The Men and the Machines: Mozambique's Elite Motorized Infantry

Part 2: The Men

This is the second installment in a two-part series profiling units in the Mozambican military equipped with Chinese armored fighting vehicles. Part 2, The Men, is below and focuses on the soldiers deployed with these vehicles. Part 1, The Machines, can be found here.

Part 1 of this investigation established that Mozambique’s military, the FADM, has fielded Chinese armored fighting vehicles, known as Tigers, since September 2018. These vehicles operate in Mozambique’s northern province of Cabo Delgado and have bases and logistical support in towns throughout the province, including in Mueda, Ancuabe, and Mocimboa da Praia (the most recent attack in MDP notwithstanding). The Tigers’ presence has been kept secret by the Mozambican government.

Just as significant as the vehicles themselves are the soldiers who fight with them and keep them running. Throughout the course of this investigation, I identified common themes among the men deployed with the vehicles. This second part will focus on these soldiers’ ranks, training, units, and military specialties. Using this information, I’ll close with my theory of how the Tigers are used and deployed by the FADM.

As in the first part of this series, the evidence for this piece draws mostly from a database of 53 separate appearances of Tigers in Facebook photos from over 30 individual FADM soldiers.

O Sergeant! My Sergeant!

One of the most striking things about the soldiers deployed with the Tigers is the complete lack of commissioned officers in their ranks. In fact, not a single commissioned officer (second lieutenant or above) was pictured with these vehicles in action. 

Officers may have better operational security and therefore are less likely to post pictures with advanced equipment, such as the Tigers, to social media. A second explanation could be that the FADM’s order of battle dictates that Tiger detachments are commanded by non-commissioned officers rather than commissioned officers.

A final possibility is that Mozambique’s commissioned officer corps is fairly bloated following 2019’s reintegration of Renamo officers into Mozambique’s military. Senior (mainly Frelimo) NCOs could be seen as more loyal and better trusted with costly equipment by the military establishment due to their long service. This theory is borne out by several NCOs’ pictures with Frelimo iconography and publicity materials.

FADM sergeant wearing Frelimo colors poses with friends wearing “Vote Nyusi” shirts, indicating support for Mozambique President Filipe Nyusi, a member of Frelimo.

Whatever the reality, officers are not nearly as intertwined with these vehicles as are enlisted soldiers and NCOs. 

Private first class and second sergeant previously seen with Tiger pose at base

FADM Fuzileiros sergeant major previously deployed with Tigers seen on ship

The vast majority of the soldiers seen with Tigers are senior non-commissioned officers. The FADM has four sergeant ranks: first sergeant, second sergeant, third sergeant, and sergeant-major. Most of the soldiers in the database were one of these ranks, although there were a few enlisted corporals and privates first class as well. 

FADM non-commissioned officers (especially senior ones) are typically better trained and have more time in service than recruits and junior soldiers. But where and how did these troops prepare to become qualified to operate Tigers?

Treino Duro, Combate Fácil

Virtually all of the soldiers in the Facebook database posted about at least one training course more than the initial basic training that all FADM soldiers undergo. This longer, more specialized training period illustrates that the Mozambican government views the Tigers as substantial investments that require more advanced human resources than standard FADM equipment.

Recruits in the FADM’s basic training course are easy to spot, with their baggy, grey-brown uniforms, black boots, and complete lack of insignia or patches, besides a simple “Mocambique” label on the left shoulder.  

A recruit’s basic training uniform

Determining which unit a recruit ends up in is difficult because, during basic training, they’re assigned to training battalions with general, standardized names that are reused for each successive recruit class. Soldiers are extremely loyal to these training units, often wearing t-shirts and hats bearing their names and insignia. 

While a soldier could end up in, for example, a motorized infantry unit, he and his friends may still refer to themselves as “Batalhao Mamba” (Mamba Battalion), despite the fact that there have been several different Batalhao Mambas comprised of entirely different recruits in the time since he left basic training.

A recruit with a sign for the Batalhao Tigre training unit

Outside of the initial basic training course, many of the soldiers operating the Tiger armored vehicles also attend the FADM’s sergeant school, Escola de Sargentos das Forcas Armadas in Boane, Mozambique, more commonly known as ESFA-Boane. 

