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From bully boys to wimps | The decline of SA's military

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

t is a good thing that Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe do not seem to have any territorial ambitions, because if they chose to annex a few South African provinces, the defense force would be hard-pressed to stop them, especially if Lesotho decided to get into the action.

A large and long overdue review of South Africa’s defense capabilities and needs, now in the phase of public consultation, paints a grim picture.

The country has too few fighting men and women, often with old or useless equipment, often without the discipline required to constitute an effective fighting force, little ability to deploy them rapidly, little by way of heavy equipment to back them up and a severely limited ability to communicate with them once they are in the field.

Shortcomings stretch from basic training to intelligence capability, leaving the defense force if not defenseless as such, at least easily outmatched by a sufficiently large multi-front attack using chemical or biological weapons, heavily armored units or any combination of these.

And that is the formal, written version. In private, analysts and military professionals across the board scoff at the idea that South Africa could defend itself from any serious, determined, concerted attack almost as much as they scoff at the idea that such an attack could take place in the foreseeable future.

“We are not going to fight a conventional war in the short-to-medium term,” said Len le Roux, a retired major general and consultant to the Institute for Security Studies on defense policy.

But if national defense remains the real job of the defense force, the defense review says, then somebody will have to pay for it.

“The persistent disconnect between the defense mandate, government expectation and resource allocation has eroded defense capabilities to the point where the defense force is unable to fully deliver its constitutional responsibility to defend and protect South Africa and its people and further cannot even support the current modest level of ambition,” the discussion draft reads.

Although it takes a high-level strategic view and specifically steers clear of enumerating crises and the cost of fixing them, the 423-page document makes it abundantly clear that maintenance of crumbling runways, for instance, will not wait. And there is wide consensus that almost every capability the defense force has is fast being eroded.

“We are at the point where we have two choices: either we spend a big chunk of money, or we do not intervene and we accept that we are going beyond the point of no return,” said Abel Esterhuyse, associate professor of strategy at Stellenbosch University’s faculty of military science and editor of the South African Journal of Military Studies.

That does not mean splurging on capital equipment arms-deal style. Both the review and analysts who were not involved in its drafting said operational funds were what was most desperately needed—money for the everyday running of the armed services rather than expensive equipment.

There are some exceptions, such as transport aircraft and ground vehicles, but those are relatively cheap and can be acquired over time. What the existing forces need instead is to actually use their equipment, including what has already been bought at such expense and controversy.

“You have aircraft like the Gripen ... unless you have a certain number of flying hours a month you begin to lose the skills of the pilots and you can quite easily dig a large hole in the ground with a supersonic jet,” said David Chuter, a lecturer, a writer on defense and a former British defense official with a long history of project involvement in South Africa.

“The risk is that quite soon you have the pilot and you have the aircraft, but you don’t have a pilot capable of flying the aircraft effectively.”

Defense against the type of aggression that requires a Gripen fighter jet is not South Africa’s main area of concern at the moment, but the principle seems to hold true for the duties the military, air force and navy are carrying out.

Insufficient practice compounds problematic hardware and initial training and results in a force that has neither the credibility required to deter aggression nor the ability to fight poachers in the Kruger Park or pirates off the Mozambican coast. And there is a sense of near despair at the failure of politicians who order such tasks to fund them.

“Border protection was given back to the defense force from the South African Police Service [in 2010] without any substantial increase in budget to do that,” said Roelf Meyer, chairperson of the committee responsible for the defense review. “If the expectation is that we should take care of border protection and if it is a government priority, then we need more money.”

Although Meyer’s committee is independent of the military and tasked with reviewing it in terms of government priorities, he tends to slip into a parental “we” when speaking of the seemingly impossible demands being placed on the defense force. His committee’s draft document reads like an extended pitch for funding.

Still, his group well understands the political trouble a sudden and substantial increase in military spending would cause and seems to have learned from the work of the National Planning Commission.

That body first published indicators—hard data with a touch of analysis that illustrated problems in an unarguable way. Once that was accepted, criticism of its subsequent hard-hitting recommendations was more difficult and critics found themselves called on to provide alternatives.

The defense review could create the same type of baseline for the fully costed budget that will have to follow.

“I would like to see us build a consensus around the document as much as we can so that, when we put it to Parliament, we can say this is the view of South Africans,” said Meyer.

“I would hope we would be able to give this document to the minister [of defense] for her to put forward the argument, which I don’t think is any secret: the defense force is underfunded.”

In some respects, the argument for more money—and it will be an argument—will be easier than at any time in the past decade, the dragging bad karma of the arms deal notwithstanding.

Better border protection also means preventing more smuggling of cigarettes and other goods that attract high levels of tax and are easily loaded on to a light aircraft, which should have a direct impact on taxes collected and thus be attractive to the more economically minded.

Combating rhino poaching by way of the military tactics Chuter summarized, such as “scaring the shit” out of poachers through helicopter-landed special forces, touches on an issue particularly emotive for the middle class.

An improved peacekeeping capability would delight those with a pan-African bent. Commercial fishermen would approve of better patrolling of South Africa’s waters.

And, should the administration in charge in 2013 wish to reduce rather than magnify the perceived waste of money on the arms deal, a little bit of money could go a long way.

“For a relatively small amount of extra money, you can actually start making use of all this kit properly, in a way that would justify the initial expenditure and allow the defense force to carry out the missions it was bought for effectively,” said Chuter.

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