Lusaka, Zambia — When Soviet technicians finish assembling the 16 MIG-21 fighter planes shipped here recently, Zambia will have one of the most powerful air forces in Africa south of the Sahara.
But fast-moving political developments in the subcontinent may leave it without an enemy within striking distance.
Zaimbabwe (formely white-ruled Rhodesia) became independent earlier this year , and Namibia (South Africa-administered) could also become independent by the end of 1981 if current United Nations plans to end the dispute come to fruition.
The irony of the situation is not lost on many of President Kenneth Kaunda's domestic critics who see the Soviet arms deal as just another example of economic bungling.
The MIGs, along with ground-to-air missiles and a wide range of other equipment for the Army, were ordered from the Soviet Union late last year at a time when Rhodesian aircraft were making forays into Zambia almost every week in their search of guerrillas.
A few months after the $100 million arms deal was signed the Zimbabwe guerrilla war ended but no attempt seems to have been made to cancel the order.
By the time the MIGs are assembled and in the air, Namibia could be well on the way to independence, raising the prospect that for the first time since independence 16 years ago Zambia will be surrounded by friendly neighbors.
A growing number of local critics of President Kaunda's administration now are asking what the aircraft will be used for and whether Zambia can afford to maintain the new fleet, let along pay for it.
More than $20 million of the purchase price already has been paid, and bankers in Lusaka say that foreign currency allocations from the reserve bank began to dry up at the time the weapons arrived.
As a result, some banks have not been able to meet letters of credit drawn within prescribed limits and have had to borrow abroad on their own account.
"The Central Bank is virtually broke," said one commercial banker. "They won't say where the money has gone, so one can only assume that at least some of it has gone to pay the Russians."
In more prosperous times, the arms deal might not have caused such a serious drain on Zambia's meager hard-currency reserves.
But the first payments are being made against a background of falling copper prices and problems with the marketing of cobalt. These two commodities provide Zambia with more than 95 percent of its foreign earnings.
Compounding the problem again this year in Zambia's need to spend more than $ 50 million on imports of maize, the country's staple food.
The administration blames poor rains for the shortage of maize for the second year running. While accepting the meager rains as a factor, many middle-class African critics say the fundamental cause of the shortage is economic mismanagement.
They noted that all marketing and distributive agencies are state-controlled and say that pricing is unrealistic and accounting slipshod; farmers are reluctant to deal with them.
Agriculture is only one sector of the economy in which the government is being sharply criticized for its management.
"It is the same in almost every sector," said one of President Kaunda's former aides who is now a critic of the government. "More than 70 percent of the economy is in state hands. But this sector only produces 30 percent of tax revenue. The rest comes from the tiny and increasingly beleaguered private sector."
Much of the popular discontent, which has grown more noticeable in the past year, is the result of the country's economic problems.