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Cut the bloat and trim the force

The South African National Defence Force is in a mess. That is the clear conclusion of the draft defence review commissioned by Lindiwe Sisulu and headed by Roelf Meyer.

Despite the spending binge of the 1999 arms deal, much of the soldiers’ kit is outdated, skills levels are woeful and discipline is weak. The reasons for this are complex and familiar — a difficult merger between liberation struggle guerrillas and the apartheid military machine, shifting spending priorities, political uncertainty about how powerful the defence force should be — and what it is for.

What Meyer’s report makes clear is that if South Africa is serious about its security needs and its status as a continental power, something is going to have to be done and urgently. The question is: What?

The answer cannot simply be to pour in more cash. Newer armoured cars and cleverer drones will not solve the problems of skills and leadership that the military faces, nor will they answer the question of what it is for.

We need an honest, realistic and public discussion to answer that question better. We would suggest that South Africa needs a relatively small, highly flexible force focused on the realities of our security situation — protection of shipping and fisheries, counterterrorism, regional peacekeeping and perhaps the integrity of land borders. Some ability to project force in keeping with South Africa’s multilateral obligations no doubt makes sense.

This need not require massive aggregate spending increases.

The many servicemen and women who are unsuited to the task and who bloat payrolls should be pensioned off. Wasteful subsidies to Denel should be reprioritised to buy the best equipment for our needs at the best price. And the traditional capacity of well-run militaries to build skills should be placed at the heart of the programme.

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