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Feature: Botswana’s Gripen plan highlights need for a defence white paper

A Saab Gripen.Gaborone’s proposed $1.7 billion acquisition of Swedish-built Gripen multi-role jet fighters has drawn sharp criticisms from security analysts, foreign press and domestic political opposition within Botswana.

The arguments against the aircraft purchase highlight a general lack of awareness or understanding of the role of the defence force in Botswana’s security apparatus in particular and the role of defence in general. More importantly, the criticisms bring to light a more pressing issue with regard to security policy and transparency. Namely, Botswana is in desperate need of a public defence and security sector review or study to ensure the polity is aware of the role of its military within the security establishment. Such a study would solve several existing problems, not the least of which is a poor public understanding of the role of the Botswana Defence Force (BDF).

Arguments against the proposed Gripen purchase from opposition parties, Swedish media and researchers from the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University highlight a longstanding shortcoming with defence policy in Botswana. The evolving role of the Botswana Defence Force within an unarticulated national security architecture has left Botswana unaware of the true nature, role and scope of their nation’s security services.

Opposition leaders and local press have long accused President Khama of “militarizing” governance and favouring the security services. A defence white paper would go a long way towards properly assessing the role of the Botswana Defence Force (BDF), articulating its missions, building public confidence with the government, providing focus for the BDF, reassuring neighbours and establishing a needed degree of transparency into what critics all too frequently claim is a secretive, opaque government.

At a press conference at Rosenbad in Stockholm during President Ian Khama’s state visit to Sweden on June 19th, 2017, journalists asked numerous questions about the legitimacy of Botswana acquiring Saab’s JAS-39 Gripen fighter aircraft.1 Among the most pointed challenges, the media suggested that the government could better spend the money on social needs, and suggested that Botswana faces no security threats. Additionally, one reporter asked if Botswana would not be better served by purchasing “drones” rather than advanced (and expensive) fighter aircraft.2 These questions and comments were reasonable. President Khama received some criticism for his response to the drone question that all military expenditure is expensive, when he replied that one could easily ask, “why not buy bows and arrows rather than rifles for our soldiers?”3 Subsequent criticism of the proposed Gripen acquisition came from the media and political opposition in Botswana and analysts at Uppsala University.4 President Khama’s tongue in cheek reply aside, official Government of Botswana justifications for the purchase have fallen short of successfully articulating why this stable, land-locked southern African nation needs the Gripen. The inability of Gaborone to satisfactorily answer critics’ reasonable inquiries further highlight the need for a defence white paper. Nonetheless, criticisms of the acquisition thus far have largely been unfair, inaccurate or the result of cursory assessments.

Although having risen from poor to a middle-income country status ($6,610 Gross National Income (GNI), per capita in 2017),5 Botswana has pervasive poverty and one of the highest levels of wealth disparity in the world. Once a desperately poor and underdeveloped landlocked state, Botswana was fortunate to discover rich diamond and mineral deposits shortly after independence. Successive governments under the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), which has been in power since independence, have avoided the “resource curse” so pervasive in much of Africa. With a GINI coefficient of 60.46 in 2009 (down from 64.72 in 2002),6 Botswana does indeed have a large gulf between the wealthy and the poor. This makes military expenditures a tempting target when defence spending is the topic of conversation. While poverty remains high, long term poverty reduction has been the historical norm in Botswana. Enduring poverty reduction is the most important trend related to poverty.

Since independence in 1966, extreme poverty in Botswana has continually declined, even during Khama’s time in office (2008-present). In 1985 over half of Botswana lived in poverty. By 2000, the level had declined to under 30% (29.8) and by 2010 (two years after the global recession severely reduced government revenue from diamonds) it had further declined to 19.4% of the population.7 As the World Bank consistently assesses, poverty reduction has been a direct consequence of government intervention with social spending.8 This makes the charge that the money could be better spent on poverty alleviation and social services less convincing. Poverty reduction and social spending are not the only legitimate government activities. A polity also needs security, safety and to be free from external aggression or intimidation to grow and prosper. Consequently, security sector spending is necessary and legitimate.

Researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden make the claim that Botswana is “starting an arms race” in southern Africa.9 While this may garner headlines and raise eyebrows, it is misleading. If anything, Botswana is coming to the party rather late. Zimbabwe10, South Africa,11 Angola,12 and Zambia13 have all purchased new or updated jet fighters over the past ten to fifteen years. Namibia also attempted to do the same. Additionally, wholly independent of any action on the part of Botswana, Angola has consistently spent over three percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on defence, with significant increases in the past three years.14 Conversely, as a percentage of GDP, apart from a current increase, Botswana has lowered (2010-2013) or kept defence spending consistent throughout Khama’s term in office.15 Defence spending in the region over the past couple of decades would appear to align far more closely to domestic considerations or perceptions of external threat than to legitimate external threats.

Among Gaborone’s immediate neighbours, South Africa spends the lowest percentage of its GDP on defence (consistently 1.1 percent).16 However, Pretoria is the exception. The other states which border Botswana spend far more on defence. Even Zimbabwe, where the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front’s (ZANU-PF) macro-economic policies nearly destroyed the economy; defence spending is rising once again.17 Far from alarming, Botswana’s recent defence spending increases and a potential Gripen acquisition will not “spark” an “arms race.” Rather it will allow the BDF to modernize, keep pace with its neighbours and effectively deter potential adversaries.

In fact, Botswana is far behind its neighbours when it comes to modernizing its jet fighter fleet. The BDF Air Arm has second-hand Canadian-built CF-5 jets which they acquired over two decades ago.18 These aircraft are outdated and expensive to maintain, in part because Canadair no longer maintains configuration control for the CF-5 and there are no production lines in operation. Consequently, specialty manufacturers must tool each part individually, significantly adding to cost and causing long delivery delays. The BDF must turn to unreliable private suppliers or rely on cannibalizing parts from foreign militaries to keep their fleet airworthy. This has already manifested as a significant problem.

In 2008, the serving commander of the BDF Air Arm grounded the entire fleet when he determined it was unsafe to fly the aircraft owing to difficulty certifying the ejection seat charge cartridges. For seven months pilots were prohibited from flying the planes as intensive efforts were underway to locate parts which could not be sourced from the original equipment manufacturer. In order to keep the aircraft engines working, pilots had to taxi back and forth on the runway rather than take to the air. Problems like this will only become more pronounced for an aircraft designed in the 1950s, built in the 1960’s and long retried from service by its primary users (U.S., Canada and the Netherlands). Additionally, Canadair built only 240 units of the CF-5s, about ten percent of the total 2,350 F-5 aircraft total.19 The CF-5’s do not have universally compatible parts with the F-5, adding to spare part procurement woes for current end users.

In June 2017 opposition political parties in Botswana, under the coalition "Umbrella for Democratic Change" (UDC), submitted a petition to the Swedish parliament in an effort to block Gaborone’s planned purchase of Gripens. The petition, entitled “Botswana arms race in the midst of poverty, massive unemployment and social inequality,” argues the arms sale is not in Botswana’s interest.20 Concerns about poverty are well-founded and reasonable but their petition implies the government is not addressing poverty when, in fact, it has and continues to do so. The UDC petition also mirrors the Uppsala peace researchers and the Swedish media assertions that Botswana has “no threats.” Botswana made a principled and practical decision at independence in 1966 to not form a defence force. While prudent from a financial standpoint for county that was desperately poor, this decision did not last long. Just a decade later, repeated Rhodesian violations of its territorial sovereignty from the east and South African raids from the south forced the government to form the BDF. To assume that Botswana will never face another threat to its sovereignty is a risky bet.

