A PR showcase?


The South African Navy will today host a maritime capability demonstration at Naval Base Simon’s Town to demonstrate “to the people of South Africa and the world at large” its combat readiness.

Officiating will be Minister of the Defence and Military Veterans Lindiwe Sisulu. The day’s programme will include a maritime capability demonstration at sea on board the frigate, SAS Mendi that will include a simulated attack on a vessel, a Maritime Reaction Squadron (MRS) boarding exercise and a formation demonstration.

This is the latest in a slew of such demonstrations over the last two years to show the readiness of the services and police to scurethe upcoming sccer World Cup. Indeed, the police will hold similar showcases this afternoon in Cape Town (Greenpoint stadium) and Johannesburg (Ellis Park). The SA Army devoted the media day of its annual parachute exercise, Young Eagle, to a hostage rescue demonstration with the Special Forces and police Special Task Force, also to demonstrate readiness for the soccer spectacular. Last year March the SA Air Force essentially did the same during Exercise Shield 3. Each of these demonstrations, and the others, must have cost a substantial amount of money.

But to what effect?

A capability demonstration is not quite the same as a state of readiness briefing. But there are some overlap and some service chiefs have been quite outspoken on the latter subject in their interaction with the media. But is it all a swindle?

That’s the unkind but necessary interpretation of the comment made by former Acting Secretary for Defence, Tsepe Motumi.

The opposition Democratic Alliance and others have for some time been calling for a frank state of readiness briefing. The defence ministry says it is ready to present it but wants to do so in camera.

The DA questioned why readiness briefings had be closed to the public “considering similar briefings to the media by service chiefs.” Then the kicker: Motumi responded that these interactions “were primarily public relations exercises, concerned with showcasing. They could not be described as proper combat readiness briefings.” As far as can be determined this view has never been repudiated.

So how seriously can today’s capability demonstration be taken? You decide.

In the meantime, defenceWeb will be attending as we hope Motumi’s comments were an aberration. We hope the minister will repudiate Motumi’s unfortunate statement. We also there will soon be a state f readiness briefing and that this will be public, not just to provide us good copy but as a confidence building measure with the public and with our neighbours.

Former DA deputy defence spokesman James Lorimer was quite right that the type of enemy that has to wait for such a briefing is not worth being concerned about. In addition, the defence department’s draft strategic plan for 2010 to 2013 lists as its top mission success factor a “national consensus on defence”. It warns that an “inadequate consensus on defence could lead to poor reputation in the public domain.” It would be fair to say the “could” should read “has”. Secret readiness briefings, no matter how well intentioned, and PR “showcases” will not restore that confidence.

During the Cold War it was known in Britain that its small, professional, military could successfully resist a Soviet invasion of Western Europe with conventional weapons for about 72 hours (three days). During World War Two, little Denmark capitulated after two hours. The Netherlands lasted four days (less than 96 hours).

How long can SA resist a credible enemy? Who knows! Considering the current budget (R30 billion), the small size of the combat Navy, the Air Force fighter fleet (four frigates, three submarines, 12 Gripen fighters) and the paucity of munitions and operating funds for these at present, as well as the known skills shortages in the Services, the SANDF, by itself, could probably only put up a short, sharp fight before simply being swamped at least at sea and in the air.

Defence is like an insurance policy. It is a grudge purchase, it is something we “skimp” on because we have other priorities. It is something we spend on what we can afford, rather than what we must. We are currently under-insured. It is our good fortune that we face – according to the 1996 defence white paper and 1998 defence review – no credible military threat. That means, like the home-owner that under-insurers, we are safe as long as no burglar comes. But that can change rapidly. The time between the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of war was just over six years (January 1933 to September 1939). That he constituted a threat, a “clear and present danger” was not obvious before 1935 and not believed before 1938, leaving a year to re-arm.

Benjamin Franklin rightly said “time is money”. To re-arm in that time is today possible for a major hi-tech industrial power, but only at vastly greater expense than had it been done more gradually over a longer period. And even then money cannot buy everything, especially not more time. According to a reading of the DoD annual report for 2008 the SANDF is now underfunded by R10 billion and since that money is unlikely to be forthcoming it is clear from that report that SA will not be achieving “credible defence” any time soon.