Similar to recruits in the FADM’s basic training course, soldiers in ESFA wear the same loose, grey-brown uniforms, albeit with the addition of brightly colored epaulettes and name patches. 

A trainee sergeant at ESFA-Boane, displaying the epaulettes and name patch on his training uniform.

As for the courses themselves, they appear to be intensive and lengthy. Based on photos posted to Facebook, these courses focus on small unit leadership, classroom training, and parade-ground drilling. 

One soldier in a unit equipped with Tigers tagged himself in Facebook photos from ESFA for nearly nine months straight. Another FADM sergeant-to-be started tagging himself in ESFA photos in early January 2020. As of this writing (August 2020), he still posts at least monthly about his life at the sergeants’ school.  

A sergeant trainee tagged himself in his first photo at ESFA-Boane on January 29, 2019 and posted consistently about training at the base until October 11, 2019.

In late January 2020, ISIS attacked a detachment of sergeant-trainees equipped with two “BTRs” [armored vehicles] from ESFA in Mbau, Mozambique. Since NCOs both study at ESFA and also primarily operate Tigers, this ISIS attack on ESFA students in Mbau is likely where the group captured its first Tiger.

The final course that many of the soldiers that operate Tigers undergo takes place at the FADM Commando Training Center in Nacala, Nampula Province. Much less is known about what exactly this course entails and who attends it. However, several soldiers that went on to fight with Tigers were seen posing with the large sign at the entrance to the base and during physical training regimens with other trainees. The course appears to be several months long and caters to both generic FADM special forces units as well as soldiers that later end up becoming airborne infantry.

Two soldiers later seen with Tigers pose at the Nacala commando training base.

Trainees leave this course wearing the knife emblem of the FADM special forces. Many of these highly-trained soldiers end up being deployed with Tigers, among other high-profile counter-insurgency missions in northern Mozambique. 

Whether at ESFA-Boane or the Commando Training Center, the long and intense training courses from which soldiers operating Tigers graduate indicate that these troops, regardless of unit, are generally more senior and more elite than the average FADM recruit. 

Units

Though soldiers that use the Tigers appear to be better trained than standard FADM forces, which units do they actually belong to? 

There appear to be essentially three types of FADM soldiers deployed with the newest version of the Tiger armored vehicles: special forces (i.e. those who went through the Commando Training Center course described above), Fuzileiros, and regular infantry of various specializations. 

It is also important to note that, unlike the highly publicized 2014 Tiger models, none of the 2018 Tigers were seen deployed with Mozambican police in any way. This change marks a stark departure from previous police equipment, as Mozambique’s UIR police unit uses the 2014 Tigers as a mainstay of their armored vehicle complement. The secretive 2018 model, on the other hand, is exclusively a military weapon. 

The FADM special forces deployed with Tigers did not describe their specific unit affiliations or order of battle. However, they did refer to themselves as being part of the Batalhao Comando, or Commando Battalion. It remains unclear whether this is just how they styled themselves or if the Commando Battalion is an actual FADM unit name. 

Either way, it’s indisputable that FADM special forces were deployed with Tigers. In this photo of soldiers on patrol with a 2018 Tiger, note the patch on the beret of the soldier on the right. It bears the distinctive arm and dagger of the FADM special forces:

The second type of soldier deployed with the modern Tigers are Fuzileiros. This force, similar to the US or UK marines, is a specially trained amphibious unit usually tasked with protecting Mozambique’s natural gas infrastructure off the coast of Cabo Delgado. While virtually all of the Tigers in the country were seen in Cabo Delgado, Fuzileiros were often seen with Tigers in the province’s port cities, such as Pemba and Mocimboa da Praia. 

Similar to the commandos, Fuzileiros can be identified by their dark blue berets with silver patches, as seen on these soldiers posing with Tigers: 

While Fuzileiros were often seen fulfilling traditional infrastructure protection roles in Cabo Delgado’s port cities, they were occasionally seen taking on standard infantry responsibilities as well. For example, several Fuzileiros were seen wearing FADM khaki or jungle camouflage uniforms while posted to the Tigers’ operational command post in Mueda, deep in the center of Cabo Delgado. 