The argument that the Gripens are not in Botswana’s national interest is unfounded. To have a defence capability, one must invest in it and conduct training so that a force is capable and ready. Botswana has no current credible jet interceptor capability and, consequently, no deterrent. This shortfall is more glaring in light of its neighbours’ recent fighter acquisition programs. Gaborone will not be able to field a new interceptor fleet on short notice. The challenge with security is that military readiness is not something one can rush off to market and buy just in time for when you urgently need it. The Gripen would not only give the BDF Air Arm a capability on par with its, now, largely friendly neighbours, but also provides deterrence that will make potential aggressors think before acting against Botswana. Capability, readiness and deterrence are very much in Botswana’s national interest.

UDC president Duma Boko has also questioned the wisdom of the Gripen purchase on the grounds that the “BDF has more immediate needs in anti-poaching, border security patrols and peacekeeping operations on the continent.”21 The opposition leader makes a useful point on this issue. However, the argument is incomplete and not entirely accurate. In 2016 the BDF purchased fourteen “Bat Hawk” light surveillance aircraft for airborne anti-poaching patrolling.22 These planes also have utility in border security patrolling. The BDF is buying an additional 45 General Dynamics Piranha 8x8 armoured fighting vehicles with 30 mm cannon turrets to further address border patrolling and potential peacekeeping operations.23 However, it is worth noting that Botswana has not contributed troops to peace operations since its deployment to Lesotho in “Operation Boleas,” nearly 20 years ago. The BDF is far more active in forest fire fighting, joint anti-crime patrolling during the holidays with the Botswana Police Service, disaster response and planning, anti-poaching and leading the men’s sector for HIV/AIDS. None of these activities are traditional defence functions. Rather they are ad hoc requirements assigned to the BDF, as it tends to be the most capable and reliable government actor to help with urgent non-defence needs. This is another reason Botswana needs a defence review or white paper to clearly identify defence missions and avoid “mission creep.”

So why should the BDF buy new fighter aircraft in the first place? Botswana’s existing CF-5 jet fleet is outdated, difficult to source parts for, expensive to maintain, falling behind peer competitors in the region and, consequently, long overdue for retirement and replacement. In an April 2015 African Defence magazine article on Botswana's defence force, Colonel Sianang Mokuedi of the BDF levelled several criticisms of the existing BDF CF-5 fleet. He pointed out that the original acquisition in 1996 was deeply flawed because the CF5-A/B models had far too many operational limitations to be employed as a modern tactical fighter. Mokuedi also noted that the airframe is an ineffective air superiority fighter, is ineffective as a ground attack aircraft, lacks operational range when carrying a weapons load and lacks all-weather navigation and attack capabilities.24 Additionally, the plane could not compete with the MiG-19 or the MiG-21 (then prevalent in the region). Its operational radius limited support to troops and therefore was unlikely to be able to provide fire support to a BDF peace enforcement mission abroad.25 The CF-5 has outlived its usefulness, if it ever had any in the BDF context.

Some critics (including Swedish journalists and opposition political figures) argue that South Africa is incapable of adequately maintaining and operating its Gripen fleet.26 While this is a true statement, comparing the BDF Air Arm to the South African Air Force and the constraints it contends with is not a convincing, fair or even legitimate argument. Simply stating that because South African can’t, therefore it follows that far smaller Botswana cannot, is flawed. First, the BDF Air Arm has historically been successful at maintaining and operating its diverse air fleet comprised of French, U.S., Spanish, and Canadian aircraft. Second, the ruling ANC uses the military extensively for external peacekeeping. The cost of external operations (in terms of financial and operational readiness costs) directly impact the ability of the South African Air Force to maintain and operate its Gripen and Hawk fleets. Additionally, the South African Air Force is woefully underfunded, hamstrung with equipment it does not need and bleeding talent. South African Air Force contracting policies have eviscerated technical and support staff and eroded pilot proficiency in South Africa.27 These issues play a major role in explaining why the SAAF cannot maintain and operate its Gripens. None of this applies to the BDF Air Arm.

