Budget vote


Defence and Military Veterans minister Lindiwe Sisulu will Tuesday deliver her second budget vote.

Indications are that she may announce policy changes – she alluded to as much to journalists at Makhado two weeks ago when she said that Parliament was the appropriate place to make such announcements. Judging by further comments, Sisulu plans to say something about further improving conditions of service. She may also make a start to her campaign to argue for more money for defence.

On the budget side, not too much can be expected – for this year. At Makhado Sisulu said that taking into account state funding priorities and the after-effects of the recession, her department this year has to live within its R30 billion budget. But she added that some funds would be moved within the budget tabled by finance minister Pravin Gordhan in February to address certain priorities, such as the low number of flying hours allocated to the South African Air Forces’ fighter fleet.

But, important as this is, it is somewhat superficial. If one could present a wish-list for the minister’s speech it would have to start with some clarity on policy. The most recent White Paper on defence was published 14 years ago in 1996 and a follow-up Defence Review was done in 1998. They have been criticised on a number of grounds, Helmoed-Römer Heitman earlier this month wrote in Janes’ Defence Weekly that both had been drafted “by advisers with naïve notions of international politics and little understanding of defence and who focused on peripheral issues.” A look at the documents show that they do reflect their time – the end of Apartheid, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the heedy optimism of the early Mandela years, when the doctrine of exceptionalism – the idea that SA was different – reigned supreme. This was amplified by the life experience and ideology of some of the drafters, perhaps an appropriate term as some of the (white) academics recruited into the Defence Secretariat that did the writing, had dodged military service in the Apartheid army. Many were also graduates of peace studies programmes and this – as well as a desire to do the opposite of their previous foes – influenced the documents too. Thus they speak about converting to civil use defence capability and eschewing offensive capability.

Their motto might have been “if you want peace, prepare for peace”. Violence must be met with negotiation. This approach was pursued with zeal in national and foreign policy: if white and black could resolve difference differences amicably and avoid race war, then so could Savimbi and Dos Santos in Angola, Arab and Israeli in he Middle East and republican and loyalist in Northern Ireland. Only in Northern Ireland did this approach meet with success, likely because a critical mass disposed to peace existed. In the defence realm, policy eschewed the offensive, especially pre-emptive strike. The new military would concentrate on territorial defence and would be equipped accordingly. That is one reason why the frigates subsequently acquired still lack a land attack capability, despite this being standard in peer navies. But “expeditionary” was a politically incorrect term then, perhaps second only to “counterinsurgency”.

Various ministers of defence have promised an update since 2004 but none have reached Parliament. Heitman continues that various efforts have been made over the years, the latest of which, produced just before Sisulu’s appointment. This “blithely skipped over core strategic issues, ignored already approved army and navy force designs and contained errors of fact.” Strong words.

The new minister has promised a new paper focussing on the role of defence in the developmental state, but has given no specifics what this may mean. Tuesday could be that opportunity. As Heitman suggests, policy precedes strategy, leading to force design and equipment acquisition. Until policy is confirmed, one cannot predict strategy, force design or acquisition priorities. Industry would certainly appreciate clarity on the latter and SA’s political and military allies on the former. Key, of course,is that this policy must be based on geopolitical and strategic reality, however unpalatable, not wishful thinking.

What is startling about the 1996 and 1998 documents is how quickly they became obsolete. They, for example, only foresaw a limited commitment to peacekeeping – about one battalion – and then only by the middle of the next decade. That battalion deployed to Burundi in 2000 and by the middle of the current decade SA had three battalions deployed. This generated force design stressed never contemplated and user requirements for equipment not even considered in the white paper and defence review, such as a strategic airlifter (Project Continent, the ill-fated Airbus A400M acquisition) and a strategic support ship (Project Millennium). Then there is the new border control mandate and the perplexing question of Africa and SA’s lack of response to calls to help fight sea piracy, incidence of which are coming ever closer to our waters and to the shipping lanes linking the country to its trading partners.

Obviously, Sisulu cannot layout a complete, new, policy in her budget vote, but she could announce a framework. She could also announce some timelines for a new document and perhaps announce that she’ll seek to amend the Defence Act 42 of 2002 to mandate a new white paper at least every five years to ensure policy and reality coincide.

Budget and other wishes

One major reality is the current budget. SA is still spending less than five cents in the Rand on defence versus about 20 cents out of every rand on health and another roughly 20 cents on education. It may be right to do so, but as the 2008 Department of Defence (DoD) annual report suggested, creating a “credible force design” for the country required a budget of R41 billion a year right about now. Yet this year’s budget is just R30 billion. This is why, statistically the Navy will only be able to deploy one ship on patrol on any given day, why the Hawk fighter trainer fleet has 2000 flight hours versus the 4000 required and the Gripen fleet 550 hours this year and just 250 next year and in 2012. Mathematically speaking, the Gripens will each fly just 9.6 hours that year,if this Treasury allocation is allowed to stand.

This mind-boggling reflects the fault lines between discretionary and compulsory spend as well as between the tension between the personnel, operations and capital sub-budgets. Salaries and service conditions costs are compulsory expenditures: the DoD has no option but to pay. Training funds are discretionary. One does not have to train. Hence training is often cut to fund unavoidable expenses. In SA this has clearly gone well beyond the point of diminishing return. And it is likely to get worse as the military returns to border patrol. Ending the Burundi peace deployment and reversing the ban on deploying HIV+ soldiers abroad has eased rotation tempo and freed up more troops for border duty, but will Treasury adequately fund this new mandate?

On the issue of personnel, news on the update of the Human Resources Strategy 2010 would be most welcome. On operations, an update on the update of the white paper on peacekeeping, produced by the then-Department of Foreign Affairs in 1999 with the assistance of the DoD would be welcome, while on the capital side the same must be said for word on a review of the white paper on the defence industry, produced by the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC), also dating from 1999. Sticking to white papers, one on the role, function and cost of the new Border Management Agency (BMA) may also be useful, although it is not clear which ministry should produce it. The paper should also address coordination between the various departments concerned, apparently some 14 in total.

It is also time to end the closed season for open government, in line with the State security ministry’s Protection of Information Bill, now before Parliament, that argues the present law “requires the spending of a great deal of government resources to protect a mass of information that does not actually require protection”. It is often said such laws seek to protect officials rather than secrets, the rubric being “that if people don’t know what you are doing, they don’t know what you’re doing wrong.” For too many knowledge is only power when they can withhold it. Some may argue “open government” is a contradiction in terms (“you can be open or you can have government”) but managing that oxymoron is what government in a participative democracy is all about. That’s probably why British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called democracy the worst form of government ever devised except for all the others that have been tried.

Greater transparency would be welcome on a number of issues: a definition of national security; the readiness of the military when measured against various likely contingencies; and, the Strategic Capital Acquisition Master Plan, known as SCAMP. More detail would be welcome on the Armscor tender system and regarding the country’s arms sales as published by the NCACC. The current system, that only shows totals against categories (“R10 million Category A goods to Rwanda”) is unhelpful, especially as greater detail is later declared to the United Nations anyway – and published on their website. This will greatly reduce, perhaps eliminate, the innuendo and aspersion surrounding the release of the current scanty data. The present system is a rod for the government’s back. One is surprised it has tolerated this state of affairs so long.

All of this would help building a national consensus on defence – a key DoD objective – as well as regional confidence and global certainty.