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With the SA economy in dire straits and the government’s predilection for spending on unnecessary ministries and other fripperies apparently unreformed, any serious improvement in defence funding is unlikely in the near or even medium term.

Given the state of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) and the level of insecurity in the region and on the continent, that should be of concern.

The insurgency in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique, the conflict in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the recent coup d’etat in Gabon, the political fragility of some other countries and the instability in the Sahel, illustrate that Sub-Saharan Africa is by no means either stable or peaceful.

Irregular forces fighting in Africa have become increasingly dangerous — they are well-led and equipped, with heavily armed “technicals”, remotely operated vehicles (aerial, ground, maritime), remotely activated bombs and even communications intelligence and cyber tools at their disposal. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shown how quickly a large-scale war can erupt, and how expensive it can be in terms of casualties, equipment, munitions and spares.

This is hardly a time for SA to neglect defence. Yet defence funding is less in real terms this year than in 1998, and has declined from 5.36% of government spending in 1998 to 2.27% this year. This despite that since 1998 the SANDF has had to take over border security from the police, deploy forces to Burundi, the DRC, Darfur, Comoros, the Central Africa Republic and Mozambique, patrol the Mozambique Channel, deploy troops to support the police, and take on bridge building and sewerage works repair.

It is still patrolling the borders, still has contingents in the DRC and Mozambique, and there is even talk of an additional contingent for the DRC. None of those missions has been fully funded and so they have cut into capital, maintenance and training budgets, with the predictable result of declining capability at a time of rising instability and insecurity.

The SANDF is too small (too few soldiers, ships and attack helicopters and transports); lacks key capabilities (maritime patrol aircraft, anti-drone equipment); has mostly old equipment (most army equipment is from the 1970s and ’80s, the newest aircraft and ships from the 2000s); has not been able to maintain that properly, let alone modernise or upgrade it; has not been able to train as well as it should; and lacks munitions and spares to cope with a crisis, let alone serious conflict.

Defence minister Thandi Modise recently disclosed in response to a DA question in parliament that 85% of the SA Air Force’s aircraft are out of action due to age, a lack of spares or budget constraints.

So where to from here? Business as usual is not a viable option unless we want to hand over national security and protection of our vital national interests to some other country in return for accepting their dictates.

2024 election

We should increase funding, which would also support the defence industry, creating employment in both and seeing the latter in bring hard currency earnings. But that will not happen — defence does not bring in votes, and that is all that interests the government with an election looming. 

The SANDF will have to adapt by refocusing what funding it does receive, and it will have to learn to say no when the government tosses unfunded tasks its way. The mechanism for the latter was provided by the 2015 Defence Review in the form of a four-part budget with ring-fenced operating, capital, operational employment and contingency budgets. That needs to be implemented. 

How to adapt? The only practical option will be to accept a controlled decline to a core level that will allow retention of critical skills at minimum levels and some critical operational capabilities.

We can learn from the German army after World War 1. It was restricted in troop strength, required to retain soldiers for 12 years to prevent building a reserve by means of conscription, and forbidden modern equipment. The Germans’ solution was to focus on recruiting the best, extending training to develop their officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) to be able to hold posts one or two levels above their actual rank, and develop new ideas using simulation and experimentation. 

Translating that to SA today, we could: 

  • Replace the two-year voluntary contract system with a 10- or 12-year service period, allowing soldiers to be thoroughly trained and build experience. This should be coupled with vocational training or bursaries for their future civilian careers. 
  • Extend promotion courses for officers and senior NCOs to develop more breadth and depth. 
  • Establish a system to monitor and study recent and current conflicts and developments in military concepts and new technologies. 
  • Establish a system to investigate and develop “wild ideas”, tactical and technological, at the staff colleges and corps/branch schools, during exercises and in the industry and at the Council for Scientific & Industrial Research. 
  • Establish “battle labs” to further explore new tactical concepts and new technologies. 
  • Make greater use of simulation at all levels. 

In addition, we need to maintain a core force at high readiness and training levels to deal with minor crises, facilitate practical evaluation of battle lab ideas, ensure retention of skills at all command levels and serve as the foundation and framework for future expansion if and when necessary.

That core force should comprise infantry and airmobile elements to address likely short-term threats and, of course, the aircraft and ships to monitor and police air space and maritime zones.

We must also retain core mechanised capability: it is not safe to assume no conventional threat, and mechanised forces give a real edge against well-armed guerrillas.

Should the government insist on cutting the defence budget, the SANDF will have to take additional steps to survive as a credible force. Those might include stopping the pointless and wasteful contract with Cuba, which would also return jobs to local companies; stopping all reserve force call-ups, which would mean cutting back border patrols and dropping several thousand families into penury, but is the only way to cut personnel costs in the short term; and withdrawing from the DRC to free up personnel and operational helicopters for the mission in Cabo Delgado and for border patrol. 

If that does not suffice the SANDF will have to close units and even capabilities, as far as possible retaining the top-end capabilities that would be most time-consuming and expensive to re-establish, and lower-end capabilities that can be kept at a basic level at an affordable cost. 

The result would be a reasonably capable training force with limited operational capability. It should be able to monitor our borders, air space and waters and protect some of our external vital interests. It would not be able to assist neighbours faced with major insurgency and would lack any regional capability, which would take 20 years or more to re-establish.

It would mean depending on another power in a major crisis and, of course, dropping all pretensions to being a regional power or leader in Africa — and even in the Southern African Development Community — and all expectation of being taken seriously as a military power.   

• Heitman is an independent security and defence analyst.

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