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South African National Defence Force in crisis

Date: 6 April 2010

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Analysis: South African National Defence Force in crisis

The South African National Defence Force (SANDF), once by far the most effective in Sub-Saharan Africa, is in danger of becoming moribund. The effects of 20 years of underfunding are visible in the Department of Defence's (DoD's) current three-year strategic plan, which reflects armed forces incapable of major operations and clearly in decline.

In March 2009 parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Defence warned that the SANDF was in a "downward spiral of becoming inadequate to fulfil its constitutional mandate". Analysis of the strategic plan confirms it.

The army can field one mechanised brigade; five battalions for peacekeeping, border protection and internal security; and an under-strength parachute battalion group as a defence force reserve. The navy has two frigates, a submarine, a support ship and about four smaller
vessels operational. The air force will not have an effective fighter capability until well after 2012 and has only six attack helicopters operational. Airlift is limited to about four 1960s-vintage C-130s and some modernised 1940s-vintage C-47s. Only the air force's helicopter and liaison components are properly equipped.

This is hardly adequate for a country with the largest economy in Africa, and the 30th largest in the world, and that is expected to play a major regional security role. The reality is underscored by a 'selective engagement' policy, defined in the strategic plan to mean that "the SANDF will execute all the prescribed missions, but will be selective in terms of the extent to which operations and tasks emanating from these missions will be executed. This concept implies that appreciated risks will have to be taken".

Quite apart from being under-strength for its responsibilities, the SANDF cannot with present funding train properly, maintain its equipment and facilities or pay acceptable salaries. The result is an accelerating decline in effectiveness and in morale, the latter reflected by the drain of key personnel and the violent demonstration by some 2,000 soldiers in November 2009 over poor pay and living conditions in bases that were not properly maintained.
Perhaps the most startling illustration of under-funding is that the air force will only have 550 flying hours for its fighter force this year and 250 hours in each of the next two, just when it planned to 'work up' on the new Gripen; lead-in fighter training on the Hawk has been cut from 4,000 hours to 2,000. The South African Air Force (SAAF) had planned the Gripen to be fully operational by 2012, but that is now clearly unattainable. The transport, helicopter and maritime components are hardly better off and the precipitate decision to cancel the acquisition of the A400M transport aircraft leaves the SAAF without a C-130 replacement plan.

The strategic plan does not give total sea day figures, but reveals that the navy will have only 10,000 operational hours at sea (9,000 per year thereafter) to patrol South Africa's 2,800 km coast and enormous exclusive economic zone. Inadequate funding has also limited fuel for sea training days and made it difficult to procure spares. The army's situation is aggravated by funding that allows only one brigade exercise per year - and that with a 'brigade minus'. It will also struggle to fund re-equipment. For example, it can only acquire 264 new infantry combat vehicles against an actual requirement for more than 1,000 and several key projects, have been delayed by years.

Other issues

Quite apart from under-funding, the SANDF is also being hurt by inadequate strategic direction, which was highlighted in March by a Treasury official briefing parliament's Standing Committee on Public Accounts. He said the strategic plan set no "strategic goals and objectives", lacked "high-level focus on the desired outcomes", lacked any "credible vision of what the defence force should be doing" and that the "operational plans at the lower levels focused on support functions rather than the core strategic objectives and responsibilities". He suggested the DoD should "have military strategists who are not civilians" and who would be able to "formulate a new vision".

That goes to a root problem: the Defence Secretariat has not been effective since its establishment in 1995. Few senior civil servants had defence experience and political appointments saw people with neither defence nor civil service experience placed into key posts.

One result was the attempt to update the 1997/98 Defence Review, which produced a document that blithely skipped over core strategic issues, ignored already approved army and navy force designs and contained errors of fact. It was rejected by both the Standing Committee and the defence minister, who instructed that a new paper be drafted, this time involving the services in the process.

The ultimate roots of the problem lie in the Defence White Paper of 1996, which was drafted by advisers with naïve notions of international politics and little understanding of defence and who focused on peripheral issues. The Defence Review was led by the same advisers and focused almost entirely on fitting the shrinking budget, with no regard to likely missions. At the same time the SANDF was 're-engineered' along business principles. That mistake is being reversed, but the fundamental problems of vague policy, even vaguer strategy and a dysfunctional Secretariat remain.

The SANDF continues to suffer from self-destructive personnel management focused on gender and racial quotas to the near exclusion of practical requirements. It is unable or unwilling to dispense with dishonest and incompetent officers, which has driven out experienced white officers and demoralises black officers, who are frustrated and compromised by the incompetents. Their morale is not helped by often rather frank remarks of officers from other African forces, such as: "Why do you have these people on your courses? Do they not embarrass you?"

The situation is not terminal. The SANDF has highly competent officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs); its young officers are keen; its soldiers have mostly performed well in peacekeeping operations. However, there is an urgent need for clear direction and leadership from the Cabinet, indeed from the president, to spell out what the SANDF will be expected to do and to support commanders who insist on discipline and on merit. And government must provide funding commensurate with the tasking. The best soldiers in the world cannot win wars without adequate training and equipment.

Many senior officers are optimistic that the new Cabinet will turn things around, but there is not much time - perhaps three or four years. After that the situation might become irretrievable.

Source: Jane's Defence Weekly


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