Military leaders must say they can’t do more with less


It is time for South Africa’s military leaders to stand up and say that more cannot be done with less; less can be done with less and that the government needs to face up to this reality and readjust its demands on the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) or allocate more funding.

Although the 2014/15 defence budget increased in nominal terms to R42.8 billion, in reality it shrunk slightly, after taking inflation into account, yet the tasks assigned to the SANDF have been increasing.

At the moment South African military personnel are deployed along the country’s borders as part of Operation Corona; in the Mozambique Channel as part of Operation Copper and with the United Nations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Sudan. South African military personnel are also assisting the South African Police Service with Operation Fiela, recently extended by another year.

Although the SANDF is kept busy with various taskings, it is expected to do even more as it forms part of President Jacob Zuma’s push for peace and security on the African continent. Zuma has committed the SANDF to the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crisis (ACIRC) force, an interim measure pending the establishment of the African Standby Force (ASF). These added commitments will involve more than a thousand troops and vast quantities of military hardware.

It is not clear how much these extra commitments will cost but to give some idea, the contribution of the SANDF to continental peacekeeping missions and counter-piracy operations was allocated R1.5 billion for the 2014/15 financial year. This includes R150 million for the South African component on the UN Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) in the DRC.

The SANDF is having to make do with less to do more at a time when existing taskings are stretching its abilities. The latest Department of Defence annual report for 2013/14 noted that the South African Air Force flew 20% fewer hours in 2013/14 compared to 2012/13 in spite of “a significant increase in operational demands and commitments externally as well as internally,” such as in the DRC, the Mozambique Channel, Kruger National Park and South Africa’s borders.

The Annual Report noted that the Navy only spent half the targeted number of hours at sea during 2013/14 “due to unavailability of vessels that were delayed in maintenance cycles or where operational defects occurred and the repair process proved to be lengthy.” Although this situation will be improved by the acquisition of six inshore and offshore patrol vessels, the Navy is suffering from a shortage of qualified personnel and maintenance and repair capacity that is making it an effort to patrol for pirates in the Mozambique Channel under Operation Copper.

The South African Army is overstretched, with a lack of human resources, infrastructure and prime mission equipment to support its mandate, according to the Department of Defence. This prompted Army chief Lieutenant General Vusi Masondo to say that, “The SANDF should have a budget that is appropriate to the tasks it is given…at present the Army is under strain to fulfil its national and international obligations as our forces become more and more in demand.”

There is a massive discrepancy between the demands placed on the SANDF and its budget. It is difficult for the SANDF to ask for more money in light of the various challenges facing South Africa and the financial implications thereof – crime, education, electricity, social welfare etc. are often deemed more important than defence. However, the government needs to make a tough choice: either increase defence spending or scale backs its continental ambitions in line with the available budget.

For its part, the military needs to stand up and say it can’t keep performing with a budget that is stretched nearly to the breaking point. The current crop of SANDF leaders could be commended for fulfilling their duties in spite of enormous challenges but strain is evident – it can be seen in the chartering of aircraft because the Air Force’s transport fleet is not up to the task, or sending ships on patrol with a less than full complement of sailors.

It is only a matter of time before underfunding results in a fatal accident because of ageing, obsolete, overworked or poorly maintained equipment. The military leadership needs to stand up collectively and say, no, we can’t take on additional challenges until the necessary funding is granted to make it happen.

There appears to be a great deal of reluctance to do this as it would, understandably, rock the boat and possibly result in a greatly shortened or abruptly ended career. Nevertheless, military leaders must be willing to admit shortcomings in the SANDF for the good of the outfit, regardless of the consequences.