Today, critics point to poverty, education, medical and other social spending as inadequate in the face of recently rising defence budgets. This follows countless complaints since he succeeded Festus Mogae as president that Khama is “dictatorial” and favours the military over society.28 Khama’s status as a retired lieutenant general and former BDF commander, his terse response to challenges and brusque leadership style within his own political party all play into this depiction. His reticence to hold press conferences or make himself available to the public (beyond his traditional role as Kgosi to the Bamangwato people) does not help improve these perceptions. While critics have some fertile ground to demand more access and insist on transparency in security policy, the portrayal of a “dictatorial” leader are unfair.

Freedom House rated Botswana in 2016 as “partly free” for press freedom.29 However, concerns about government transparency and press freedom in Botswana are hardly a phenomenon unique to the Khama government. The manner in which BDP governments have dealt with the media is merely a continuation of ongoing polices that date to the colonial era.30 Nonetheless, dire predictions about press freedom, censorship and abuse have not prevented a cycle of never ending articles in domestic media critical of Khama and the BDP. In addition, in spite of apprehension about the former defence force commander serving as president and surrounding himself with former military officers, Botswana has yet to become the police state critics claimed it would under a Khama presidency.

Khama and the ruling BDP kept defence spending low in bad times following the 2008 global recession while focusing on stabilizing the domestic economy and continuing social spending. A government that has for decades used its natural wealth to reduce poverty, build infrastructure, provide social grants, free public education and medical care should also be able to train and equip its security sector. However, the ruling BDF’s reticence to openly discuss security issues has made it an easy target. Gaborone should continue its longstanding efforts to lower poverty and improve the human condition. However, these obligations do not abrogate a responsibility to maintain credible deterrence and defend its airspace. Botswana can continue good governance and acquire new military hardware.

Contrary to images of the former commander doting on the BDF, Khama has astutely delayed this acquisition. By pushing for this long-needed acquisition at the end of his second term in office, Khama will not leave the decision to the next government. Whatever happens in the upcoming 2019 parliamentary elections, the new government, either the BDP or possibly a new coalition opposition government, will be able to avoid debate on an aircraft acquisition (should they desire to avoid debate). Khama has addressed the urgent 2008 economic crisis, delayed military acquisitions as long as practical and avoided handicapping the incoming government with debating and defending defence acquisitions. If the purchase proves unpopular, the BDP can blame the previous president (Khama). If unhappy, an opposition government that wins can attempt to reverse the programme.

Gabrone’s decades long commitment to poverty reduction and social spending will not diminish should the country purchase the Gripens. However, opposition political, media and even private citizen perceptions about the proposed deal will continue unless and until the government makes a clearer case for the acquisition. Beyond his prudent decision to delay the Gripen acquisition until long after the 2008 financial crisis, Khama can leave his successors with one more critical legacy; he can commission a defence white paper. A publicly available study is necessary to improve civil-military relations and give Batswana insight into their nation’s security sector. President Khama’s government would do well to make their case publicly. This level of transparency would allow the public to not only be more informed but also give it more reason to trust their government.

Written by Colonel William M. (Chris) Wyatt, Director, African Studies, U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania.

Colonel Chris Wyatt is Director of African Studies at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. His was previously the Senior Military Advisor to the U.S. Mission to the African Union. Colonel Wyatt has extensive experience across Africa with assignments in Tunisia, Liberia, Botswana, Malawi, Niger, Mauritania, Uganda and Ethiopia.

