We are told that in South Africa 19 million people out of the total population of 62 million are on social welfare grants. This is not sustainable. Given the lack of support for business by government and the resultant gradual disinvestment, combined with population growth above GDP, unemployment will get worse and the ability to fund social welfare will decrease.
Already government is saying that it cannot afford the current level of social grants. Yet the money must be found — particularly in an election year.
The easiest budget to cut is defence spending, especially as South Africa has no immediate threat. In the unlikely event of an invasion, alliances (viz a southern African Nato) to protect territorial sovereignty in the region should be agreed, possibly with the “big brother” inclusion of either the US or China.
There are therefore increasing calls to “right-size” the SANDF.
The SA Air Force (SAAF) is on its knees with some pilots flying less than 10 hours per year. It is telling that the entire SAAF budget is less than the cost of a single USAF fighter squadron. Yet the first casualty of defence cuts is likely to be the SAAF — with its high-profile expensive aircraft.
The SAAF struggles to get just a few fast jets in the air for airshows and military parades. It is in no position to become an effective fighting force or deterrent. So it is argued that the fighter squadrons can be shuttered — because they’re not operational anyway — and haven’t been since the SAAF’s limited capability for the Soccer World Cup protection.
The reality which the politicians and Air Force brass seem unwilling to accept is that the current budget priorities and funding constraints have reduced the SAAF to a hollow shell. The funding crisis has become so severe that defence pundits are proposing the hitherto unthinkable — that South Africa reduce its Air Force to just an Air Wing, which comprises fewer than 75 aircraft, as Ireland and New Zealand have done.
Air Wing proponents say that South Africa should have no more than 50 aircraft, almost all based in one central place. Serviceability could then be increased to 70%, making far better use of the remaining expensive assets.
The big idea is that the SAAF disband its Gripen and Hawk squadrons. Botswana is keen to buy Gripens, but it may be too humiliating for the SA government to sell them our hardly-used jet fighters.
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Long-range transport, maritime reconnaissance, and search-and-rescue are capabilities South Africa has long lost, but must have in terms of international obligations. We currently could never mount a search for a missing airliner in the southern Atlantic or Indian Oceans.
So the current upgrade of our 60-year-old C-130 Hercules fleet must be expedited. Specialist maritime surveillance aircraft can be leased. And in the longer run, drones with artificial intelligence are under development by the South African CSIR. They are showing great promise for doing the dull and dangerous work of long-range offshore patrols — even if just to protect our fish from Chinese trawlers.
The proposed Air Wing will retain 10 to 15 Oryx transport helicopters, with the troublesome Agusta Westland A-109s being sold off. The Rooivalk attack helicopter, which is rapidly becoming outdated, must be upgraded to a Mk2 standard.
Basic flying training, and even advanced training, can be outsourced, as increasingly happens in other air forces, including the USAF
The net result is that rather than the current underfunded mess, South Africa will have a smaller but properly funded Air Wing where it can maintain professional standards within the current budget constraints.
Of course — it’s not just the SAAF which should be right-sized. The same pundits argue that the navy and army need to be pollarded to remove expensive submarines and obsolete tanks. The Navy can keep two frigates (in Cape Town and Durban?) and its new multi-mission inshore patrol vessels.
The choice is simple — rather have a right-sized properly funded force, than an all-but-useless relic from a once massively funded past. DM