A quintennial defence review?

US law requires the American military to conduct a full defence review every four years, and this is usually done in the first 12 months of a president’s term.

Title 10, Section 118 of the United States Code specifies that the “Secretary of Defense shall every four years, during a year following a year evenly divisible by four, conduct a comprehensive examination (to be known as a ‘quadrennial defence review’) of the national defence strategy, force structure, force modernization plans, infrastructure, budget plan, and other elements of the defence program and policies of the United States with a view toward determining and expressing the defence strategy of the United States and establishing a defence program for the next 20 years. Each such quadrennial defence review shall be conducted in consultation with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”
The next QDR will be conducted next year and will be made public in 2010.
South Africa has no such law. We tend to follow the Westminster tradition, where ministers publish policy and strategic prescriptions in the form of White Papers or otherwise as they see fit.
The last White Paper on Defence is now nearly a teenager, being published and adopted by Cabinet and Parliament in 1996. Professor Mike Hough, director of the Institute for Strategic Studies at the University of Pretoria remembers as many as eight of these or similar documents being produced between the 1960s and the end of white oligarchy in 1994.
The defence department has been working on an update on the 1996 White Paper and its companion Defence Review, now a decade young, since about 2005. Simphiwe Dlamini, the DoD’s head of communication, says the document, now known as Defence Update 2025 is on new minister Charles Nqakula’s desk.
The minister is shortly to be briefed on the much-awaited document and once I agreement with its content, will be taking it to Cabinet and then Parliament for further approval.
We like to say that defence is too important to leave to the generals. Speaking at the opening of the opening of the Australian Security Policy Institute in 2002, that country’s then-defence minister, Robert Hill said much the same when he averred that “there is no area where public understanding and informed debate is more important.
“Yet there is not a lot of that debate in the community… Outside defence circles there is little discussion on what are the appropriate roles for the Defence Force. There is even less debate on what the public is prepared to pay for defence.” This is equally true of South Africa and Africa.
This publication seeks to be one part of the answer to Hill’s challenge.
Institutionalising the defence debate is another. One way of doing this would be to regularise policy papers, white or other, through a law of general application or by amending the Defence Act. Let’s start small and do the latter.
Let us insert a section that mandates a White Paper on Defence every five years: a quintennial defence review (QDR). Unlike the US, and like Australia and other Commonwealth counties SA follows a five-year electoral cycle, so a QDR every five years would be appropriate. We can mandate that it addresses much the same issues.
But back to the word “mandate”…
We need to ensure and legislate into that section three key concepts:
  1. No unfunded mandates. 
  2. A conceptual model based on mandate rather than cost.
  3. Public participation
Unfunded mandates
A reading of the DoD 2008 Annual report shows the poisonous effect of unfunded mandates.
It lists several, mostly Cabinet deployments in support of “the African Agenda” portion of our foreign policy. One such mandate was the R98 million the DoD had to find after Cabinet decided to keep SA troops in Burundi after the UN declared victory there and closed down its peacekeeping mission.
Treasury was requested to provide the money but for reasons not stated declined to do so.  
The finance minister sits in Cabinet and is jointly and severally liable for that body’s decisions. It is odd that a Cabinet decision of this nature does not result in a release of the necessary funds. Perhaps the fault was the DoD’s. Be that as it may, defence “had to reprioritise within its allocation”, as the Annual Report quaintly puts it. Niceties aside, this means robbing Peter to pay Paul; taking money from crucial and properly approved training exercises and acquisition projects. This should be banned!
Mandate versus cost
Defence Update 2025 does not exist in a vacuum. The Army has its Vision 2020 and the other Services likely have the same.
These documents should be in harmony, but in practice, they are not. The services, concerned with meeting their mandates, are creating one set of documents. The Defence Secretariat of the DoD, rightly required by the Public Finance Management Act to live within whatever budget Treasury allocates, produces another.    
Since Defence Update 2025 is not yet in the pubic domain it is not clear what it says. However, those familiar with it say it is an attempt to cut the coat to the cloth, a sound approach for a tailor, but not necessarily the best way to address the national defence.
Detractors of this approach argue mandate – not budget – should be the point of departure. They argue one must first consider what must be done, then what it will cost and following that where the funds will be found. Should insufficient funds be available – always the likely scenario, even in the US – politicians and the public must be educated on the implications. Are they prepared to pay more or will they decide to economise and run certain risks.
Public participation
At present nearly all of this debate takes behind the proverbial closed doors. The 1996 and 1998 policy documents were prepared in what turned out to be a “Prague Spring”. Issues were widely and publicly debated, hence securing buy-in. Not everyone was happy. Some antiwar groups still mutter that their views were politely heard but firmly ignored. With Defence Update 2025 they did not even have that luxury – neither did anyone else.
That’s not good enough in a participative democracy. There will never be enough money to lavishly provide for defence. At best we can hope for adequate, which means funding priorities and accepting risks. Since all of us have a stake in a safe and secure South Africa, both for ourselves and for our children, we and our representatives, our Members of Parliament, should discuss and form that mandate, hear what it will cost, decide whether we want to pay for it and understand the risk we run if we don’t.
What say you?