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Before there can be any useful analysis and discussion of what military capabilities SA should have, the government must decide what level of risk it will accept and what security role SA wants to play in the region and on the continent.

There are eight possible levels of “military ambition”, each building on the previous levels: 

  1. Secure the land borders, monitor air space and maritime zones, and intercept intruders.
  2. Protect external vital interests, for instance the Highlands Water Scheme in Lesotho, the Cahora Bassa power station and transmission lines in Mozambique, the Mozambique gas fields and pipelines, and Maputo harbour and its rail link from SA.
  3. Conduct constabulary missions in the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) region. For instance, deterring piracy and maritime terrorism in the Mozambique Channel, an important shipping route for imported oil and for trade with the Mediterranean, Arabian Gulf and western seaboard of India. 
  4. Support a neighbouring country facing a threat or intervene should instability there threaten SA’s security
  5. Maintain conventional defence capability at a functional core level.
  6. Conduct constabulary missions in Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance co-ordinated anti-piracy patrols with the Nigerian navy.
  7. Support other Sadc countries facing threats; and
  8. Participate in sub-Saharan security missions as currently in the Democratic Republic of Congo and previously in Burundi, Darfur, Comoros and the Central African Republic, and missions such as providing air traffic control radar for South Sudan during its recent independence ceremony.

The decision must consider factors beyond national security. For instance, economic: SA is the closest manufacturing economy to all of Sub-Saharan Africa, making that an important and potentially profitable market. But that depends on the region being peaceful and stable so its economies can grow, and so that they can afford to import goods from SA. Peace and stability south of the Sahara is in SA’s economic interest. 

Once the government has taken that decision the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) can develop relevant strategies and determine the force level and force design required to execute them. 

Given the state to which the SANDF has been reduced, it will take time to rebuild properly, with funding levels a key factor initially, but then also the time it takes to re-establish skills and develop senior officers.

It would perhaps take five years to fully secure borders, air space and maritime zones and protect external vital interests — given funding to return equipment to service, acquire maritime surveillance aircraft and modernise the air space surveillance system. 

It could take 10 years to conduct constabulary operations within the Sadc area and waters and support a neighbour effectively — given funding to acquire additional ships, expand airlift and expand the army. And it will perhaps take 20 years to be fully capable.   

To lend perspective: during the apartheid era the then SADF began to seriously re-equip at the beginning of the 1970s. That would have been more or less completed in 1995 had funding not been cut from 1989. 

The danger is that risks can arise and become threats more quickly than forces can be rebuilt. Just consider how quickly irregular forces in the Sahel became dangerous even to conventional forces — a “technical” with a 14.5mm heavy machine gun or 23mm cannon is lethal even to a Ratel. Add the distinct possibility that major power competition will lead one or more such powers to support client countries and groups in Africa, and warning time is reduced considerably.   

With growing uncertainty and risk and current threats on the one hand, and the time required to rebuild on the other, the immediate demand is the ability to monitor the strategic situation to head off possible threats, particularly those posed by irregular forces. That means enhancing and expanding defence intelligence and the special forces as a matter of priority, with the former in fact being a necessary element in deciding on “military ambition”.

Defence intelligence 

The core function of defence intelligence is analysis of information relevant to defence and the protection of national interests. That analysis turns information into intelligence used to build a strategic picture setting out risks, threats, trends and opportunities to inform the development of defence policy, strategy and force design. Collection is mostly from open sources, defence attaches and exchanges among friendly countries.

Communications, cyber and electronic intelligence generate sensitive information, and submarines can inconspicuously monitor maritime zones. All of those capabilities will need to be enhanced and expanded. Aerial reconnaissance and special forces only come into play in times of heightened tension or actual conflict or in co-operation with friendly countries.

Defence intelligence is also the logical agency for cyber operations, defensive and offensive, and information operations, and those capabilities should be enhanced and expanded. SA is arguably the country in Africa that is most vulnerable to such threats, so particularly defensive capability should be developed with some urgency. 

Special forces 

Special forces offer a range of capabilities no other element can offer. One key role is strategic reconnaissance and surveillance; another is to serve as liaison with friendly forces; yet another is the execution of surgical operations with strategic aims — strike terrorists in their supposed safe areas, hit critical infrastructure in a hostile country, provide targeting information, and so on. But special forces operators take time to develop, starting from an outstanding soldier and adding skills and experience over time.

The present structure in essence comprises two units, focused on maritime and airborne operations respectively. There is a good case to be made for adding a third focused on urban operations, which are quite different in nature. The existing units could also be expanded to have specialised subunits, for instance for lake, riverine and mountain operations, and there is a case to be made for dedicated air transport and for additional specialised equipment. While that sounds expensive, special forces are in fact an extremely cost-effective force element.   

What is needed now is serious analysis of the evolving strategic situation to underpin the decision on “military ambition”, not evading supposedly unlikely or impossible threats that have a nasty habit of materialising. In parallel there needs to be a prioritised focus on enhancing and expanding defence intelligence and special forces capabilities. The rest can then follow. 

• Heitman is an independent security and defence analyst. This is the first article in a series of four on SA’s defence capability.

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