The government’s track record shows it does not understand the realities of defence, and does not much care. Hence calamitous underfunding, unnecessary casualties at Bangui, and the national embarrassment of Palma.

That does not absolve the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) of its duty. No matter how obtuse or derelict in its duty the government may be, the SANDF must do its best to protect SA, its people and national interests.

SA’s defence funding does not allow for the maintenance even of current capabilities, let alone closing capability gaps, so hard decisions are needed: consolidation in the combat services; dropping capabilities; downsizing and downranking headquarters, supporting services and divisions; closing units; discharging personnel; and ending most call-ups of reserve force personnel.

The outcome will be a smaller, less capable defence force in an increasingly unstable region in an era of renewed major power competition. Not a good situation, but unavoidable as the only alternative to losing all effectiveness.

That will demand tight focus on immediate and near-term threats and risks, while maintaining other capabilities at core levels. The remaining forces will have to be agile, hard-hitting and swift in deployment to offset the lack of strength. There will need to be a strong focus on unit and formation training to ensure effectiveness, on individual education, development and training, and on keeping abreast of conflict and technology trends.

The risk of a military attack on SA is low — though not zero — so the focus can be on threats and risks below that level. These include the risk of terrorist attacks within SA and against South Africans in the region, and risks to vital national interests such as access to water and energy, and secure seaborne trade. The Lesotho Highlands Water Project, Cahora Bassa power station and gas fields in Mozambique, and the Mozambique Channel sea route, are vital national interests. Taking a long-term view, peace, security, stability and economic growth in our region are also national interests.

Peace, security and stability are not guaranteed: consider the insurgency in Mozambique, previous instability in Lesotho, conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the conflicts in the Central African Republic and South Sudan, which hold risks for the Southern African Development Community. Criminal activities such as smuggling and illegal fishing are also often beyond the capabilities of policing agencies.

Given growing threats and risks and inadequate force levels, the SANDF needs good situational awareness and  hard-hitting forces. To that end it should:

  • Expand and enhance intelligence capabilities, including aerial and naval reconnaissance and cyber/information operations, to reduce the risk of surprise and facilitate planning;
  • Expand and enhance special forces capabilities, including dedicated and earmarked air transport, to enable them to nip threats in the bud; and
  • Establish a focused special operations/rapid deployment force to support the special forces, including the parachute and air-assault battalions, the latter with earmarked helicopters, and the navy’s Maritime Reaction Squadron.

The army should consolidate other fit personnel and serviceable equipment into a border protection force of four infantry battalions organised and equipped for that role, with integral intelligence elements and dedicated air support; and a mechanised brigade to provide medium forces when required for interventions or peace enforcement operation and to serve as a core from which to expand. The remaining army units should either be closed or put on a care-and-maintenance basis with minimum personnel.

The air force should consolidate transport aircraft and transport helicopters in two squadrons with Oryx helicopter flights detached to other airbases as required for search-and-rescue tasks. The two maritime squadrons could be consolidated, keeping some Oryx. Funding that becomes available should go to weapons for the Gripen, Hawk, Rooivalk and Super Lynx. Some aircraft types might also be disposed of as not essential.

The navy has less room for manoeuvre, apart from suspending the conversion of Durban to a full naval base. The submarines remain essential surveillance and reconnaissance tools, the frigates are essential for sustained presence in own and regional waters, and the four new ships will at least add numbers even if not ideal for requirements.

This should all be possible with the present funding allocations, assuming there is funding to allow personnel to be retired early. Key capability gaps will remain — maritime patrol and transport aircraft, offshore patrol vessels — so this would not be an optimal or even realistic minimum force. But this bare-bones SANDF could deal with likely threats and expand if this is demanded by the evolving strategic situation.

• Heitman is an independent security and defence analyst.

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