Arms commission: First witness defends navy purchases

Rear-admiral Alan Green appeared as the first witness at the Seriti commission to explain why new submarines and corvettes were crucial. (M&G)

Rear-admiral Alan Green appeared as the first witness at the Seriti commission to explain why new submarines and corvettes were crucial. (M&G)

According to anti-arms deal campaigner Terry Crawford-Browne, rear-admiral Alan Green from the South African Navy stood before Parliament in November 2012 and declared that the weaponry purchased in the arms deal was inoperable.

At the Seriti commission of inquiry on Tuesday, Green flatly denied making that claim. And in the absence of a transcript from Parliament, which the commission promised to obtain, the contrasting statements between the former banker and the admiral were left to linger.

Rear-admiral Philip Schoultz, who manages the navy’s fleet, will hopefully fill in some of the finer details left out by Green when he gives evidence later this week.

Green was convinced the corvettes and submarines purchased by South Africa as part of the arms deal are operational. He told the commission he did not recognise the statement Crawford-Browne attributed to him. He also said the statement was illogical.

Green said those who said the arms were out of use did not understand what was intended by the term "utilisation".

He said the corvettes and submarines needed to be maintained, and that "just because a ship is in dry-dock or you don’t see jets flying around in the air, doesn't mean they are not being used".

The mere fact that South Africa had acquired the arms also meant that it was safer.

Green is a naval officer with nearly three decades' experience. At the height of his career, he headed the navy’s strategic planning department, and told the commission the purchase of the ships and submarines was part of the navy's strategic objectives.

End of their cycles
At the time of the 1996 defence review, Green said, the submarines belonging to the navy had reached the end of their cycles and were eventually decommissioned.

"The South African National Defence Force did not have a large combat vessel in its inventory and was coping with rather aged off-shore patrol vessels to execute operations," he said. Green said the airforce's inventory also required "rejuvenation".

Evidence leader Tshepo Sibeko SC told Green that part of the criticism of the arms deal was that South Africa faced no obvious military threat at the time. In fact, the government admitted the greatest threat faced by South Africa at the time was socio-economic: poverty, a lack of housing, and joblessness, he said.

But Green said this was not a compelling reason not to purchase arms. "The absence of a clear military threat does not mean that the SANDF had no requirement for rejuvenation. The mandate and subsequent discussions above [the state of the SANDF at the time] clearly indicate that the SANDF should have a 'force design' to be able to execute its mandate.

"Threats usually appear unexpectedly and do not always allow for long lead times to acquire combat systems, which include the equipment and competent operators," he said.

Additionally, procurement of arms can take up to a decade, he added, and officers needed to be trained to operate the purchased arms. The development of doctrine within the SANDF and the maintenance of the arms also needed to be taken into account, time-wise, he said.

Green said the finer details of how the boats were now used by the SANDF would be outlined by Schoultz, while he was only able to tell the commission about the "philosophical" questions around the arms deal.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Thabo Mbeki, Mukoni Ratshitanga, confirmed that the former president wants the state to pay the fees for the lawyers representing him at the commission.

Mbeki’s legal team withdrew from the commission on Tuesday owing to "unresolved issues". Ratshitanga confirmed that Mbeki had written to government asking for legal assistance. However, government had yet to respond to his request.

"The position will be reviewed once the government has made a determination on legal assistance to the former president," said Ratshitanga.

Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans interned at the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley for three years before completing an internship at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane). She went on to work as a Mail & Guardian news reporter with areas of interest including crime, law, governance and the nexus between business and politics.  Read more from Sarah Evans


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