1 Government of Sweden, official government video; http://www.regeringen.se/pressmeddelanden/2017/06/statsminstern-tar-emot-botswanas-president/; June 19th,2017; accessed August 10th, 2017
2 ibid
3 ibid
4 Botswana Gazette, May 4th, 2017, “Khama’s multi-billion pula Gripen fighter jet deal rubbished in Sweden _ Botswana Gazette;” http://www.thegazette.news/?p=19326; accessed August 10th, 2017
5 World Bank Data; http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD?locations=BW; accessed August 10th, 2017
6 World Bank Data; http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SI.POV.GINI?locations=BW; accessed August 10th 2017
7 World Bank Data, December 8th 2015; http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/botswana/publication/botswana-poverty-assessment-december-2015; accessed August 10th, 2017
8 ibid
9 Tebele, Mpho, “Botswana military deal triggers regional security fears,” Southern Times, April 4th, 2017; https://southernafrican.news/2017/04/03/botswana-military-deal-triggers-regional-security-fears/; accessed August 10th, 2017
10 theGuardian, “Zimbabwe buys six fighter jets,” April 13, 2005, www.theguardian.com, accessed September 15, 2017
11 Kruger, Anton, “SA Arms Scandal: Why SA Had to Buty the Gripen.” Institute for Security Studies, June 24, 2011, www.issafrica.org, accessed September 15, 2017
12 Olivier, Darren, “Angola’s New SU-30Ks,” African Defence Review, February 18, 2014; www.africandefence.net, accessed September 15, 2017
13 Lusaka Times, “ZAF to receive the first of the 6 Fighter Jets ordered in 2014 from China,” January 2, 2016, www.lusakatimes.com/2016/01/02/109947, accessed September 15, 2017
14 Stockholm International Peace Research institute, SIPRI Military Expenditure Database ; https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/Milex-share-of-GDP.pdf; accessed August 10th, 2017
15 ibid
16 ibid
17 SIPRI Military Expenditure Database, 2017, www.sipri.org, accessed September 15, 2017
18 Pugliese, David, “Botswana’s former CF-5s could be replaced by Gripens,” Ottawa Citizen, June 16, 2016; http://ottawacitizen.com/news/national/defence-watch/botswanas-former-cf-5s-to-be-replaced-by-gripens; accessed August 10, 2017
19 Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum; http://www.warplane.com/aircraft/collection/details.aspx?aircraftId=9; accessed August 10, 2017
20 Mosikare, Oarabile, "UDC petitions Sweden over Botswana’s arms race," Mmegionline, June 09, 2017; http://www.mmegi.bw/index.php?aid=69427&dir=2017/june/09
21 ibid
22 Nkala, Oscar, "Botswana acquires 14 Bat Hawk aircraft to boost anti-poaching operations," defenceWeb, June 28, 2016; http://www.defenceweb.co.za/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=44050:botswana-acquires-14-bat-hawk-aircraft-to-boost-anti-poaching-operations&catid=35:Aerospace&Itemid=107; accessed August 10, 2017
23 defenceWeb, “Botswana seeking raft of new military hardware,” May 24, 2016; http://www.defenceweb.co.za/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=43602:botswana-seeking-raft-of-new-military-hardware&catid=49:National%20Security&Itemid=115; accessed August 10, 2017
24 Mokuedi, Sianang "Can Botswana Defence Force Attain its Effectiveness Posture," African Defence, April 2015, pp. 26-27; https://issuu.com/jeffmckaughan/docs/african_defence_april_2015; accessed August 10, 2017
25 ibid
26 Government of Sweden, official government video; http://www.regeringen.se/pressmeddelanden/2017/06/statsminstern-tar-emot-botswanas-president/; June 19th,2017; accessed August 10th, 2017
27 Wingrin, Dean, defenceWeb, "SA Air Force Maintenance Suffering from Loss of Skilled Technicians,” May 30th, 2016
28 Smith, David, "Ian Khama: An officer, a gentleman, a dictator?," Mail & Guardian, October 24, 2014; https://mg.co.za/article/2014-10-23-ian-khama-an-officer-a-gentleman-a-dictator; accessed August 10, 2017
29 Freedom House, Botswana Freedom of the Press 2016; https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2016/botswana; accessed August 10, 2017
30 The Gazette, "Have We Ever Enjoyed Press Freedom?," March 30, 2017; http://www.thegazette.news/?p=18799; accessed August 10, 2017


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