Whereto for defence in 2010?


A happy and prosperous 2010 to all our readers.

Allow me the trite observation that this will be a busy year for us, whether in the Ministry or Department of Defence, the military, the police and intelligence services, Parliament and industry.

There is obviously the FIFA Soccer World Cup in June and the massive security undertaking (Operation Kgwele) surrounding that.

Then there’s the effect of the R1.9 billion increase South African National Defence Force personnel received over Christmas as a “first step” to improve their salaries. The increase has reportedly brought privates on par with police constables (who earned the equivalent of a lance corporal). So privates now earn a one-liner’s wage, corporals a sergeant’s pay and so on. Implied in the “first step” is that further increases are pending,and indeed a study team will this year visit Algeria and Britain to “bench-mark” salaries. One can be sure the police unions will be watching this closely and will shortly be demanding a similar increase. Doctors, nurses, teachers and municipal workers will no doubt make similar demands, all stressing their current low pay and their importance in delivering services to poor communities. Expect many threats of – and actual – strikes around June, the opportunity of a life time to blackmail government.

Other than navigating this slippery slope, there will be the effect of the SANDF increase on the defence budget. As a temporary measure, it appears the money was taken from acquisition funds and also from the upcoming budget. We shall next month know what Treasury’s views are on that. Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan did announce a substantial increase in defence spending last year (R36.5 billion for FY2010/11 from R31 billion this year – although some of that was for the intelligence services), but his budget speech next month and the draft expenditure schedules released at the same time will show whether the DoD will get extra funds or will have to make do with what it has. (The projected defence budget or FY2011/12 is R39.3 billion and for FY1012/13 is R41.9 billion.)

If it is the latter, the big question will be how it will affect SANDF projects – and by direct implication industry. There are any number of projects currently running late for lack of funding as well as timely decision-making and while the salary increase was welcome for the troops, industry may yet regret it.

Industry must also be awaiting the new defence policy update – whatever it is being called, I’ve given up keeping track- with some trepidation. The policy update has been fondly awaited since at least 2004 and has been returned to its writers each time it was about to make a public appearance. The last news on the subject is that Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Lindiwe Sisulu wants a document that explains the task of a military in a developmental state. Her dispatching of the Army engineers (SA Engineer Corps) to install some Bailey bridges in the Eastern Cape over the holiday season is a clear glance at what the minister has in mind. What this mean for projects on the Strategic Capital Acquisition Master Plan (SCAMP) remains to be seen.

The most obvious victims are likely Project Aorta, the SA Armoured Corps’ ambition for a new main battle tank and Project Hoefyster, the infantry combat vehicle project that is more a prop for Denel that a help to the Army.

More befuddlling is why there is still no word on Projects Vistula and Biro. Vistula is a long-delayed SCAMP-funded programme plan to buy between 1000 and 5000 trucks (depending on who you believe) to replace the SANDF’s fleet of 30-year old SAMIL utility lorries. At the very least these vehicles would be assembled locally. What a boost this would be for the hard-pressed SA automobile industry! Ditto Biro, the plan to buy six patrol vessels from local shipyards to replace half-a-dozen dated ships currently pushing up the SA Navy’s maintenance bills. One could add Project Hotel, the requirement for a new hydrographic survey ship, which could also be built here.

Then there are the big questions: Projects Millennium and Continent, the Navy’s plan for a “strategic support ship” (aka a helicopter carrier/landing platform dock) and a strategic airlifter respectively. A decision is needed on both, especially the latter after Cabinet last year cancelled SA’s order for the Airbus Military A400M. Will the country re-order? Will it order something else? If so,what?

Another top-of-mind vexation is the impact of new policy and budget priorities on SA’s peacekeeping commitments. Late last year there were some 2600 SANDF personnel in Burundi, the Congo and Darfur. If the SANDF is to concentrate on assisting local communities and patrolling the national borders, is there still the will and money to traipse about north of the Limpopo?

Government has to date built up no enthusiasm for joining the international anti-piracy patrol in the Indian Ocean, where sea-robbers have attacked several ships in the last two years either headed to or from South Africa. These buccaneers also pose a threat to the sovereignty of countries such as the Seychelles, a member of the Southern African Development Community. Officials insist SA has not been asked to help but European Union diplomats as well as those of at least two member states aver the contrary, saying they have explicitly asked SA and have even offered to pay South Africa’s costs, notably the fuel bill. (defenceWeb has it on very good authority the EU has asked President Jacob Zuma personally.)

But back to the Limpopo. I hope President Jacob Zuma will give some attention in his State of the Nation address – early next month – to fleshing out the role, function, structure and command lines of the Border Management Agency (BMA) he announced last June. A National Intelligence Estimate some years ago reportedly labelled the country’s porous borders the nation’s single biggest national security threat – no mean claim in light of the competing threats posed by crime, poverty and unemployment that mean cocktail that breeds anarchy as mobs take the law into their own hands to deal with criminals and communities torch libraries to protest either poor service delivery or the arrogance of officials who could not be bothered to consult locals about their needs and service delivery priorities.

So,what will this BMA be and what will it do? We know the SANDF will again be responsible for border line security. But how will it al gel and how will it be better than the current approach which has seemingly failed largely because no one is in total charge. As it has been put to defenceWeb: who is in charge of mending holes in the security fences around border posts. Strictly speaking it is the national Department of Public Works as the custodian of government property. But which department must they bill? Home Affairs? The police? Treasury (SA Revenue Service)? They all want the broken fences mended but none will take responsibility for paying for that to happen. One hopes the CE of the BMA will be the “supremo” that’s required and that he or her will have the budget authority to mend the many real and metaphoric fences that are broken in the border environment. Time will tell… Meanwhile, defenceWeb is planning a conference in mid-March to discuss the issue. Do join us March 17 and 18! See you there!