Gulube urges defence sector to weather the COVID-19 storm


Outgoing Secretary for Defence Dr Sam Gulube has urged the local defence industry and defence force to weather the COVID-19 pandemic, saying the country has been through other challenges before. Although the virus is putting a strain on the SA National Defence Force, the military continues to play a critical role in the pandemic response as well as regional security.

Speaking at the Sovereign Security 2020 conference, held virtually on 6 August, Gulube said the coronavirus pandemic is putting even more demands on the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), with approximately 20 000 members deployed until at least September under Operation Notlela.

“Even though fewer personnel are available for other taskings, it is in times of crisis like this that South Africa needs to ensure that the continent is stable and our country and the region is prosperous. South Africa already plays a leading role in peacekeeping missions on the African continent, but it also faces other challenges that are emerging. We are deeply concerned about the situation in Mozambique and elsewhere on the continent regarding the rise of terrorism as this has a negative effect on the socio-economic development of South Africa and the region,” Gulube told delegates.

“South Africa is a major partner of peacekeeping, being members of the African Union, United Nations, Southern African Development Community and other organisations. We assist countries like Mozambique and Zimbabwe with national disaster relief, we provide maritime security along the Mozambique Channel to fight piracy and we provide peacekeepers to the United Nations mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Closer to home, the South African National Defence Force is contributing in a big way to fighting coronavirus, through the supply of field hospitals, medical personnel, protective equipment and in supporting the South African Police Service and other government agencies. This is, however, putting a strain on the Department of Defence budget. The latest budget allocation gave an additional R3 billion to the Department of Defence, but this is R1.5 billion less than what was requested and what is required for Operation Notlela. As a result, the Department will have to reprioritise funding, taking from some programmes to assist other programmes.”

According to Gulube, the Department of Defence works well with other government departments, and assists in fighting crime and corruption, managing and securing South Africa’s borders, securing cyberspace and assuring domestic stability. “We also provide disaster relief and humanitarian assistance, something that is essential during these extraordinary times.”

Gulube said it is hard for the SANDF to carry out its functions with the declining defence budget, with dire long-term implications. “The Department of Defence is mandated to protect the sovereignty and security of the Republic of South Africa. This is an increasingly difficult task as the defence budget continues to shrink. The majority of the budget already goes to paying salaries, leaving little for capital acquisitions and other expenditure, meaning that the Department of Defence has to do more with less resources.

“The reduced defence budget is putting a strain on acquisition programmes, particularly Projects like Hoefyster, for infantry combat vehicles, Projects like Biro, for inshore patrol vessels, and Projects like Project Hotel, for a new hydrographic survey vessel. Ladies and gentlemen, efficiency and optimisations are needed to ensure defence projects are delivered on time and on budget. As its equipment ages, the National Defence Force will have to increasingly rely on ingenuity to keep going. The defence industry has an opportunity to assist the SANDF in working smarter and harder and creating a lean, and mean force.”

Gulube mentioned that technology can serve as a cost-effective force multiplier and assist the Department of Defence in improving its sovereign security capabilities. He said that South Africa has long been a pioneer in many fields, such as missiles, satellites, drones armoured vehicles and many of these technologies can or are being used profitability to enhance South Africa’s sovereign security. For example, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is leading efforts to develop a network of satellites for maritime security and surveillance. The CSIR has also developed many other useful technologies, such as Cmore command and control system, surveillance cameras and more. Many of these technologies, such as Cmore, are used to combat wildlife poaching, while the National Defence Force uses the CSIR’s Indiza drones for border security and peacekeeping. Together with other stakeholders, the CSIR is pioneering passive radar as a cost effective surveillance solution – something that would be of interest to the Department of Defence, he said.

“There are many other companies providing innovative products and solutions and South Africa’s vibrant aerospace and defence industry is up to the task of meeting Africa’s sovereign security challenges. For example, the locally developed Meerkat surveillance system has led to a reduction in wildlife poaching in the Kruger National Park. Other capabilities such as electronic warfare can serve as force multipliers, with companies like Hensoldt and Reutech providing competitive solutions,” Gulube said.

For these solutions to be used by the Department of Defence, a strong and healthy public and private defence industry is needed. However, with the declining defence budget and international competition, the industry has been facing difficult times, and this has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

“To stay competitive in an increasingly crowded market, the defence industry needs to re-imagine many of the ways in which it operates. It needs to be open to partnership and joint ventures, diversify into the commercial sector, adopt fourth industrial revolution technologies like 3D printing and digital manufacturing, come up with creative funding and payment models such as bartering, as well as pursue less obvious markets like the United Nations, and market itself more strongly. From a selfish point of view, the Department of Defence needs the industry to succeed,” Gulube said.

“South Africa has many competitive products, such as in the fields of artillery, self-protection systems, mine-detection vehicles, secure communications, electronic warfare and radar systems, unmanned aerial vehicles and guided weapons. In spite of the many challenges facing the South African defence industry, there are many opportunities as well. Apart from world-leading technology, South Africa can use its non-aligned status as a drawcard and can benefit from the major powers competition the world is currently witnessing. In Africa there are many opportunities for the supply of military equipment, especially with insecurity that is currently prevailing with piracy and instability prevalent in many countries, more security capabilities will be needed in these countries. Even in the darkest times of adversity there are opportunities – for example, companies like Paramount, Denel and Milkor have been successfully manufacturing ventilators and personal protective equipment in response to the current coronavirus pandemic.”

Gulube concluded by saying that in his tenure as Secretary for Defence since 2011, he has seen the enormous good the National Defence Force has done, and continues to do, whether it is providing clean water and bridges for rural communities or healthcare services to the most vulnerable and those in unserviced areas.

“I have also familiarised myself with the vast capabilities and skills the South African defence industry has to offer. It has survived enormous challenges and will have to survive more challenges to come. But South Africa’s can-do attitude and ability to perform miracles on shoestring budgets will serve it well. As I bid farewell as Secretary for Defence, I wish you all the best in your future endeavours and trust you will weather this COVID-19 pandemic storm. Be safe and be strong!”