Armed conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces has escalated following an outbreak of violence in April 2023. There is intensive fighting in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, neighbouring Omdurman and elsewhere, including Darfur.
While mediation efforts continue to stumble, both forces are sufficiently armed to sustain a protracted conflict. It’s unlikely either can topple the other.
Sudan is awash with firearms. The country ranks second among its regional neighbours in total firearms estimates, with combined holdings among civilians and security forces topping out at over three million. First on the list of regional states’ estimated firearms holdings is Sudan’s edgy northern neighbour, Egypt.
A vast majority of these firearms are in the hands of civilians. This underscores the significant risk of increased violence within Sudan as the conflict goes on.
I’m the research coordinator of a project on Sudan and South Sudan at the Small Arms Survey, which provides expertise on small arms and armed violence. The project’s empirical research provides insights into how weapons are sourced and the actors who use them.
In my view, the two Sudanese forces employ strikingly contrasting fighting methods. The army’s superiority is its air force and heavy arsenal on the ground. The paramilitary force is reliant on nimble mobile units equipped with primarily small and light weapons. While battlefield seizures and a loss of weapons stores have affected both groups, it’s unlikely that either will suffer a debilitating shortage of supplies.
Sudanese Armed Forces
The Sudanese army has in excess of 120,000 troops countrywide – with several thousand more in reserve. Its recruits are primarily from the country’s peripheries, while its leadership is comprised largely of elites from the central Nile region.
The army’s capability is bolstered by its air force and supported by battle tanks and other armoured infantry vehicles.
In the past weeks, the Sudanese Armed Forces have reportedly seized several bases held by the Rapid Support Forces.
However, the paramilitary force has also overrun some of the army’s weapons stores and military equipment manufacturing facilities. Its troops have also seized army equipment on the battlefield.
Rapid Support Forces
The Rapid Support Forces have more than 75,000 combatants, most of whom hail from the Darfur region in the country’s far west. The force is buttressed by additional recruits in Sudan’s north and east.
Several militia groups aligned with the paramilitary force’s commander, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, could mobilise if conflict intensifies in Sudan’s peripheries, particularly in Darfur. Here, hundreds of people have been killed in past weeks, mainly from small arms gunfire.
Rapid Support Forces fighters in Khartoum – which has seen the most sustained and concentrated fighting – are relying on small arms and heavy machine guns to control the airport and government buildings, and to hold positions wedged between residential apartment blocks.
While neither side is accustomed to fighting within urban centres, such a setting favours the Rapid Support Forces’s more agile “rapid” ground forces. In the absence of a ceasefire, the paramilitary forces will likely remain entrenched in the city because of the physical protection that it provides, and avoid risking a Sudanese Armed Forces air attack in open terrain.
Still, the Rapid Support Forces’ use of infantry vehicles and anti-aircraft weapons in densely populated residential areas of Khartoum has drawn aerial fire. This has killed paramilitary combatants and civilians alike.
The Rapid Support Forces have played a significant role in the proliferation of arms in Darfur. They have facilitated supply – financed in part by Dagalo’s wealth – and stoked demand among a population subjected to the region’s chronic insecurity.
These paramilitary fighters have an abundance of AK-pattern rifles and more sophisticated high-calibre weapons. Since former President Omar Bashir’s ouster in 2019 and Hemedti’s rise as deputy leader of Sudan’s government, he’s been relatively unencumbered in procuring weapons and equipment for his force.
A 2019 investigation revealed that more than 1,000 vehicles – most of them Toyota Hilux pick-ups – were purchased from dealers in the United Arab Emirates, and later equipped with mounted weapons. The funds to purchase the vehicles were likely sourced from Hemedti’s vast gold mining operations in Sudan.
Rapid Support Forces fighters recently paraded a handful of man-portable air defence systems, or manpads, on the steps of the presidential palace in Khartoum. Jubilant fighters also waved various small arms, including G3A4 rifles that may be of Saudi origin.
The manpads could target Sudanese army aircraft and are a serious threat to civil aviation. It’s unclear how or when the paramilitary unit acquired them, but the Sudanese army is known to have them stockpiled. Recent reporting alleges that the Wagner Group – a Russian paramilitary force with close ties to Hemedti and with mutual gold mining interests – offered to supply the Rapid Support Forces with arms, including manpads.
What this means for the future
Over the past month, the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces have demonstrated flagrant disregard for the safety of the Sudanese people in the capital and the peripheries. In light of this, it’s difficult to envision a pathway to silencing the guns in Sudan without meaningful participation from civil society and the involvement of civilian political leadership.
For the moment, the most critical need is to establish a lasting ceasefire for emergency assistance to reach the people who desperately need it. Only then can attention be given to securing weapons stockpiles, reducing illicit weapons and misuse, and moving beyond Sudan’s fractured power politics.
Alsanosi Adam, a researcher with the Human Security Baseline Assessment project at the Small Arms Survey, contributed to this article.
Khristopher Carlson, Senior Researcher and Coordinator of the Small Arms Survey’s Human Security Baseline Assessment project on Sudan and South Sudan., Graduate Institute – Institut de hautes études internationales et du développement (IHEID)