Unfortunately, the Facebook evidence doesn’t reveal exactly what they were doing while acting as FADM ground forces. These Fuzileiros, like the man below, were certainly far from the coast and, correspondingly, far from any mission protecting Mozambique’s oil infrastructure.

Finally, infantry of a few different specializations were also seen with Tigers throughout Cabo Delgado. These specializations ranged from logistical, such as technicians and repairmen, to military, such as drivers and machine gunners. 

FADM “Operations technician” and “Section leader”, respectively, pose with Tigers

The infantry, unlike the commandos or Fuzileiros, were not shy about posting their unit affiliations. Like any FADM soldier, they discussed their training battalions - Mamba Battalion, Tiger Battalion, and so forth - quite frequently. But they also referred to specific, verifiable units within the FADM.

Among these units were the 108 Chokwe Brigade, the Seventh Infantry Brigade, a motorized infantry brigade, and, most of all, the Cuamba Infantry Brigade. At least two soldiers posted explicitly about their affiliation with the Cuamba Infantry Brigade. Outside of these two, many other soldiers later seen with Tigers tagged themselves in photos from the large FADM base adjacent to the Cuamba airfield in Niassa Province. 

Two FADM soldiers post about their deployment with the Cuamba Infantry Brigade

The Seventh Infantry Brigade may also be a different name for the Cuamba Infantry Brigade, as seen in one soldier’s Facebook “Intro” section below:

If that’s the case, the Cuamba/Seventh Infantry Brigade may play a much larger role than other infantry units in using or supporting the Tiger armored vehicles. 

Regardless of which particular unit they belong to, the specializations held by these infantry soldiers reinforce the idea that any soldier that fights with the Tigers, from FADM infantry to commandos to Fuzileiros, are better trained, better equipped, and more experienced than an entry-level recruit with basic gear. 

Eye of the Tiger

Based on the information gleaned from my Facebook database and other public sources, I developed a basic working theory for the use and deployment of the 2018 Tiger shipment. 

As laid out in Part 1 of this investigation, the Tigers are exclusively used in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province. Their arrival in Mozambique was kept quiet back in 2018 because, from a public relations standpoint, the government’s image may suffer if it looked like the military procured dozens of armored personnel carriers from China specifically to put down an insurgency that it wasn’t able to suppress using regular equipment and regular troops.

As the insurgency continues to rage (and as ISIS continues to capture these machines), ongoing deployments of the Tigers have become necessary. Small detachments of these vehicles are based throughout Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province, with primary logistical and support bases in Mueda and Mocimboa da Praia. 

The Tigers are not attached to any one particular FADM brigade or battalion, but are instead used “as needed” by several specialized units throughout the military. These units receive additional training through either ESFA or the Commando Training Center. Fuzileiro units may use Tigers to protect resource infrastructure in major ports, commando units may use the vehicles for special missions in Cabo Delgado, and regular infantry units may use them during their rotations through combat posts in the province.

Experienced and well-trained non-commissioned officers act as the commanders, drivers, and gunners of each Tiger. Each vehicle also likely supports a detachment of enlisted forces either nearby on foot or transported in the rear cabin. While deployed, the Tigers usually operate in groups of two or three, with all Tigers and associated infantry in that detachment commanded by a senior NCO, such as the “section leader” pictured earlier in the article. 

Despite the training, leadership, and logistical support in units associated with the Tigers, they still suffer substantial losses in clashes with ISIS-aligned militants in Cabo Delgado. Although previous Tigers were assigned to police rapid response forces, assigning these newer vehicles to the FADM has not, unfortunately, stemmed their losses. These vehicles may be fairly advanced armored personnel carriers (compared to the rest of the FADM’s equipment), but they are not the right tool for combatting the province’s insurgents and, as such, imperil the FADM’s overall counter-insurgency strategy. 

While the Tigers may have been an expensive, yet secretive, investment by the Mozambique government in the fight against Cabo Delgado’s militancy, their repeated losses and shuffles between FADM units do not bode well for their future.