SA in a rough neighbourhood and virtually unarmed
What are the threats to our interests in the region and what firepower does the SANDF need to meet them?
A defence force is like insurance: asking for cover when the house is burning will not work; nor can an effective military be created when a threat appears. But threats can arise quickly. Consider the 1982 Falklands war, the 1991 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the 1996 Ugandan/Rwandan invasion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the 1998 Eritrea/Ethiopia war, rebels overrunning half of Mali in 2012, Seleka seizing power in the Central African Republic in 2013 and Russia seizing the Crimea in 2014. All erupted in a matter of days, not months.
By contrast, rebuilding a defence force takes years: new systems take a decade between order and service entry, then troops and officers must still learn how to employ them, and there is a limit to how many can be absorbed simultaneously. Educating, training and developing officers takes decades, not years, and shortcuts will be paid for in casualties.
Most countries try to maintain forces adequate and appropriate to counter existing and predictable threats, and with the adaptability, flexibility and agility to meet unexpected threats. That is sometimes termed the “minimum required force”, the strength and composition depending on the country’s vital and national interests and the threats and risks.
SA finds itself in a less than stable region at a time of great power competition. Vital interests include borders, air space and maritime zones; the Lesotho Highlands Water Scheme; the Cahora Bassa power plant and the gas fields in Mozambique; and the Mozambique Channel, which carries most of the imported oil. National interests include Maputo port, trade along Africa’s coasts and a stable Southern African Development Community (Sadc) and Sub-Saharan Africa. The latter because those are potential markets; and because stable countries present fewer border problems.
Threats include the insurgency in northern Mozambique (threat to Cahora Bassa, the gas fields and risk of piracy in the channel), instability in Lesotho (risk of spillover and threat to the Highlands Scheme), instability in Eswatini or Zimbabwe (risk of spillover), terrorism and cyberattack as well as cross-border crime.
Less direct threats are the conflict in the DRC and instability along the Sadc periphery, which affect stability and undermine its economic prospects. And there is the risk that great power competition will play itself out in Africa, as it did during the cold war and colonial period.
There is also a real risk of an embassy being besieged or diplomats or other South Africans being taken hostage by terrorists in another African country. Such direct threats and risks cannot be ignored, and it would be unwise to ignore instability and conflict elsewhere in the Sadc and on its periphery.
What does all that translate to in terms of a “minimum required force” for SA?
The defence force should be able to handle a range of standing and contingency tasks. The former includes safeguarding the land borders by means of patrols, observation posts and reaction teams. This would require six infantry battalions with appropriate vehicles, sensors and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), supported by surveillance aircraft and helicopters for the reaction teams.
It would also need to prevent incursions into SA air space and intercept aircraft that enter illegally, escorting them to a formal airport, or intercepting them on landing elsewhere. This would require air space surveillance radars, fighters on standby to intercept and escort errant aircraft to an airport, and heliborne teams to intercept aircraft landing elsewhere.
SA needs to be able to patrol the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the country and around Marion and Prince Edward Islands, which requires six offshore patrol vessels with embarked helicopters supported by a similar number of maritime surveillance aircraft, with the frigates patrolling the island EEZ with support by three or four long-range/high-endurance maritime surveillance aircraft. Those aircraft would also enable SA to meet its search and rescue commitment.
It must patrol the Mozambique Channel to discourage piracy and other criminal activity. This requires two frigates or offshore patrol vessels rotating on station year-round, with an embarked helicopter and supported by maritime surveillance aircraft. Should the situation deteriorate, this would grow to two ships on station plus some smaller vessels and craft to go close inshore, as well as marines of the Maritime Reaction Squadron.
Contingency tasks arise if the security forces of a country find they cannot deal with the situation themselves. Then, given that these are vital interests, SA would step in and assist them to:
- Relieve an embassy under siege or rescue South Africans held hostage in Africa. This is a special-forces task but will also require suitable transport aircraft to enable them to deploy promptly and quickly.
- Deploy promptly to protect the vulnerable elements of the Highlands Water Scheme in Lesotho. This requires one infantry battalion on standby, with helicopters to provide mobility and preferably light surveillance aircraft in support.
- Deploy promptly to protect the Cahora Bassa power station and power lines to SA, and to protect the gas fields in Mozambique and the pipelines to SA. This could require a full brigade with three infantry battalions and other elements, plus surveillance aircraft and helicopters for mobility. Should the situation deteriorate, there will also be a need for Rooivalk attack helicopters in support.
- Deploy promptly to protect Maputo port and deal with any threat intended to close that port. This requires elements of the navy’s Maritime Reaction Squadron, mine countermeasure systems and perhaps an infantry battalion for landward protection. Ideally the force should also have the support of maritime surveillance aircraft.
In addition, the defence force should be able to sustain any peace support missions to which the government commits SA. Any such mission at battalion strength will require commitment of four battalions to allow rotation without disrupting training and family life. In most cases it would also require the deployment of a mixed helicopter detachment (Oryx and Rooivalk). Finally, the army should maintain at least one mechanised brigade as the core of a conventional force and as a source of heavy force elements that would be required for a peace enforcement mission.
As it stands, the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) cannot meet this standard: the army is short of infantry battalions and its mechanised forces have mainly obsolete equipment; the navy lacks offshore patrol vessels, has too few helicopters for the frigates, and lacks support by maritime surveillance aircraft; the air force has no maritime surveillance aircraft, too few air space surveillance radars and is critically short of transport capability and capacity to support any contingency missions.
Lest someone wonder at no mention of submarines, those will provide strategic surveillance of the region and can provide valuable intelligence support to patrolling ships. They, together with the other means of collecting intelligence, are critical to knowing what is going on around us, giving us at least some warning before things unravel.
• Heitman is an independent security and defence analyst. This is the second in a three-part series on SA’s defence capability and the state of its armaments industry.
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