Early this year, the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) chief, General Rudzani Maphwanya, made an impassioned plea to “arrest the decline” in the SANDF’s capabilities and defence readiness. The question is, how did we end up in this unfortunate position?
If South Africa were to come under military threat, it is hard to tell whether the SANDF would be in a position to effectively repel any threat, considering its well-documented vulnerabilities and rapidly deteriorating defence readiness.
Under the current budget, the state of our defence force, its capabilities and strategies are at ever-increasing risk. The 2015 Defence Review did not receive any significant support and commitment from Cabinet and National Treasury in order to achieve its objectives and the listed five milestones. It is an indictment that not even Milestone 1 (“Arrest the Decline”) has been achieved. A lack of political will and lukewarm intervention to arrest the decline have been identified as some of the causative factors for this sorry state of affairs.
Due to the government’s failure to grow the economy, it appears that it will be impossible to achieve a defence spending threshold close to 2% of GDP, as recommended in the 2015 Defence Review. The 2022/23 budget allocation of 0.67% of GDP is bad value for money due to poor across-the-board defence management, failures that will haunt us for years to come.
So, what is the current state of our prime mission equipment? From the infamous Arms Deal, only the following were still serviceable at the end of the first quarter this year:
- One of three frigates, with the one serviceable vessel last week limping along the Mozambican coast due to a maintenance problem and the unavailability of spare parts. The past weekend it was still stuck in Pemba;
- Zero out of three submarines;
- Zero out of 26 Gripen fighter aircraft;
- Three of 24 Hawk aircraft used to train fighter pilots;
- Zero of the four Lynx maritime helicopters; and
- Three of the 30 Agusta helicopters.
From the rest of the mission equipment, only the following defence equipment is serviceable:
- Two of the 35 PC-7 Pilatus aircraft used to train SAAF pilots;
- Four of the 11 strategic Rooivalk attack helicopters, of which three are in the DRC;
- 17 of the 39 strategic Oryx helicopters, of which five are in the DRC, with the rest thinly distributed all over SA;
- One of the six C-130 cargo aircraft, essential for the transport of troops, logistical equipment, and training of paratroopers and Special Forces; and
- One 85-year-old Dakota, unable to do maritime patrol and reconnaissance.
This is an embarrassing state of affairs, which exposes us to being ill-prepared on land, in the air and at sea.
What contributed to this decline?
1. Cost of compensating employees
The department will spend no less than 69% of the approved budget on compensation to employees (COE), which represents a R3-billion COE overspend. This trend is unsustainable and will exacerbate the erosion of our defence capabilities if left unaddressed.
Despite a 30% cut in Reserve Force man-days, authorisations for unfunded operational employments will result in a sharp increase in the actual costs for Reserve Force members, with the consequential COE exceeding 70%.
2. Unfunded operations
The President must reconsider authorising unfunded or partially funded operations, especially on foreign soil in support of, for example, the UN, AU and SADC. Additional ring-fenced project funding outside the regular defence budget must be secured before authorising any operation by the SANDF, domestically or abroad. If not, the SANDF must, unfortunately, apply the principle of “stealing from Peter to pay Paul” to meet its unbudgeted obligations.
3. Project Thusano/Cuba love affair
Under the questionable Project Thusano, more than R1.4-billion has been paid in agreements with Cuba for technical, professional and vocational services.
Under the guise of this project, the SANDF irregularly and illegally procured the Cuban drug interferon at a total cost of $20-million.
The Auditor-General indicated that all the expenditure under Project Thusano was irregular and wasteful, with no procurement procedures followed or deviations obtained, in contravention of various laws and regulations.
Based on this alone, Project Thusano must be terminated immediately. South Africa cannot afford the obligation of a further R1.2-billion payable to Cuba under the contracts until the end of 2024.
It seems that while the SANDF could not find the money for essential expenses, its leaders easily found and secured money to pay their Cuban masters. South African taxpayers and their right to a safe environment were abused to ensure that Cuba prospers. Seemingly, the loyalty of SA’s leaders lies with Cuba before the country. While money is being poured into Cuba, our own children are starving and unemployment and hopelessness reign supreme.
