Members of the South African National Defence Force. Picture: LOYISO MPALANTSHANE/THE HERALD
Members of the South African National Defence Force. Picture: LOYISO MPALANTSHANE/THE HERALD

If anyone heard fluttering and squawking in the past few days, that was chickens coming home to roost after two decades of underfunding defence. A predictable result is clearly visible: South Africans at risk in Mozambique, some killed, and precious little we can do, much as there was little we could do to help our troops in Bangui in 2013. In fact less, as SA has even fewer transport aircraft operational now.

This stems from government dereliction regarding defence. It has so grossly underfunded defence that the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) cannot even maintain the already inadequate capabilities set out in the 1998 defence review. The government has also reneged on key undertakings in the 1996 white paper on defence, which states that it will:

  • “request from parliament sufficient funds to enable the SANDF to perform its tasks effectively and efficiently”;
  • “take account of the professional views of senior officers in the process of policy formulation and decision-making on defence”; and
  • “not endanger the lives of military personnel through improper deployment or the provision of inadequate or inferior weapons and equipment”.

The government has not requested “sufficient funds”, has not taken “account” of warnings by senior officers or defence ministers, and has endangered troops “through improper deployment or the provision of inadequate or inferior weapons and equipment”. Consider Bangui, where the force was too small and too lightly armed, and Darfur, where our troops were outgunned by hostile militias.

Assume that the government had at least provided funding sufficient to enable the defence force to maintain the 1998 defence review capability levels. Then we would have had a frigate or SAS Drakensberg on station in the northern Mozambique Channel, with marines and special forces, and at least one Super Lynx and boats (frigate) or two Oryx and landing craft (Drakensberg). That ship could have responded the same day; a small force but better than nothing.

Effective response

We would also have had enough C-130 Hercules operational to insert special forces to determine the situation at Palma, and paratroops to secure the airfield southeast of the town and fly in additional troops and light vehicles to extricate our citizens and others. That could have been done almost immediately, and co-ordinated with the ship on station.

It would not necessarily have saved every life at risk, but it would have been an effective response and would have served notice on terrorists and guerrillas that SA looks after its people and its interests.

Had we acquired A400M transport aircraft, we could have mounted a more effective response at less risk, with a stronger force, some combat vehicles and air support by Gripens refuelled in flight by A400Ms. Conceivably, we might even have deployed a pair of Rooivalk attack helicopters to provide close air support.

Instead of what might have been, we have only a few C-130 Hercules available because the air force has lacked the funding to maintain them, there are no tanker aircraft to enable the Gripens to intervene, and there is no ship on station in the channel because the navy has lacked the funding to maintain them.

That does not mean we were entirely incapable of helping the South Africans in Mozambique. Assuming the government has the will to act decisively, the defence force can deploy special forces and paratroops to extricate them. But there would be real risk because they would be very few on the ground and would have no combat vehicles and no air support. And it should have been done before this article was written.

Should the situation turn into a siege, the navy could deploy a frigate and SAS Drakensberg with marines, special forces, helicopters and landing craft, but that would take five or six days. During that time, we could secure Pemba airport, deploy Oryx and Rooivalk helicopters, troops and some vehicles for the relief operation, and even Gripens for reconnaissance and additional air support. But much could go wrong in Palma over those five or six days.  

Will we draw any lessons from Palma? We did draw some from Bangui — that is why our troops in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have Rooivalk support. But unless the government also draws the logical conclusion that it must fund defence adequately, the next time South Africans are at risk somewhere on the continent there would be nothing we can do to help them, not even the little we could do now.

• Heitman is an independent security and defence analyst.

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