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The first article in this series set out eight “levels of military ambition”, perhaps better termed “mission sets”.

These are to secure land borders and monitor air space and maritime zones; protect vital external infrastructure and interests; constabulary missions (anti-piracy or smuggling interdiction) in the Southern African Development Community (Sadc); providing support, or intervention, if instability in a neighbour threatens SA; maintaining conventional defence capability at core level; constabulary missions in Sub-Saharan Africa; support for other Sadc countries; and participating in sub-Saharan peace support missions.

The first two of these are unavoidable and will fall mainly to the army, which must patrol borders and be able to deploy promptly to protect vital infrastructure outside SA. The next two should not be avoided because failure will have serious implications. Finally, core conventional capability is important because that would take a decade or more to re-establish, and because it provides valuable contingency capability. In addition, some internal tasks will fall to the army. The last three mission sets would require forces additional to those discussed here. 

Border protection

The SA National Defence Force assessment is that this requires 22 infantry companies deployed. Assuming dedicated units, this could be handled on a one-in-two rotation to allow soldiers to attend courses and have a family life. That translates to 11 infantry battalions, each of four companies. Add command and some support elements and that translates to about 10,000 personnel committed to this task, with suitable vehicles, unmanned aerial vehicles, static sensors and helicopters for reaction forces.    

Protection of external vital infrastructure

Vital external infrastructure includes the Cahora Bassa power station and transmission lines, the Mozambique gas fields (Temane and Cabo Delgado) and pipelines, Maputo port and rail link, and the Highlands Water Scheme in Lesotho; in future perhaps also Grand Inga in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). All are potentially vulnerable to guerrilla attacks, and local security forces may not be sufficient.

The first response will fall to special forces deployed by air to assess the situation. Follow-up will fall to the army, requiring quick reaction/rapid deployment capability. In the case of Cahora Bassa and the gas fields, the distances will demand paratroops and air-landed troops with light vehicles. In the case of the Highlands Water Scheme the first follow-up could be by air-assault infantry deployed by helicopter, with vehicles to follow. This requirement is met by the parachute and air-assault battalions and support elements, perhaps 2,000 troops in all. Plus, of course, the transport aircraft and helicopters. Those units would also be part of contingency capability. 

Longer-term protection would require units rotated through that mission. The Cabo Delgado gas fields seem likely to enjoy EU-funded protection for now, and there does not seem to be near-term risk to Maputo port. But Cahora Bassa and Temane are potentially at risk in the near- or medium-term. Assuming a medium-level threat, each would require an infantry battalion, attached engineers, intelligence teams with unmanned aerial vehicles, and medical personnel — some 1,000 troops — with helicopters for mobility and perhaps air support. To add perspective, the Rwandan army deployed some 2,000 troops to secure the Cabo Delgado gas installations. 

A one-in-four rotation is arguably the tightest that will not badly disrupt unit training, individual courses and family life (two six-month deployments or one 12-month deployment in a four-year cycle). Bear in mind extensive pre-deployment training and the need for units to train in their primary roles. Protecting one external installation will thus tie up four battalions plus attached elements, or some 4,000 troops, plus of course the air contingent. 

Constabulary missions will involve mainly the navy, special forces and the air force. 

Support, intervention and peace support missions

SA has force elements deployed to support Mozambique in Cabo Delgado, intervened in Lesotho in 1998 and the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2013, and has forces deployed for peace support in the DRC and previously in Burundi, Comoros and Darfur. The deployments to Burundi, the CAR, Comoros, the DRC and Darfur could be considered “missions of choice” — support for a neighbour could be essential.

The typical minimum force level will be a reinforced battalion with air support, so one mission will tie up four battalions or some 4,000 troops at a one-in-four cycle, plus the air contingent. Some could be more demanding of forces. The commitments to Mozambique and the DRC are in effect tying up some 8,000 army troops. 

Conventional forces 

While the risk of a conventional attack on SA — or even a neighbour — is low, it is never zero, and conventional forces take a decade or more to develop, while threats can arise far more quickly. Mechanised forces also give a real edge over even well-armed guerrillas that are dangerous to unsupported infantry. Any government that deliberately sends troops into a “fair fight” is betraying its troops. The minimum level is arguably a brigade group of about 8,000. The units of that brigade could, in times of low tension, provide units for peace support and similar missions and contingency capability. 

Contingency capability 

Unexpected short-notice commitments do arise (Lesotho in 1998, Burundi in 2001, Comoros in 2006, CAR in 2013); deployed forces can come under unexpected pressure (CAR in 2013) and need to be reinforced; and threats often arrive unannounced or at least unheeded. There is thus a clear requirement for contingency capability. That would be provided mainly by the airborne and conventional forces.

Internal tasks 

In addition to the mission sets discussed here, the army is also required to provide one company per province on short notice for police support and similar tasks. Those companies can normally be provided by the units involved or held available for external missions when not deployed. Then there is the matter of protecting internal vital infrastructure, which will fall to the army when risks become threats. That requirement would best be met by establishing reserve units drawn from the staff of the facilities concerned and from the surrounding area, with minimal need for personnel of the regular army. 

Army strength 

Considering unavoidable mission sets, existing external deployments, assuming only one external vital asset requiring protection (Cahora Bassa, Tema or Highlands) on a one-in-four rotation cycle, and maintaining core conventional capability, the army should have a deployable combat strength of at least 32,000. Adding command and control, training units, depots and workshops and troops in training argues for a minimum of 40,000. Current strength is about 34,000 including civilians, so the army is badly understrength. That shortfall can only be partly offset by reservists.

And of course the army lacks funds for effective training, to keep adequate stocks of ammunition and spares and to maintain, modernise, upgrade or replace its equipment, most of which dates from the 1980s and 1990s. 

This is the second part of a four-part series.

• Heitman is an independent security and defence analyst.

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