South African Defense and Its Evolution


2017-06-29 By Helmoed Romer Heitman

Another year, another defence budget, and once again the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is left short-changed and under-funded, as it has been for almost a quarter of a century, despite periods of high operational commitments and tempo.

That mismatch between funding and commitments has delayed replacement of old equipment (30+ year old infantry combat vehicles and trucks) and closing critical capability gaps (lack of maritime aircraft and airlift capacity). It has also undermined training and demoralised military personnel to the point where some of the best exit the Defence Force.

In parallel, the defence industry has shrunk from some 130 000 people to just 15 000, some of the brightest being hired by defence companies overseas. And it is losing ground in the international market for lack of new products, because the Defence Force lacks the funds to order new equipment into service or to fund research and development.

It is well past time for government to decide what sort of Defence Force it wants, and to fund it accordingly, or to scale down its ambitions to fit the Defence Force it is willing to fund. What we have today, is a Defence Force that cannot conduct the regional operations the government envisages (ACIRC, African Standby Force), but that is too large and expensive to be a border guard. Neither fish nor fowl. The Defence Force cannot go on like that; nor will it serve us well in a crisis if we do not refocus and correct the trend.

Similarly, we have what is potentially a very capable defence industry, but will lose it if there is no flow of local orders for new equipment to interest other armed forces. And with that we will lose its forex earnings and import replacement capacity, as well as the skills and technology spin-offs a defence industry provides. Not to mention its 15 000 jobs, and the secondary jobs that depend on them.

Both the Defence Force and the industry have been in deep trouble for some years, and we are now at a stage beyond just having to decide what we want; we must now also begin damage control lest we wind up with a Defence Force that is nothing more than sheltered employment, and only memories of a once-advanced industry.

The starting point must be to establish what our defence requirements are, and prioritise them. Then we can focus the damage control effort to ensure that the required military and industrial capabilities are not lost, and that the basis for later expansion is retained.

That does not mean simply dropping everything else: there is no sense in dropping something because we do not need it today, if there is a likelihood – or even a good chance – that we will need it the day after tomorrow. Defence capabilities take too long to develop to be so careless with them. The aim must be to retain balanced, general-purpose forces that can be refocused and expanded should the strategic situation so require – assuming funding allows.

What then is it that the Defence Force must or should be able to do, and in what priority order?

A logical progression of roles, and therefore of mission sets and capability requirements might be as set out below:

Priority 1: Border Protection: This would include the land border, the coastline and mainland exclusive economic zone, and our air space. It should also include the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the Prince Edward and Marion islands.

Priority 2: Key Infrastructure Protection: This would include the actual ‘national key points’ such as airports, ports, rail junctions, power stations, dams, water treatment plants, telephone exchanges, plus more dispersed things like the national power grid and the rail traffic management system. It must also include protection of data networks providing the communications backbone and controlling key infrastructure.

Priority 3: Protection of External Vital Interests: This would include the Cahora Bassa hydro-electric power station and its transmission lines to South Africa, the Lesotho Highlands Water Scheme and its canals, pipelines and tunnels to South Africa, and the Mozambique Channel, through which almost all of our imported oil is moved. Looking slightly further ahead, it would include Maputo port and the Mozambican and Namibian gas fields and the pipelines from there to South Africa. Yet further into the future it would have to include the Grand Inga hydro-electric scheme in the DRC and its transmission lines, and possibly power stations in Botswana built to supply South Africa.

Priority 4: Protection of National Interests: This is an area that will prove more difficult to define, but ‘national interests’ would clearly include a stable Southern African Development Community (SADC), securing the SADC against threats along its northern border, and safe maritime trade in southern African waters, and perhaps outside the immediate region.

Priority 5: Deterrence and Defence: This would include discouraging any military adventures not just against South Africa, but also in the immediate region, and discouraging interference with maritime trade. Where threats do eventuate, there must be the military capability to counter them effectively and efficiently. Threats could range from terrorism through spill-over from a guerrilla war in a neighbouring country, to a cross-border guerrilla threat or deliberate interference with maritime trade by a country, and finally to a conventional military threat. Most of them unlikely, but extremely damaging if they should occur.

Each of these roles will comprise several mission sets and require certain capabilities, some of which will overlap with those of other roles. Those defence capabilities, in turn, will generate defence industry capability requirements.

The key is for government to bring itself to taking a clear decision as to what role South Africa intends to play: continental, regional, local or isolationist? If the latter, an isolationist state that relies on others to protect its interests, or an isolationist power that ignores its region but will lash out to protect its interests? Only when government has finally taken that decision, will it become possible to develop rational national security and defence policies, defence and military strategies, a coherent force design and a supporting defence industry strategy.

Republished with permission of our partner defenceWeb