Underfunded SANDF will implode ‘sooner or later’

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Defence experts maintain that due to the decline of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), South Africa would be defenceless if attacked.

Analyst Helmoed Heitman warns the military will “implode sooner or later” as for the past two decades, the defence force has been underfunded and overstretched, leaving it short of capabilities.

This neglect means there has not been enough money for maintaining equipment or training properly, as sailors don’t have enough time at sea or pilots enough time in the air. “There’s no money to close critical capability gaps like maritime patrol and airlift. We are short of capabilities; we are not able to properly maintain what we have. The wheels will come off sooner or later. The people in the machine work minor miracles every day but they can’t do that forever without the right funding,” Heitman said.

“If any big player came to attack us, we would not be able to do anything,” Heitman stated. “The only reason we are not in trouble is because no one is attacking us. In the state of our navy, we cannot patrol our waters and we can’t prevent smuggling.” Nevertheless, small, fragile states like Eswatini, Lesotho, and Zimbabwe pose challenges, as does terrorism across the border in Mozambique.

He added that, “the Army does not have enough troops to go everywhere. It’s got troops in Mozambique, in the DRC, plus they do work on the border. Then every now and then they get called out to do work locally. They just don’t have enough bodies to do the work.”

Another result of the neglect of the SANDF is that this affects the defence industry. It is hampered by few orders from the SANDF, an onerous export control system, and lack of government support – Heitman pointed out that government is not the chief salesman for the defence industry, unlike many other nations. The SANDF also doesn’t buy and endorse enough locally made equipment.

“If we implemented the Defence Review of 2015 we would be building up towards 100 000 or so jobs in the defence industry, not 12 000 [at present]. At one time it was 300 000.” Heitman added that employing Cubans to fix SANDF equipment is not helping, as Denel has had to lay off staff because work is going to Cuban technicians.

His comments come in the wake of Defence and Military Veterans Minister Thandi Modise stating in a written parliamentary reply that, “I am on record as having said the defence force is becoming progressively more unsustainable in terms of the declining defence baseline allocation and we have now reached the point where the Republic must decide on the kind of defence force it wants and can afford”.

Based on the actual number of feet on the ground, the SANDF is underfunded by approximately R2.6 billion, according to Modise, who told Parliament in May that “we are definitely, terribly underfunded due to the cost of employments,” with commitments in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, and internally.

The Department of Defence received a total budget allocation of R51.1 billion for the 2023/24 financial year, a net decrease of about R500 million from the previous adjusted budget, and is now facing a 10% spending cut on top of this. Due to the underfunding of the Compensation of Employees (COE) allocation, the department will most likely incur unauthorised expenditure of approximately R3 billion in the 2022/23 financial year.

Darren Olivier, Director at African Defence Review, said that forecasts of imminent implosion are “what all of us covering the SANDF have warned for years would be the consequence of endless budget cuts and overstretching the SANDF for more missions regardless. The force remains capable in many areas but it’s running on empty with critical low stocks of spares and ammo.

“The correct answer to this type of story isn’t to throw our hands up in despair and insist nothing can be done. This is all, still, very fixable. It just requires the right political will, public support, and a match between the funding we provide and the missions we demand.

“If we’re not willing or able to fund the SANDF for its full size and capabilities, to be able to assist the police, conduct search and rescue and disaster response, and to fight insurgencies in neighbouring countries, then we should accept it cannot and should not do those things,” Olivier stated.

Aviation expert Dean Wingrin commented that decades of inadequate budgets and lack of political support for the military and the defence industry has led to the decline of the SANDF. “It’s not something that can be fixed overnight. Even with a massive budget increase, it will take a decade or more to rectify. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the SANDF and its budget vs mandate. Whilst the SANDF (like the previous SADF) was never intended to fight a ‘super power,’ it should be capable of succeeding against a near peer such as that found in Africa.”

National Treasury has allocated R1.4 billion to refit the Navy’s frigates and submarines and R1 billion to make six C-130BZ Hercules transports airworthy again as some efforts are made to recapacitate the SANDF. It has also allocated R700 million for technology for border protection, and although this will go some way towards recapacitating the SANDF, to rejuvenate and re-equip the SANDF to make it a truly effective force would cost R41 billion over 25 years.