DoD continues to carry out defence research and development in spite of funding shortfall

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The South African Department of Defence (DoD) continues to invest in research and development projects for the national defence force, ranging from radar to vehicle electric drive and target drones in spite of a R560 million funding shortfall over the next three years.

Brigadier General Andre Barends, Director Technology Development, briefed Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Defence (JSCD) last month on defence research and development funding.

He explained that the role of the Directorate Technology Development (DTD) is to direct research and technology development for SA National Defence Force (SANDF) needs by establishing programmes in line with the 2015 Defence Review. “This technology base will support the SANDF in the development of new equipment with superior performance, upgrades and life extension programmes, operational problem solving, specification, test & evaluation of sophisticated equipment as well as trend and impact analysis of technological developments.”

Over the next three years, over R1.7 billion has been allocated to defence technology development: R569 million in 2023/24; R601 million in 2024/25, and R598 million in 2025/26. This compares with R613 million in 2015/16, a peak of R723 million in 2018/19 and R472 million in 2021/22. For 2022/23, defence research and development spending amounted to R590 million.

However, total projected requirements are underfunded by nearly R200 million a year, with a R221 million shortfall in 2023/24; R154 million shortfall in 2024/25, and a R192 million shortfall in 2025/26.

Barends in his presentation to the JSCD gave an overview of some of the funded research and development (R&D) projects over the next three financial years. For the landward force, R238 million will be spent on Projects Tangent, Template, and Konya for propellants, guidance, fuses, terminal effects; electric drive for vehicles; and passive and active armour protection.

The Special Forces will receive R105 million over the next three years, with Project Ubuntu covering sensing (night operations), explosives, mobility (escape and evasion), and communication (detection and counters).

For the South African Air Force, R272 million will be spent on Projects Venture, Projection and Lobby, which cover fly-by-wire technology, air weapons, sensors (communications intelligence, electronic intelligence and jammers) and a hostile fire indicator. Good progress has been made on the hostile fire indicator using radio frequency technology and it will be fitted onto A109, Oryx and Rooivalk helicopters.

On the maritime side, Navy defence research and development funding to the tune of R233 million over three years will cover projects Flagg and Prospective for above and below water detection (radar, electro-optics and sonar), self-protection and ‘environmental characterisation’.

R154 million in funding for the SA Military Health Service will be directed towards chemical and biological protection (decontamination), ergonomics, and medical health (high-intensity focused ultrasound).

Project Indicate (R466 million over three years) covers radar and optronics research as well as command and control and information warfare. Barends said that good progress has been made on the multirole surveillance radar, with a demonstrator available in late 2024.

R297 million will be spent on the Denel Overberg Test Range to maintain capabilities there over the next three years.

While these projects are funded, no allocation has been made for defence engineering and science university programme as well as defence transformative enterprise development.

Barends told the JSCD that the Department of Defence has a number of unfunded technology requirements that would require R4.3 billion over the next three years (R1.3 billion in 2023/24; R1.5 billion in 2024/25; and R1.5 billion in 2025/26).

These include a maritime airborne anti-submarine warfare system (the SANDF currently has no means of detecting undeclared dived submarines); a combined thermal and digital day camera (one sight for day and night operations); a 20 mm cannon (the current 20 mm is a foreign weapon that is difficult to support); the ability for Special Forces to place explosives underwater; a joint strike missile; a 76 mm Rooikat turret for maritime use; a 30 mm DEFA/CamGun for maritime use; Rooivalk Mk II upgrade (midlife update); satellite payloads; cyber security; armed UAVs; secure communications; nano technology (such as graphene); and Vinten pods for the SAAF.

He warned that not funding defence R&D will threaten the survival of defence research institutes; will result in a loss of experienced scientists and engineers that will impact on the broader defence industry; lose any competitive advantage created over years of investment; and result in a loss of capabilities.

Particularly in the areas of radar development, information system security, communications, command and control and electronic warfare, “if these research activities do not continue, the result on these industries responsible for this, will be devastating. The country will lose capabilities that will be difficult if not impossible to re-establish. Secure military communication and surveillance will be threatened.

“Furthermore, CSIR [Council for Scientific and Industrial Research] could decide to close down the Aeronautical institute which will have a critical impact on the aerospace store integration, carriage release and modelling and simulation for the Air Force. Flight test capability will be lost and difficult to recover.”

A lack of funding could also threaten the telemetry and tracking capabilities at the Denel Overberg Test Range, which would result in South Africa losing international revenue. It would then become costly to conduct Test and Evaluation on platforms.

Defence and Military Veterans Minister Thandi Modise pointed out that technology needs to be used for border security, and South Africa’s borders would be far more secure “if we had more technology.” Democratic Alliance Shadow Defence Minister Kobus Marais echoed this, saying that investing in technology is a force multiplier, especially satellite and cyber technology, which has huge applications for border and maritime security.