From bully boys to wimps: the decline of SA's military
A comprehensive review of SA's military capabilities paints a grim picture of the country's defence capabilities. Let's hope Lesotho doesn't invade.
It 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 defence 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 defence 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 defence force if not defenceless as such, at least easily outmatched by a sufficiently large multifront attack using chemical or biological weapons, heavily armoured 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 defence policy.
But if national defence remains the real job of the defence force, the defence review says, then somebody will have to pay for it.
“The persistent disconnect between the defence mandate, government expectation and resource allocation has eroded defence capabilities to the point where the defence 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 defence 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 defence and a former British defence 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.”
Defence 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 defence 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 defence 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 defence 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 defence 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 defence] for her to put forward the argument, which I don’t think is any secret: the defence 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.
Combatting rhino poaching by way of the military tactics Chuter summarised, 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 defence force to carry out the missions it was bought for effectively,” said Chuter.
From defanged to refanged: How political change shaped the force
WHERE THINGS WENT WRONG
The disconnect between military requirements and military funding had its roots in the transition from apartheid, analysts said. It was a time when the overriding priority was to prevent a military coup, although there was a secondary nod to showing the rest of Southern Africa that South Africa would never again be a threat. That meant disempowering the military rather than supporting it and subsequent swift policy changes did not help.
“Mandela was trying to get the military out of the domestic environment. There was all this suspicion and doubt with white generals and black politicians, so the emphasis was on pulling them out of the domestic realm,” said Stellenbosch University’s Abel Esterhuyse. “Mbeki deployed the military into the foreign policy environment and made the key decision to disband the commando system, [leading to] the loss of that blanket domestic intelligence capability that we had across every small town in the country.
“Now, in the Zuma era, we are seeing that the police cannot cope with domestic challenges, so subtly the emphasis is starting to move towards a return to the domestic realm for the military. We do not want to be seen to be scaling down on our international commitments, but that is where it is going.”
Costly mission: The Gripen fighter jet. (Frans Dely)
In the middle of those shifts came the last formal defence review, conducted in 1998, which magnificently failed to predict anything like the actual future.
“There was a bit of a utopian view at the time, especially about Africa,” said Len le Roux, who was involved in that process. “The Cold War was over, apartheid was gone, so what could go wrong in Africa? The extent of South Africa’s commitment to peace missions was just not foreseen — and other stuff—I mean, who predicted the Arab Spring two years ago? Who predicted the way piracy would start up?”
But even as it became clear that South Africa would be a major participant in far-flung and complex missions for a long time to come, the requirement for more social spending and a big increase in public servant wages demanded reductions elsewhere. Then the global financial crisis struck state income.
Deploying troops within South Africa’s borders in situations in which they could end up in conflict with civilians was long politically unpalatable. This, however, seems to be changing fast. The defence review makes no value judgment on domestic deployment, but coyly points out that the army requires urban warfare training anyway, which has value both in fighting insurgents north of Limpopo and in arresting violent service delivery protesters.
Effective border patrols would require a highly manoeuvrable component, such as motorbike squads, which likewise has a dual purpose. Non-lethal ammunition for the military is considered an important need, as is creating a faster process to authorise the deployment of defence units.
Analysts and military veterans also point out that the use of heavier weapons and explosives by crime syndicates requires an equal or greater response and that democracy may not be best served by militarising the police service to the point where it could handle such threats.
The military has a labour problem. According to the defence review, it lacks a sufficient number of fighting soldiers while employing people variously described as uneconomical or ill-suited to their tasks. And it is costing too much. In the past financial year, 55% of the military budget went to personnel costs, whereas 40% is generally agreed to be a more acceptable level.
Outside analysts and former commanders, however, go much further. They said the application of general labour practices in the military meant an inability to discipline soldiers and prevented unsuitable recruits from being weeded out.
This, in a service such as the army that already has a clash of culture between the old defence force ways and the different norms brought in by the integration of forces from armed-struggle groups, has caused trouble. Add to the mix poorly conceived change to the formal discipline system and you have chaos.
