OP-ED

South Africa’s military at a crossroads

By Todd M. Johnson 7 January 2019

Chief of the South African Army, Lieutenant-General Lindile Yam, addresses the audience during a press conference at the SA Army College on October 18, 2018 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Deaan Vivier)

South Africa has myriad development priorities and observers are right to ask why the nation should be spending money on its military when sectors such as public education and infrastructure are also in great need of investment. While it is a question worthy of serious consideration by policymakers, a simple answer is that a robust defence capability is required of any nation with aspirations for continental leadership.

South Africa’s martial traditions and military heritage run deep. This fact was fully evident at the City of Johannesburg’s official Remembrance Day commemorations on 11 November 2018, which I had the honour to attend. As this was the centenary of the end of the First World War, the event was particularly poignant and South Africa’s outsized contribution to that horrific conflict featured prominently.

The Remembrance Day tribute to South Africa’s servicemen and women served as a welcome respite from the steady stream of disheartening news about the declining funding and diminishing capabilities of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). The SANDF — composed of the army, air force, navy, and military health service — has faced some of the steepest declines in its budget among all government departments, with its 2018/19 allotment at just under R48-billion (around 1% of GDP) and a reduction of R5.8-billion from the year prior.

Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula has vocally lamented government’s neglect of the defence force’s budget, noting that funding of the SANDF “poses serious constraints to defence and the plan to arrest the defence decline remains unfunded”. The Chief of the South African Army, General Lindile Yam, was even more blunt when appearing before Parliament in October, warning when speaking of budget cuts that “there is a danger coming and it seems like no one is seeing it”.

A mismatch between means and ends

South Africa has myriad development priorities and observers are right to ask why the nation should be spending money on its military when sectors such as public education and infrastructure are also in great need of investment. While it is a question worthy of serious consideration by policymakers, a simple answer is that a robust defence capability is required of any nation with aspirations for continental leadership. However, there is a clear mismatch between the many tasks requested of the SANDF — primarily protection of borders, internal security and deployments in African peace operations — and its fiscal well-being.

From the comments of senior officials like Minister Mapisa-Nqakula and General Yam, to independent defence experts, the consequences of this disconnect are becoming all too clear as key military assets such as the air force’s C-130 transport fleet, the navy’s Valour-class frigates and the army’s Ratel infantry fighting vehicles suffer the consequences of overuse and under-budgeting for maintenance.

While most South Africans understandably will associate the military with combat operations, its role in a variety of activities traditionally outside the sphere of defence may surprise observers. The navy and air force, for example, have a mandate to protect the nation’s economic resources, including patrolling South Africa’s abundant fishing grounds that face an onslaught of illegal fishing, which is depleting the nation’s hugely valuable marine stocks.

This task requires patrolling the massive 2.4 million square kilometres that compose South Africa’s offshore exclusive economic zone using an existing naval fleet that is overstretched and ill-suited to the requirements of fisheries protection. The air force, for its part, is asked to patrol the nation’s waters using a handful of 80-year-old C-47 patrol aircraft that are under severe maintenance pressures.

The navy’s leadership has not shied away from issuing stark warnings about the service’s long-term viability. Vice Admiral Mosuwa Hlongwane, Chief of the South African Navy, said in May of 2018 that we “must think deeply and intelligently about our future because the navy sits at the crossroads where its very existence is threatened”.

The SANDF performs numerous other tasks not typically associated with the military, but with a direct impact on the lives of South Africans. Its units are active in countering poaching nationwide, patrolling borders to check illegal migration, periodically deploying in high-crime areas, and in relief operations following national disasters. Most recently, SANDF engineers were dispatched to the Vaal River to identify and control sources of pollution in that key waterway.

Many of these jobs, such as policing and infrastructure maintenance, are better left to specialist agencies. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the SANDF is very much an actor in the nation’s daily life. However, the significant number of “asks” from government are not being matched by budgetary resources. The outcome of this misalignment was summarised by defence analyst Guy Martin, who noted in 2017, when commenting on the regular rhythm of budget cuts, that “one does not do more with less; one does less with less”.

A force to be reckoned with… to a point

Beyond the “soft” tasks so frequently undertaken by the SANDF, the need remains, of course, for the military to perform the “sharp end” operations that are the bread-and-butter of any defence force. These tasks occur outside the general public’s visibility, but they are certainly no less important.

Take for instance the long-standing deployment of army and air force personnel to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The SANDF has well over 1,000 troops in the DRC, most of them part of the UN’s Force Intervention Brigade, which has a unique mandate to conduct preventative combat operations. Its capability and that of support units such as the air force’s Rooivalk attack helicopters — which by all accounts have performed admirably in their first combat deployment — has served for years as one of the few anchors of stability in the DRC’s ever-restive eastern provinces.

Beyond the DRC, the SANDF regularly conducts peacekeeping missions to other regional hotspots such Sudan, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic. It was in the latter country in 2013 that a small SANDF force of around 300 soldiers, most from the army’s elite 1 Parachute Battalion and 5 Special Forces Regiment, deployed to protect the beleaguered government of then-President François Bozizé. This highly trained but lightly equipped force found itself serving as the only real protection for the Bozizé regime from a large rebel force known as the “Seleka”. Over the course of a two-day engagement that became known as the “Battle of Bangui”, the SANDF detachment fought a pitched battle against at least 3,000 Seleka, in the process suffering 13 dead and 27 wounded, but also killing hundreds of Seleka and significantly impeding their advance on the capital.