4. Neglecting preserved prime mission equipment
The preservation and storage of vehicles and prime mission equipment for immediate and rapid employment has been neglected and compromised over the years. This is because the maintenance and repairs of the 60 to 70 environmentally controlled warehouses in the army have been reduced and not renewed.
If properly managed, these warehouses ensure that military vehicles, equipment, electronics and munitions are kept dust, rust and corrosion-free, ready for rapid employment. The army’s Gripens and Hawks have fallen victim to these failures too. It appears there has been no effort to find a replacement maintenance system capable of regulating the humidity, temperature and dust in the storage facilities.
Environmentally controlled warehouses should be prioritised to prevent further decay of prime mission equipment, as well as to limit instances of having to undergo costly and time-consuming maintenance prior to deployment.
5. Project Hoefyster
The project to replace the ageing Ratel IFV with the new Badger has become an embarrassing disaster and is an example of the consequences of weak political leadership, State Capture, cadre deployment and inefficient management. The Department of Defence has already spent R7-billion on this unaffordable and unsustainable project. Currently, there are 15 vehicles in various stages of completion, and a stock of components under development.
Confusion on the future of Project Hoefyster remains, with Minister Thandi Modise indicating an imminent termination – a position that is in stark contrast to Minister Pravin Gordhan’s call to keep the project alive. Project Hoefyster still has the potential to address the need for vehicle replacement; however, not with the current scope and lack of political commitment.
What needs to be done to stop the decline?
Immediate interventions needed to stop the decline in the SANDF and ensure that it increases its capabilities as a modern military force, include:
- Acknowledge the failure and unsustainability of the 2015 Defence Review as a defence policy blueprint;
- Redesign, restructure and reposition a smaller and more efficient SANDF in compliance with its constitutional mandates and approved budgets;
- Reprioritise strategies and expenditure to achieve its objectives and especially critical capital expenditures; and
- The 2022/23 budget of R49-billion, or 0.67% of GDP, is about R15-billion short to support this and should be increased over the MTEF to 1% of GDP.
Budget priorities should include:
- Increase land-border patrol operations to 25 companies;
- Cost of employees must not be more than 55% of the budget;
- The total staff component should not be more than 60,000, with a bigger reliance on the Reserve Force when populating the authorised operations;
- Landward Defence should get 38% of the budget;
- Air Defence should get 16%;
- Maritime Defence should get 15%;
- Force Employment should get 10%;
- General support should get 10%;
- Administration should get 5%;
- Defence Intelligence should get 3%; and
- Military Health Support should get 3%.
To achieve these objectives, the following must be implemented:
- Terminate Project Thusano immediately, and employ the South African defence industry to improve the maintenance of critical defence equipment;
- Transfer the three military hospitals to the Department of Health with guaranteed health services to beneficiaries; and
- Liquidate unserviceable, obsolete and underutilised assets and ring-fence the revenue for capital expenditure projects.
In addition, the SANDF and the government must embark on a multiyear capital expenditure programme to:
- Replace the Rooivalk and Oryx helicopters with MKII versions;
- Replace the C130BZ with the C130J and/or A400 versions;
- Acquire multipurpose maritime reconnaissance aircraft;
- Upgrade and reintroduce to service the unserviceable frigates and submarines;
- Acquire for the SA Navy new Multi-Mission Offshore Patrol Vessels and additional Multi-Mission Inshore Patrol Vessels;
- Acquire appropriate cyber, satellite and Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) technologies as force multipliers for land, air and maritime patrols and reconnaissance;
- Upgrade and replace critical army prime mission equipment such as APVs;
- Reconsider Project Hoefyster with fewer Badgers in combination with Ratel upgrades;
- Drive rejuvenation among soldiers as a high priority; and
- Rationalise and integrate the structures, activities and services of Armscor and Denel, to best serve the needs of the SANDF in a cost-effective and efficient way.
The SANDF has become a broken entity unable to fulfil its core constitutional mandate. The minister and the secretary of defence do not have the luxury of time to repeatedly reinvent the wheel and postpone turnaround interventions. The SANDF needs this turnaround now because tomorrow might be too late to salvage our once-proud defence force.
The consequences of inaction could be far-reaching, especially now when the SADC region faces a growing threat from extremist elements operating in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado region. DM