“The current military discipline system [which entered into force in 1999] has not served its intended purpose and has conversely served to weaken military discipline and undermine the power of commanders,” said the defence review.
“The system has specifically disempowered commanders by removing summary discipline.”
After more than a decade under such a system and with the debate on unionisation within the defence force still unsettled, the results are starting to show and affect South Africa’s reputation.
“When you have troops on deployment in another country, they are representing you; they are flying your flag,” said one observer.
“When you have people misbehaving in shared United Nations camps and when you hear unflattering comparisons between South African officers and officers from other African countries, I wonder how much good we’re doing our strategy in Africa.”
THE MANY JOBS OF THE DEFENCE FORCE
On paper, the defence force has only one real objective: to seem scary enough to deter other countries or groups from looking for trouble and be ready enough to counter such trouble if it does develop. But as the review spells out in painstaking detail, it is being used in a wide range of other roles.
Troops have been deployed to a number of countries on the continent, where they have faced everything up to light artillery fire.
After a hiatus of several years, the defence force was in 2010 ordered back to the borders. That is nearly 4 000km of coastline—excluding territorial waters—and a little less than 4 500km of land borders.
With pirates based in Somalia operating as far south as the Mozambique channel and with no other country on the east coast of Africa capable of patrolling waters far beyond its bases, the navy has by default become responsible for doing so.
Joint deployment has been few and far between, but the indications are that the army and air force will increasingly be called to battle gangs and help to quell service delivery protests.
Fighting rhino and abalone poaching requires skill and equipment found only in the military and its role in both is set to increase.
MARRYING DEVELOPMENT AND DEFENCE
The military has long resisted, with varying degrees of success, being seen as a potential creator of jobs, a developer of rural economies and, generally, a tool of the developmental agenda.
Among other non-core activities, the military is involved in anti-poaching and peacekeeping missions. (Gianluigi Guercia, AFP)
The defence review follows a similar line, pointing out that the military should “contribute to national development primarily by creating the security conditions necessary for development to take place”.
Land use and redistribution remains a particularly sticky issue. The military controls vast areas that often seem to be badly underutilised. But, the review says, some communication installations require quiet zones, some munition depots require safety zones and some types of training need wide open spaces.
The review concedes that although the defence force should not be structured around economic or social development, there are many things that can be done to help: identifying spare facilities in rural areas that communities can use for education, spreading bases more widely and making those bases procure more locally, opening base schools and hospitals to civilians and promoting local research, development and manufacture.
THE COST OF GETTING IT RIGHT
If South Africa decides it needs a fully functional military—and the consensus is that it can hardly do without one—it will come at a cost of between R7.5-billion and R14-billion a year on top of current spending.
Defence analysts reach those numbers in different ways. Some argue that South Africa should be spending about 1.5% to 1.6% of its gross domestic product on defence, others consider total defence spending as a fraction of the total government budget and others base their calculations on the immediate need to stop further deterioration.
The defence review committee itself has tacitly endorsed the view that the defence budget needs to increase by about a quarter, although it generally steers well clear of trying to quantify the problem.
In a government budget already stretched thin, this kind of money would be hard to come by and achieving even a portion of the required increase may be Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu’s toughest political test.
REVIEWING THE REVIEWERS
The defence review committee, which is due to deliver its final report in August, has at its political core a mixture of individuals with diverse experiences of the military and varying levels of political clout.
Chairperson Roelf Meyer was the minister of defence for a short period in late 1991 and early 1992, a time during which he apparently did not get along with hardline generals. He retired from politics in 2000, but still receives credit for his role as the chief government negotiator during the transition to democracy.
His deputy, Thandi Modise, received military training in Angola before being arrested as an Umkhonto we Sizwe operative. She is facing a possible revolt in North West, where she is premier.
Charles Nqakula became minister of defence after the toppling of Thabo Mbeki, apparently as a way to remove him from the safety and security portfolio, but did not survive the Zuma Cabinet reshuffle. And Tony Yengeni’s involvement in the arms deal indirectly resulted in him being jailed for a short time, but he remains a force within the ANC.—Phillip De Wet