Defence committee to visit SA’s borders


Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Defence (JSCD) has committed to visiting South Africa’s borders to see first-hand areas of concern, after the head of Joint Operations painted a somewhat bleak picture of the border security situation.

Late last month, Lieutenant General Rudzani Maphwanya, Chief of Joint Operations Division, briefed parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Defence on the South African National Defence Force’s (SANDF’s) involvement in border safeguarding under Operation Corona.

South Africa has 4 471 km of land border, with 15 companies of soldiers deployed to safeguard it. However, there are critical geographic/strategic gaps along the Botswana border area between Mahikeng and Pontdrift; in the Northern Kruger National Park area, along the southern Swaziland border with Mpumalanga and along the eastern Lesotho border with KwaZulu-Natal.

Maphwanya made several recommendations for improvement, including upgrading road and fence infrastructure within the 10 km border area strip; upgrading base infrastructure to support permanent operations as poor living conditions for troops translate into poor discipline and morale; improving the urgency of the “E-procurement” system so that maintenance of vehicles and base infrastructure can be done when needed; and improving aerial surveillance of the borderline to determine activity hotspots that may be a distance from bases and be mobile to react to requirements.

The Joint Standing Committee on Defence called on the Department of Defence to consider technology as a force multiplier at the border. “While the committee is cognisant that the fiscal space within which the department operates in is constrained, it believes that diversifying capabilities will ensure that our borders are safe,” it said.

Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula revealed that unmanned aerial vehicles and radars are currently being used on the border and are functioning as force multipliers.

“Also, the committee welcomed the signing into law of the Border Management Authority Act, which should elevate capacity securing our borders. The committee urges the SANDF to proactively work with this agency, once established, to set up efficient strategies to secure our borders,” it said.

Air borders unsecured

Air border safeguarding has been neglected in total, Maphwanya’s presentation said. “This is entirely attributed to the insufficient budget negatively impacting on the availability of air assets and surveillance sensors.

“For illegal cross-border activities in and out of the country, the airspace above the physical borders of South Africa presents excellent intrusion opportunities for transportation of people, contraband and illegal substances. In general this will be done by non-cooperative crews (not communicating with air traffic control) flying small aircraft with low radar-cross sections in non-linearly moving patterns at lower altitudes, and using more sophisticated equipment such as global positioning systems and radar detection systems to avoid radar detection.

“Improving and acquiring optimal systems are very expensive and therefore systems such as Ultra-Light Aircraft Detection (ULAD) sensors and even upgrading and maintenance of available sensors appear not to be feasible.”

Maphwanya called for sensors together with optimal intelligence as the minimum requirement to ensure airspace security, and this includes long-range surveillance radars, tactical mobile radars, secondary surveillance radars, direction finders and airfield approach radars.

“The South African Air Force (SAAF) has a very limited and out-dated Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and Air Surveillance (radar sensor) capability which are further aggravated by the lacking budget restricting related procurement projects,” Maphwanya’s presentation said.

“There are currently no aerial patrols done over either the land or maritime borders and therefore no specific contributions to comment on.”

Maphwanya recommended that the SAAF receive a fixed operating budget amount dependant on required borderline aerial patrol hours, that air surveillance radar coverage of land and maritime borders be improved, especially for low flying small aircraft crossing borders and that there be a better security presence at small airstrips/fields close to the border area to intercept human/contraband smugglers.

Maritime patrols

For the maritime border security component of Operation Corona, Maphwanya’s presentation stated that 84 days are allocated for maritime surface patrols/deployments and 22 days for sub-surface patrols for the 2020/21 financial year.

Maritime patrols are planned as follows: 1 April – 31 May 2020; 1 June – 31 July 2020; 1 November – 31 December 2020; 1 February – 31 March 2021; and 1 April – 31 May 2020 (submarine patrol).

In terms of recommendations for improvement, Joint Operations would like to see more quick reaction capability assets for short notice operations, which are presently challenged due to limited operational availability and slow procurement processes.

Maphwanya called for emergency procurement processes to be put in place to ensure that a ship can get fuelled and victualed at short notice (within 8 hours) if called upon to react. Better maritime domain awareness is needed to direct limited resources to areas needed and a larger budget is needed to extend allocated operational days in the area of operations for patrolling (currently 84 days).

The SANDF is also required to support the oceans economy component of Operation Phakisa, but there is currently no Treasury funding for SANDF involvement in Operation Phakisa. The SANDF has assisted the Police and Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries on many coastal anti-poaching (crayfish and abalone) operations, particularly in the Western Cape between 2018 and 2020, with the last assistance being in January/February this year. The Navy has also assisted DEFF in illegal fishing interception/arrest operations off Cape Town and Port Elizabeth over the last two years.

In conclusion, Maphwanya stated that the SANDF is involved in many operations that secure South Africa’s land, sea and air borders and lends assistance to other government departments in the execution of their respective mandates. “Though restrained by budget cuts, slow procurement and maintenance processes, the SANDF still remains a critical role player in the defence and security of the country.

“The only way to secure the SANDF’s capability to fulfil its mandate is to capacitate and train effectively with a dynamic logistic support system that will effectively support high tempo operations,” Maphwanya concluded.

After his presentation, the Joint Standing Committee on Defence said it has committed to visit the border, especially areas of concern, to assess first-hand necessary interventions to secure South Africa’s borders.