The South African Army can only cope with so many demands with the resources it currently has. Obvious as it sounds, this comment from the chief of the army is a sharp reminder to government, which is poised to deploy soldiers to the DRC, of the challenges facing the South African National Defence Force. Our soldiers can no longer do more with less. By GREG NICOLSON.
Lieutenant General Vusi Masondo was unusually frank about the consequences of the army’s lack of finances on Thursday. Speaking to media at the South African Army’s annual media breakfast, held at the SA Army College in Pretoria, Masondo mentioned the importance of the Defence Review, a wide-ranging analysis of the state of the country’s defence institutions, policies and direction, and said it will be fundamental to the future of defence.
“However, within a limited medium-term budget, we will have to find the means to not only regenerate ourselves, but also to position ourselves to comply with future demands on our resources. At the moment the SA Army is under strain to fulfill its national and international obligations as our forces become more in demand,” Masondo told the media.
“There is an increase in requests for internal and external support that has led to the army deploying available force levels for extended periods exceeding what is deemed the international norm. Such strain can only be sustained for a limited period where after mission readiness may become compromised.”
It’s been a busy year for Masondo with 13 South African troops dying in Central African Republic (CAR) in early April, as the Seleka forces marched to Bangui and took control of the state. Another SANDF battalion is currently preparing for deployment to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to join international forces as part of the United Nations intervention force to the notoriously restive east of the country. Masondo assured critics the army is prepared to meet its peacekeeping commitments in countries such as the DRC and Sudan.
Looking over the past year, however, the SA Army chief acknowledged the difficulties his forces have faced. The army met its commitments, he said, “notwithstanding the fact that it was overstretched, especially in the infantry, engineer, intelligence, signal and support capabilities.” Defence received an increase of almost R2 billion in this year’s budget, rising to R40.2 billion, but it’s far less than needed.
The army’s capabilities may be further stretched as South Africans are deployed to the UN’s DRC Intervention Brigade, with a mandate that goes beyond peacekeeping to carrying out offensive operations targeting armed groups in the country’s east. It will be based in North Kivu and will comprise 3,069 peacekeepers. M23, one of the largest rebel groups in the area, has warned that South Africa’s female soldiers would be raped in the country. On Thursday the group tweeted: “SANDF & TANZANIA forces r coming in DRC in airplanes, but they will go back where they came from in bodybags.”
Concerns have long been voiced about the capability of the SANDF after a long period of decline in funding. The draft Defence Review released in 2012 found that South Africa is no longer in a position to conduct major combat operations because it doesn’t have an adequate operating budget to maintain equipment. “The persistent disconnect between the defence mandate, government expectations and the resource allocation have eroded defence capabilities to the point where the Defence Force is unable to fully deliver its constitutional responsibility to defend and protect South Africa and its people, and, further, cannot even support the current modest level of ambition,” reads the draft review. It will take five years just to stabilise the decline, it adds.
That decline, no doubt, hindered South Africa’s efforts in the CAR. In his essay, “The Battle in Bangui: The Untold Inside Story”, defence analyst Helmoed Heitman unpacks what happened during the recent battle in the CAR. Military chiefs had requested heavier equipment, writes Heitman, but even if approved, “The Army would not have been able to provide a stronger force for anything but a very short-duration mission. Indeed, it is already three battalions short of what it needs to meet current commitments.” There was and is neither the equipment nor the ability to transport it. “The Air Force has no heavy lift/long range transport aircraft, and could not have transported heavier equipment, forcing even greater reliance on charter aircraft,” says Heitman.
The DRC isn’t the CAR and South African soldiers will fight under a United Nations mandate. South Africa has also had some military presence there for over a decade. Speaking to Daily Maverick, defence analyst John Stupart said there should be more support in the DRC. “Not just from an SANDF perspective, but also because of the larger UN framework they’re operating in. That means airlift within the DRC, helicopter transport, more armoured vehicles and, if necessary, nearby Quick Reaction Forces who can assist if the SADC troops get in trouble.”
Department of Defence and Military Veterans spokesman Sonwabo Mbananga wouldn’t comment on whether budgetary issues would have an effect on the DRC mission, calling it “purely an operational matter”. SANDF spokesman Brigadier General Xolani Mabanga acknowledged there are financial challenges which can have a negative effect on carrying out the SANDF’s mandate but he maintained it is still able to fulfill its constitutional obligations.
Pikkie Greeff, national secretary of the South African National Defence Union (Sandu), however, said budgetary problems had a negative impact on the CAR mission and would likely continue in the DRC. An attack helicopter like the Rooivalk could have ended the Bangui battle in a few hours and saved lives, returning troops told him, but South Africa doesn’t have the aircraft to transport the choppers in an operational state. Soldiers were also surviving on rations in the CAR for eight weeks, he said.
“As far as I know, this is the first time a chief of the army has admitted to these problems,” said Greeff, who called on defence bosses to speak to the reality of their situation rather than sparing their political bosses. South African troops, however, will face DRC rebels, likely to be better trained and armed than those in the CAR, in a matter of weeks.
To continue to meet these demands, South Africa’s defence system needs restructuring. That comes from Lieutenant General Vusi Masondo himself. DM
Photo: A ball of fire from an explosion is pictured during a Capability Demonstration by the South African Air Force (SAAF) and South African National Defence Force (SANDF) at the Roodewal Bombing Range in Makhado, in the northern province of Limpopo, May 9, 2013. South Africa’s air force showed off its military might on Thursday with precision bombing and helicopter gunships firing fusillades of rockets just days ahead of an unprecedented “peace enforcing” deployment to eastern Congo. Two months after 13 troops were killed by rebels in Central African Republic in South Africa’s heaviest military losses since the end of apartheid, Pretoria is gearing up to send 1,000 soldiers to Democratic Republic of Congo’s volatile border with Rwanda and Uganda. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
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