Spectacular: A Rooivalk helicopter shoots flares during a battle simulation in Limpopo. The deadly South African-built helicopters in the air force are now dated. (Deaan Vivier/Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images)
The SAS Amatola cost R2.4-billion. One of four frigates bought as part of the infamous arms deal, the state-of-the-art ship entered service in 2006. Its crew of 152 has a mixture of cannon, anti-ship missiles and helicopters to hunt down anything that threatens South Africa at sea. With her three sister ships, Amatola is a potent symbol of military power. That is, when she has fuel to sail.
The four frigates are rarely at sea together because the navy barely has any budget for maintenance. And when one does make it out of the navy’s Simonstown base, maintenance problems and a shortage of money for fuel mean the scope of its power is limited.
In February, after taking part in the Armed Forces Day display near Cape Town, the Amatola headed north to do an anti-piracy patrol off the Mozambican coast. Despite a R330‑million overhaul in 2015, its starboard engine developed problems. Docking in Durban, its crew set about fixing it. Amatola was also meant to refuel. But not enough fuel had been delivered, and the navy had trouble paying for it. On other occasions, the navy has been forced to send the nearly 50-year-old hydrography vessel SAS Protea to Mozambique to ward off pirates.
Also in February, air force helicopters working in the Eastern DRC as part of a peacekeeping operation only managed to fly about a third of the hours required of them. Last month, the air force had to charter an Antonov heavy-lift plane to help with the disaster response to Cyclone Idai. Its own planes were either busy or broken. Only two Oryx helicopters were available to fly across the border to help.
The army, navy and air force are, in the words of the department of defence, “in a critical state of decline”. In an interview with the Mail & Guardian, secretary of defence Dr Sam Gulube said “it’s a disaster” when talking about the impact of budget cuts. The department’s nearly R50-billion budget is half of what it says it needs to secure the borders, patrol the oceans, respond to disasters and take part in peacekeeping operations.
More than R10-billion has already been cut from the department’s budget in the last three years. In 2021, a further R5-billion will be cut. Gulube says: “Government will have to decide if we have an air force or an air wing. A navy or a coastal force.” It will mean a drastic reduction in the capacity of these different parts of South Africa’s defence force.
At the moment, the defence force survives by keeping most of its equipment out of circulation. Only a third of the air force’s 35 Oryx helicopters are fully operational. These have to be divided between peacekeeping work in the DRC, training, international military exercises, mountain rescue and firefighting in South Africa, disaster relief in Mozambique, and escorting politicians. The force’s annual report shows that last year it spent 496 hours flying “Very, Very Important People”.
The armed forces are also cutting how often they patrol for illegal fishing fleets. The navy says its vessels were meant to spend 12 000 hours at sea last year, but it only managed half of this. When the corrupt and controversial arms deal was signed off on in the late 1990s, the air force was logging 35 000 flying hours each year. It’s now down to a third of that. Most of the Grippen fighter aircraft — the most luxurious purchase in that deal — aren’t flown often enough to be deemed airworthy. Pilots are also struggling to get enough hours in the cockpit to stay certified.
For taking part in peacekeeping operations such as those in the DRC and for patrolling the Mozambique channel, the defence force is reimbursed from the United Nations (UN) and African Union (AU). In the DRC, the air force’s Rooivalk helicopters proved instrumental in stopping the advance of M22 rebels in 2015.
Built in South Africa, the helicopter is one of the hardiest and most lethal in the world. But it is now decades old, as is much of the defence force’s other equipment. And when the helicopters fail to fly the hours required on peacekeeping operations, the UN pays less money.
In South Africa’s 1.5-million square kilometres of ocean, only one of the navy’s four frigates is ready to respond quickly. They are assisted by a handful of 70-year-old propeller-driven planes based in Cape Town. They are now also being helped by tiny “cube” satellites that went into service earlier this year. These track vessels’ beacons, so the navy can see where everything is in the ocean. Combined with radar, they can find so-called “dark targets” — vessels that have switched everything off so they can fish illegally.
But, without vessels, there’s little capacity to respond, beyond the frigates. The rest of the navy — and the fisheries department’s own patrol vessels — cannot handle the rough seas where the Atlantic and Indian oceans collide.
In a November briefing to the defence portfolio committee, the department said it is operating on half of the budget that it needs: R50‑billion a year instead of R103‑billion. In 2015, the department published a “defence review” that examined its ageing equipment and planned what the army, navy and air force needed to keep doing their jobs. The review didn’t say how the defence force would function with its greatly reduced budget.
At the November briefing, officials from the national treasury said: “Priorities like #Fees mustfall make it difficult for treasury to fund the 2015 defence review.” Treasury also said it was trying to find R4-billion to pay soldiers to retire early. Mention was made in that briefing of the “large, ageing force” not wanting to retire.
This is a serious problem. The average age in the army is close to 40; the international average is closer to 30. This is compounded by a tendency to promote people when they reach a certain age, a source told the M&G. This means a bad “tooth-to-tail” ratio — where there are many more people supporting operations (the tail) than there are actual soldiers (the tooth).
In a fiercely debated article in The Conversation in 2017, Abel Esterhuyse, associate professor of strategy at the faculty of military science at Stellenbosch University, argued that: “The problem is not the size of the budget. The problem is how the budget is divided.”
He wrote that about 80% of the defence department’s budget is used for personnel costs. That leaves little for maintenance or new equipment. A plan to build three new inshore and three new offshore patrol vessels has been dramatically whittled down, with just the inshore vessels now being built, at a cost of R1.5‑billion. When the navy’s frigates reach the end of their lifespan after 2030 there won’t be any capacity to patrol out at sea.
The maintenance backlog for the department’s facilities is R7-billion. A tender for armoured vehicles from Denel — vital for protecting soldiers from mines and bullets on peacekeeping operations — has been pushed back to the early 2020s.
The army is also only able to deploy 15 units to patrol the border, despite saying it needs to have more than 20 to do the job, and despite politicians campaigning on illegal immigration and demanding that more soldiers are sent to the border.
Esterhuyse said these problems can be fixed if the department does better with the resources that it has.
The auditor general has consistently given the department qualified audits. Last year, the audit found R400-million in irregular spending. In a note in the department’s last annual report, the auditor general said: “Leadership did not exercise sufficient oversight responsibility regarding financial and performance reporting, compliance with laws and regulations and related internal controls.”