Considering “readiness”


“Readiness” is one of those terms that when used in defence circles is often a rod for the unwary back. At first glance it seems precise, its meaning easy to pin down; but, like the proverbial desert mirage, the closer one comes, the more ephemeral it becomes.

The greatest danger arises when people assume everyone else in the discussion is using the definition they subscribe to. This is a recipe for disaster. “Defence readiness”, in short, is a dangerous term that can mean all things to all people.

To have any meaning, “readiness” must be benchmarked. When discussing the readiness of the South African National Defence Force, one must first ask: “Ready for what?” A full scale invasion? Piracy? al-Qaeda?

In this the 1998 Defence Review provides some assistance. Much of that document is dated now, but like geopolitical realities, the threats facing South Africa remains generally constant, although the probabilities can change. Possible military threats identified were:

  • Invasion
  • Limited neutralising attack
  • Raids
  • Blockades
  • Maritime law enforcement
  • Attacks on embassies, ships and aircraft
  • Threats to the Prince Edward Islands
  • Internal military threat to the constitutional order

Protecting South Africa’s neutrality in event of war elsewhere is, is perhaps surprisingly, not identified in the 1998 DR as task the SANDF had to prepare for, nor protecting the right of innocent passage through South Africa’s territorial seas. The DR defines “invasion” as a major attack aimed at occupying SA or part of it, replacing the government by force and conquering its people. “This contingency is considered to be fairly remote since South Africa has no present [in 1998] or foreseeable enemies. Further, a potential enemy does not stand to gain a major advantage from an invasion: Although South Africa is relatively rich in resources; these do not have sufficient strategic importance given the resources available in other parts of the world. The isolated geographic position of the Republic diminishes the possibility that it may be used by an external force as a springboard, base area or thoroughfare for military operations elsewhere. The only exception is the remote possibility of a world war where a belligerent has the capability to attack shipping on the Cape sea route.”

However, in the case of an Indian Ocean war, between the US and Iran or India and Pakistan, a belligerent may want to seize for himself – or deny to his opponent – one or more world class ports with their repair and resupply facilities. The DR postulates that a land invasion would require the participation of a major power. “It would also require coercion or invasion of one or more states to the north. The terrain to the north would present the attacker with logistic problems and restrict its mobility. These constraints provide a substantial warning period for defensive action.” A sea invasion “would require substantial specialist resources and could be undertaken only with the involvement of a superpower or coalition of major powers.”

Limited neutralising attacks were a favourite tool of the Bill Clinton administration and several were directed at Iraq, mostly to degrade Saddam Hussein’s air defences and to damage his supposed weapons of mass destruction manufacturing capacity. In the SA context, the DR says a foreign power may launch a limited neutralising attack on the country in order to prevent it from “interfering militarily in that party’s designs… The aggressor might therefore seek to neutralise South Africa’s ability to project military power. The targets of an attack might include air and naval transport assets, air and naval attack assets, and mobile ground forces. Capabilities to defend these assets should thus be provided for in the peace-time force.”
“Raids of lesser intensity may occur against the RSA for the purpose of coercion or castigation,” the DR explains. “Coercion would aim to force South Africa to change its behaviour which is in conflict with another state s interests or goals, and castigation would be retaliation against South African actions regarded as offensive by such a state.” Raids can be launched by both major and minor powers and can come in many forms, such as “air raids by aircraft or missiles; landward raids by mobile or unconventional forces; and maritime raids by surface vessels, amphibious craft or clandestine forces.”
“Blockades may take the form of interference in South Africa s sea lines of communications through mining of harbours or attacks on shipping within South Africa s maritime zone; landward blockades of trade routes to neighbouring states; or the enforcement of no-fly zones. Given South Africa s dependence on trade, especially maritime trade, this could have an extremely negative effect on the well-being of the country and its people,” the DR cautions.

The DR argues that maritime law enforcement is not a primary defence task. However, SA may need to police its territorial waters against piracy (armed robbery at sea), illegal fishing and poaching as well as unregulated underwater mining – and neither the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries nor the police have vessels with the endurance required.

South Africa also has a responsibility to protect its embassies, ships and aircraft abroad. “The threat against these assets is mainly one of piracy and international terrorism. Protection by host nations may not always be forthcoming or effective,” the DR notes. “Although the impact of such contingencies is relatively low, the probability of their occurrence is relatively high. The capability to protect and release captured embassies, ships and aircraft should therefore be provided for in the core force. This capability must be at immediate readiness since the contingency may arise with little or no warning.”

The Prince Edward Island group, 1000km southeast of the mainland, is sovereign SA territory and may also have to be protected against powers who wish to use or seize it for their own designs, for example during the course of an Indian Ocean basin war. The island group’s territorial waters is also rich in fish and has been illegally fished.

Lastly, the SANDF may be required to combat an internal military threat to the constitutional order. “Such threats could take the form of civil war or an insurrection on a national or provincial scale. Such threats might be supported by external agents or forces.”

Each of these threats is considered possible and therefore requires a countermeasure commensurate with the degree of probability of it materialising – although this is always tempered by the degree of risk the SANDF and government are willing to accept. Risk here is the difference between the response required to counter a threat and the actual steps taken. Critics often second-guess decisions on risk, especially after a threat has materialised. Hindsight is indeed 20/20 but decisions on risk are often made on perceptions of the public and Treasury’s appetite for spending.

Probability is important. The DR considers an invasion possible, but improbable. A threat against ships, embassies or aircraft is considered quite probable, while poaching is a regular occurrence in our territorial waters. One of the DR’s writers, Major General Len le Roux afterwards said that in determining these threats and their probability, the authors considered that today “military capabilities and expertise take much longer to develop than threats do.” The downside of the technological advances of the last 60 years is that a defence capability can no longer be improvised as it was in 1939 when whalers were hurriedly armed with depth charges, cannon and machine guns to create a Seaward Defence Force and the South African Airways was incorporated into the South African Air Force with its airliners put to use as reconnaissance aircraft and bombers.

In considering the readiness of the SANDF, the Navy, a fighter squadron or an infantry platoon we need to measure it against a threat or a mission, and that against the likelihood of probability; otherwise the answer will be meaningless.