Defence expert Helmoed-Römer Heitman, whose monograph on the battle is a chilling read, concluded in the Sunday Independent in 2013 that:

This was one of the hardest-fought actions that the SA Army has experienced, and the soldiers fought well, even outstandingly.”

However, Heitman and other analysts have also pointed to the battle as proof that declines in key capabilities — in particular, airlift capacity in the air force — severely impeded the SANDF’s ability to equip and later reinforce the Bangui detachment. Heitman succinctly captured in his study of the battle the outcome of a “do more with less” approach to defence planning.

Do not blame the soldiers and junior leaders: they are doing their best and their best is often quite outstanding. The fighting around Bangui was a particular demonstration of that. Do not blame the generals for deploying small or under-armed forces: they can only ‘do the best with what they have’… and ‘what they have’ in terms of the number of soldiers, the type of equipment and the support capabilities is simply inadequate for the role that South Africa’s government wishes to play.”

If one is to believe the bleak prognoses on the SANDF’s future — again, it must be noted that senior ANC leaders have not shied away from these predictions — then it appears that the problems of 2013 have only become more entrenched in the intervening years.

Reportedly, the air force can only count on two serviceable C-130 transports available on any given day, a severe hindrance to any deployment or resupply operation. As for the army, Secretary for Defence Sam Gulube in early November 2018 told Parliament that budget cuts are severely impacting that service’s ability to acquire a replacement for the ageing Ratel fleet, exactly the sort of vehicle that would have proven a massive force multiplier had they been deployed in Bangui.

Arresting the decline’

It appears that President Cyril Ramaphosa and Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Lindiwe Sisulu (herself a former defence minister and critic of its declining budgets) are intent on crafting a reinvigorated foreign policy; this effort should be extolled.

It can also be assumed that an “Africa first” approach to diplomacy will be a foundational driver of this effort. This focus is only fitting as South Africa remains a continental economic power and one of the few African nations with genuinely continent-wide interests. However, to execute on this aspiration, it will surely call on the deployment of SANDF forces in demanding peacekeeping, crisis response and similar missions.

In order for the SANDF to effectively execute on any expansion — or even continuation — of its operational rhythm, it is essential that budgetary resources be made available in order deploy forces with the appropriate equipment, training, and support structure. Otherwise, the already fragile condition of many frontline units and equipment will be further eroded with it becoming ever more costly to apply band-aid solutions to issues that require genuine long-term planning (such as the expensive practice of leasing transport aircraft rather than procuring new platforms to replace the overburdened C-130 fleet).

The government has already applied its mind to many of the long-term challenges facing the defence force. The 2015 Defence Review (first published in draft in 2014) serves as a highly instructive roadmap for the security challenges facing South Africa and its military in the decades ahead. It offers analytically sound proposals for dealing with a wide range of issues such as procurement, personnel management, and future force structure. The Review also pulls no punches — its “Planning Milestone One” is labelled “Arresting the Decline” — and it provides a clear warning that further ad-hoc deployments and shifting operational priorities, if not matched by tough choices on issues such as personnel costs, will quickly lead to a rapid decay in SANDF capabilities.

The Defence Review, formally accepted by government as its plan of action, unsurprisingly calls for greater budgets in order to meet operational demands along with critical procurement needs. Nonetheless, this reality is unlikely to come to pass as proven by the continued reduction in defence force funding since the review’s publication. Furthermore, since the review, South Africa’s economy has underperformed and many other essential state institutions such as Eskom and the SABC require urgent injections of capital. So where does this leave the SANDF?

Aligning budgets with ambitions

The nation’s political leadership, as it conducts necessary exercises such as the strategic review of South Africa’s foreign policy interests, must decide what is critical for the military to do and, as important, what it shouldn’t do. Surely it must be capable of deploying on urgent crisis response missions across Africa, protecting the country’s borders from national and transnational threats, and (as there is no national coast guard) protecting the nation’s waters from the very real economic threat posed by illegal fishing. What it shouldn’t do is attempt to be a police force, with tasks such as prevention of illegal migration, cross-border smuggling, and visible policing best managed by the South African Police Service.

Beyond a necessary reduction in its operational commitments, the military also must confront its massive expenditure on personnel. The review found that well above 50% of SANDF funding went to people costs, a noted contrast to the global defence force norm of 35-40%. This burden must be lifted, but it will require politically contentious decisions such as reducing the ranks of ageing soldiers and limiting the number of costly senior officer billets.

The SANDF can continue to pretend it will meet the government’s wide-ranging demands using men and material that are stretched to breaking point. This false sense of capability will probably be reinforced by deeply dedicated SANDF personnel who will accomplish many of the objectives set by their political masters, no matter the disconnect between means and ends. However, if that roll-of-the-dice approach to defence planning is allowed to persist, the nation also must gird itself for further misfortunes such as that which occurred in Bangui in 2013.

It is understandable for South Africans to ask why government should be investing in new transport aircraft or armoured vehicles when primary schools and public hospitals are in such a distressing condition. The nation has many competing priorities and perhaps increased defence budgeting will be judged a “nice to have, but hard to justify”.

If this judgement is reached, then it is incumbent on South Africa’s policymakers to recognise the limits of the SANDF’s capabilities and consequently ask of it only that which it can reasonably achieve. If not, then the consequences in terms of the lives of South Africa’s fighting men and women will be all too evident. DM

Todd Johnson is the risk leader for a large multinational company. He has previously held roles in corporate strategy, political and partnership risk management, and in the US government as a political-military analyst. He writes here in his personal capacity.

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