Tuesday, December 11, 2018
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Editor Column

Lessons learnt from latest Op Copper deployment

The most recent Operation Copper deployment in the Mozambique Channel, in addition to providing valuable “on-the-job” training for both sailors and airmen, brought to light the need for better and more sustained surveillance on this busy ocean route, possibly using UAVs and even satellites.

The airborne and maritime services of the SA National Defence Force were able to practise and hone skills needed during maritime patrol work. There was also the opportunity of being able to practice the demanding replenishment at sea task - twice. Having two maritime platforms on station effectively doubled the amount of work in terms of hailing vessels and general patrol observation.

While no-one has said exactly whose budget the deployment paid for, it is money well spent. If there is any quibbling about using joint operations funding for training or a portion of the Navy’s training budget to pay for an actual deployment, is neither here nor there.

The major outcomes – a deployment properly executed with measurable results and intelligence to take further – deserve to be noted. The intelligence gathered on the increase in fishing activity offshore of Pemba will go to the relevant Mozambican authorities and, hopefully, be taken into account for further planning as regards allocations and numbers of fishing vessels allowed in a specific area.

While no piracy-related or potential pirate incidents were logged during the three week deployment, it did fly the flag and serve notice there is military activity – both airborne and naval – to deter pirates venturing into the Mozambique Channel.

That it also put to bed the myth that Op Copper is a 24/7, 365/12 deployment comes as no surprise.

SA Defence Inc. not in a good place

SA Defence Inc. – the colloquial name military watchers have given to the country’s armed forces and its defence industry – looks set for basket case status unless there is urgent and positive intervention.

While the uniformed side has its own share of problems, euphemistically called “challenges” by some, the defence industry is arguably worse off. To use a medical analogy, it’s moved from high care to the intensive care unit.

This was apparent during last week’s launch of the Defence Industry Fund (DIF) in Pretoria.

In 1988/90 the local defence industry posted a turnover in excess of R31 billion. This has now dropped to R19 billion when figures are adjusted to 2017 values. Similarly SA National Defence Force (SANDF) acquisitions placed with local defence industry companies in 1988/90 stood at R26.2 billion. The current figure is R7 billion.

Defence exports have also taken a turn for the worst. National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) reports show that South Africa exported between R3,5 and R4.,5 billion worth of equipment in 2017, compared to R4,1 billion in 2016, R2,7 billion in 2015, R2,98 billion in 2014 and R3,2 billion in 2013. This is down significantly from the R10,6 billion in 2012, R5,2 billion in 2011, R8,3 billion in 2010 and R7,8 billion in 2009.

Employment figures confirm this disconcerting trend. From a high of three thousand companies to 120 at present the workforce now is just 15 000 compared to the 130 000 it was. Many of the skilled engineers that make the industry tick are reaching retirement age, leaving a massive skills gap that is not being filled.

Whilst South Africa has been world renowned for artillery, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), mine-protected armoured vehicle and missile technology, it is falling behind in most of these areas, particularly as funding is lacking to invest in research and development and take exciting projects like the G7 LEO cannon forward. China, for example, has completely overtaken South Africa on the UAV front.

It’s going to take a lot more than the nursing care this sector of the national economy is presently receiving if it is ever going to become healthy again and contribute to national growth.

Registering as a supplier to the United Nations, boosting small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMMEs) and the Defence Industry Fund are, at the time of writing, just talk.

Not a single contract has yet come from registration as a UN supplier by Armscor on behalf of the greater South African defence industry.

It’s going to be difficult to grow a substantial SMME base until such time as the long-awaited Defence Sector BBEEE charter becomes reality. It, in different guises, has been on the table for at least 10 years and the ball is now again in the court of Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies. The draft was published for public comment and input in the third quarter of last year and, apparently, has to undergo another round of public participation before it can be gazetted.

Doubts have already been expressed about the ability of the DIF to make any substantial contributions to the local defence industry. It is early days and one hopes actions will, sooner rather than later, speak louder than words.

Defence Minister needs a hearts and mind campaign and a retrenchment plan that works

When she delivered her budget vote address in Parliament last month, Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula certainly drew a line in the sand as far as telling MPs the time had come for hard decisions about the national defence force.

Her remarks were a preface to a plea for the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) to become a “mandate” financed government organ rather than just another government department which National Treasury runs a rule over and then decides how much money it is going to get.

The Defence Minister’s remarks made sense but she – and her senior staff in both the Department of Defence (DoD) and the SANDF –have to put in the hard yards if her arguments are to gain any traction.

At the outset she is going to have to convince Parliament, including the President and Cabinet, that South Africa does need a properly funded defence force. This is likely to be an uphill battle because defence in democratic South Africa is by and large, a non-entity when it comes to public debate – and the public purse. With the odd exception, parliamentarians do not know the different between a G5 and an R5 – nor do they care.

There’s enemy number one for Mapisa-Nqakula and her parliamentary liaison/communications personnel. Embark on a planned, targeted education campaign for elected representatives. Tell them and take them to military bases and facilities. Let them see and ask questions of soldiers and the officers who command them. Only if those who are supposed to represent the best interests of all South Africans in the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces know, understand and appreciate what the SANDF is and does will there be a possibility of change for the better for the defence budget.

At the same time the Minister has to mobilise communications personnel in both the SANDF and the DoD to do a thorough – and enduring - hearts and minds campaign on South Africans, who need to know why South Africa has a military and the work of soldiers, sailors and pilots in defending and protecting South Africa, especially on border patrol, and in building peace on the continent, through peace support operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Tell people what soldiers do and the conditions they experience during, as one example, the border protection tasking Operation Corona. Also keep South Africans in the loop about air force operations and missions because there’s nothing worse than seeing – and hearing – military jets and not being told anything.

If South Africans know “their” airmen, military medics, sailors and soldiers are there for them they are more likely to support efforts to increase the allocation given the military by National Treasury because it is a national asset they can be proud of.

These actions aside, to not only address budget shortfalls but also the ‘dead wood’, Minister Mapisa-Nqakula simply has to address SANDF personnel numbers. There are just too many people in uniform, supported by public service employees, and the numbers have to be cut. It’s never easy, especially with a national election on the horizon, but it has to be done or any work done to win hearts and minds – at whatever level - will be wasted.

Is the Defence Review dead?

The South African Defence Review appears to be dead and buried, with the latest information from the Department of Defence indicating the Review is unachievable due to the lack of defence funding.


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