William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Time for the SANDF to slim down and shape up

It’s not a national secret that the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is in serious trouble. Its barracks are unfit for human habitation, it has been haemorrhaging expertise and its soldiers teetered on the brink of mutiny in a protest march on the Union Buildings

So when the government’s leaked long-term military strategy review reports a “critical state of decline”, it’s merely stating what has been obvious for at least a decade. According to a study by Gerhard Louw of Stellenbosch University, drawing on the 2012 Defence Review, says the SANDF is “critically deficient in the skill, motivation, and ethos that is required to operate a ‘modern system’,” given that it has to “retain human resources that are no longer employable in an operational capacity, which exacerbates the DOD’s relentless exodus of technically skilled and professionally qualified personnel … average standards of military proficiency are therefore continuously decreasing”.

The defence review, which Reuters news agency this week quotes extensively from, has been accepted by the cabinet but not yet released. It states that even if urgent action were taken immediately, it would take at least a decade to remedy the neglect. What is needed is “massive investment”, with the defence budget potentially doubling from R14-billion last year to R40bn by 2014.

This, it says soothingly, is a mere 1% of gross domestic product (GDP), a ratio “well below” equivalent nations. In fact, should South Africa want to be truly safe, it should spend R116-billion a year, or 3.3% of GDP, on the military.

What a load of bollocks. What the SANDF needs is not simply more money, more matériel, and more men, but to start using existing resources better. The SANDF needs to slim down and shape up.

First, there’s the ballooning 97 000-strong muster. A modern military is not a retirement home at which to park one’s aged liberation war cadres who are no longer fit for purpose. South Africa has the oldest infantry troops in the world but the SANDF says it can conceive of no “humane exit mechanism” to thin its ranks.

Then there’s weaponry. Not surprisingly, the top brass and the defence contractors are at one that SA needs more “heavy-combat ability”, presumably tanks and attack helicopters. Unfortunately, the SANDF is already sitting with an array of expensive hardware that it cannot deploy, either because it lacks the skilled crews – hence 12 mothballed Gripen aircraft – or because it can’t afford the running costs.

That raises the use that these men and matériel are put to. The air force, for example, has been reduced to being a flying limousine service for African National Congress politicians. The government refuses to reveal the cost of flights by the president and the deputy-president on “security grounds”. However, it’s a fact that while the SAAF’s helicopter squadrons receive a generous allocation for VIP flights – last year the Durban-based 15 Squadron got 300 hours flying time to ferry the Zuma entourage to and from Nkandla – they get very little for training and nothing at all for sea and mountain rescue.

Finally, there is the extent of the SANDF’s mandate. The military’s first duty is to protect our borders. Anything else is not only a costly addition, but detracts from it being able to execute its primary function.

The government, however, is increasingly using the SANDF as an extension of diplomacy, to project power elsewhere in Africa. That’s a dangerous vortex. That’s a thankless task. Most critically, that’s futile – there are always more places to intervene and interests to protect than there is taxpayer money. Ask the citizens of the United States. So while the occasional humanitarian intervention might be a necessary and worthy undertaking, South African troops are being deployed far too readily and for far too long.

The review argues that the shift from securing territorial integrity to achieving diplomatic goals as a compelling reason for bigger budgets. At present levels of expenditure, “the military cannot underpin Pretoria’s diplomatic and commercial expansion in Africa … There must either be a greater budget allocation or a significantly scaled-down level of ambition and commitment”.

In case we don’t grasp the urgency, it warns: “Old colonial powers such as France, and new economic ones such as China, are flexing their muscles.” Americans, again, will recognise the threatening bogeyman tactic, the justification of every act of US military adventurism, stretching back at least a century.

The generals are naturally keen on the iron-hand-in-velvet-glove philosophy. It gives the troops battle experience and a chance to play – costs covered by the African Union or, more accurately, the United Nations – with expensive toys that otherwise would otherwise never be taken out of storage. They might even get to go with Big Daddy to buy more lekker goodies.

That’s all far more exciting than the simple but boring stuff that the SANDF command should actually do: improve morale, training and discipline. That would mean investing less in cutting-edge military technology and more in old-fashioned Sergeant-Majors.

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