Feature: The SANDF needs to put its foot down


The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is badly under-resourced and needs to tell government it requires additional funding for additional taskings, otherwise it should not carry them out, a defence symposium has heard.

A Joint Standing Committee on Defence (JSCD) mini-symposium on the South African National Defence Force’s Force Design and Related Matters last week heard that the defence budget has been declining to the point where strategic capabilities are being lost and the defence force is not strong enough to respond to regional crises such as the insurgency in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado.

Defence expert Helmoed Romer Heitman said that most countries build defence forces to deal with identified threats with some agility to deal with unforeseen threats. “If we look at the SANDF today we are too weak to meet that standard,” he said.

Nevertheless, the SANDF goes where government tells it to, but Heitman believes the SANDF needs to say “give us more money or else we don’t go.” He added that the 2015 Defence Review argued for an operational deployment budget and the Department of Defence needs to approach treasury to implement that.

For the maritime security Operation Copper deployment in the Mozambique Channel, the SA Navy recently went over its planned sea days. “The Navy should have said give us more money or we go home,” Heitman stated.

“The defence force is often its own worst enemy. It always seems to pull a rabbit out of a hat and get the job done, therefore people say okay, it doesn’t need more cash. Meanwhile the defence force is cutting into muscle and bone.”

“The SANDF cannot do everything,” Committee co-chair Cyril Xaba echoed. “There has got to be funding that is put upfront [for additional taskings]. Additional commitments must be taken based on prefunding. There must be a cost recovery arrangement,” he said.

Kobus Marais, Democratic Alliance shadow defence minister, said the SANDF is currently facing a R7.7 billion budget shortfall but generals just keep doing their job. “We are appreciative of what they do but they steal from Peter to pay Paul…it’s not an ideal situation.” He said a new force structure and design are needed to look at what can be achieved with the reduced budget.

“The defence force is in trouble,” Heitman said. “Really, it is time for government to decide what they want the defence force to be able to do,” as currently South Africa is “trying to be a regional force on a borderline budget.”

A revised force design

Heitman believes the government needs to go to the SANDF and ask it to come up with a force design based on the available budget. Since government funding will continue to be constrained for some time, the SANDF needs to be able to only do what it can afford to.

Xaba said the economy is not going to improve anytime soon and projected revenue is likely to decline. “It means that the budget deficit will widen as we move forward. Very soon all departments will have to review budgets and affect cost saving measures. This department is one treasury will come back to to ask to cut down its spending.”

He added that the current fiscal environment “constrains us to live within our means” and therefore a new force design is required.

Professor Lindy Heinecken said the SANDF cannot address a new force design without consulting politicians and society. “What roles should be prioritised given the current allocation of resources? Without understanding the SANDF’s role, one cannot design or plan a new force design,” she said.

Heinecken added that the SANDF cannot be used for everything. “The military is not a pushbutton organisation. There need to be hard decisions on what the defence force is meant to do locally and in the region.”

Dr Moses Khanyile, non-executive director at Armscor and National Defence Industry Council (NDIC) Strategy Project Leader, said that the defence budget been declining precipitously over the last couple of years and is sitting at less than 1% of GDP. The lack of political consensus towards the SANDF is having implications for funding.

He said that geopolitical considerations cannot be underestimated. “For a long time we believed there were no threats and we were in peaceful neighbourhood but guess what, South Africa gets called in to intervene in Africa. Most of these are not planned interventions and not in the budget. This means we need to think differently in terms of our involvement in the region.”

“For a long time South Africa thought of itself as a regional power…but there is a risk of becoming a shadow of our former selves.”

Khanyile noted that “we need to help out our brothers and sister up north but there is no funding to back up that commitment.”

A key intervention is to have a force structure planning model for the SANDF, Khanyile said. This entails slimming down and strengthening the defence force by, for example, exiting overage and unfit personnel.

Heitman said the personnel problem is exacerbated by the lowering defence budget and personnel that need salary increases as well as a lack of exit mechanism, thus there are ageing personnel in junior ranks that are expensive to keep and offer little value as they cannot be deployed. He suggested that some overstaffed areas be trimmed, such as logistics and combat support.

“I don’t think we’re spending too much on personnel – the defence budget is actually too low,” he clarified. “Nevertheless we could today cut 10 000 posts but that would create risk when expanding the force to meet expanding missions.” Cutting personnel would also be tricky due to labour legislation, the cost of retrenchment packages and the unpopularity of contributing to unemployment.

Other suggestions Heitman had for right-sizing the defence force included doing away with an independent military health service and replacing the Military Skills Development System with vocational training.

Regarding budget, Heitman said that cabinet should decide on the defence budget not treasury and there needs to be better understanding at the political level of the need for the defence force in creating peace in the region to enable economic development. The defence force also supports thousands of jobs in the defence industry and opens up export potential.

Heinecken added that the SANDF needs to make clear its capabilities and market itself to say what it’s doing beyond defence. “They should market this and point it out more clearly. Society doesn’t know what value the defence force adds to the people. There needs to be wider debate as the defence force is standing on a precipice of major reorganisation. The defence force needs to be sustainable to serve South African society.”

In light of the absence of funding, Khanyile suggested that the SANDF needs to become partially self-sustaining. “The Department of Defence has vast tracts of land, buildings, old equipment in demand in our neighbourhood. All these things can raise capital that can be reinvested to alleviate some of these challenges.”