 Eritrea’s defense budget was US$88 million, or 13.6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Defense spending skyrocketed during the war with Ethiopia, peaking in 1999 at US$271 million, a staggering 38.5 percent of GDP. Since the 2000 cease-fire, defense spending has declined, but it remained a heavy burden in 2002 (the last year for which figures are available) at US$150 million, or 25.7 percent of GDP.
Major Military Units: The Eritrean army has four corps with 20 infantry brigades, one commando division, and one mechanized brigade.
Major Military Equipment: The Eritrean army has an estimated 150 main battle tanks, 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. The navy has one missile craft, seven inshore patrol boats, and three amphibious vehicles of unknown serviceability. The air force has 18 combat aircraft of unknown serviceability, including MiG–21s, MiG–23s, and MiG–29s. The air force is thought to have approximately 15 training, transport, and armed helicopters.
Military Service: National Service is compulsory for a term of 16 months, including four months of military training. Since 1998, however, military service has often been extended indefinitely for men aged 18 to 40 and childless women aged 18 to 27. In 2005 men aged 40 to 60 in the major towns were recalled for several weeks of compulsory civil defense training.
Paramilitary Forces: None.
Foreign Military Forces: The United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea has some 3,300 troops inside a 25 kilometer-wide zone along the border with Ethiopia.
Police: Reliable estimates on the size of the Eritrean police force are not available.
Insurgent Forces: The Eritrean National Alliance (ENA) is a 3,000-strong organization of 10 opposition groups. It was established in Khartoum in 1999, in part as an attempt by Sudan to retaliate against Eritrean support for the National Democratic Alliance, a Sudanese opposition group. The following groups belong to the ENA: the Eritrean Liberation Front, the Eritrean People’s Conference, the Eritrean Islamic Salvation Movement, the Eritrean Liberation Front-Revolutionary Council, the Eritrean Liberation Front-National Council, the Eritrean People’s Democratic Liberation Front, the Eritrean Revolutionary Democratic Front, the Democratic Movement for the Liberation of Kunama/Eritrea, the Eritrean Democratic Resistance Movement Gash-Setit, and the Eritrean Initiative Group. These groups are a mix of liberation organizations marginalized during the struggle for independence, ethnically based groups, and the Sudan-sponsored Eritrean Islamic Salvation Movement (Eritrean Islamic Jihad). All are based in Sudan, from where some stage occasional and mostly ineffectual raids into western Eritrea. The strength of another group operating in Eritrea, the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organization, currently is unknown.
Human Rights: According the U.S. State Department, Eritrea is a one-party state in which presidential and legislative elections have been repeatedly postponed, the judiciary is weak, and constitutional provisions for democratic freedoms have yet to be implemented. Western observers characterize the Eritrean government’s human rights record as poor, and note that it continues to commit serious abuses. Security forces are responsible for unlawful killings, and there are persistent reports of torture and physical abuse of prisoners. Arbitrary arrests and detentions continue, and an unknown number of persons have been detained without charge for their political views. In general, freedom of speech and the press are severely constrained, and freedom of assembly, association, movement, and religion also are restricted. Discrimination and violence against women remain social problems, and the practice of female genital mutilation is widespread. Social discrimination against members of the Kunama group continues, as do government restrictions of workers’ rights.