Largest SA Army exercise in decades wraps up

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More than 13 000 troops have taken part in the South African Army’s Exercise Vuk’uhlome at the Combat Training Centre in the Northern Cape, with the landmark exercise showcasing the capabilities of the five newly formed Modern Brigades. The military’s new camouflage uniform was also revealed for the first time.

The weeks-long exercise culminated in a mock battle and capability demonstrations coinciding with a Distinguished Visitors’ Day on 24 November, which was attended by Defence Minister Thandi Modise, senior Southern African Development Community defence force leaders, military attaches, members of the local defence industry, and other guests.

The South African Army said the divisional exercise is the largest executed since 1999 and showcased the capabilities of the newly formed Motorised, Mechanised, Airborne, Light, and Reserve Modern Brigades. The new brigade formations are designed and set up to respond to modern threats such as asymmetric warfare and were established in response to the current security situation. The modern brigade concept is cognisant of asymmetric and terrorism threats to South Africa.

Vuk’uhlome (‘rise and arm yourself’ in Zulu) tested the capability and status of readiness of the landward force, supported by SA Special Forces, the SA Air Force (SAAF), SA Military Health Service (SAMHS), Military Police Division, and Legal Services Division. Numerous capabilities were demonstrated during the exercise’s Distinguished Visitors’ Day, ranging from dealing with civil unrest to dropping airborne forces by parachute, precision rocket and artillery attacks, counter-insurgency operations, infantry attacks etc. The Special Forces and their weapons and vehicles played an important role in the simulated battle, which witnessed the involvement of armoured vehicles including Olifant main battle tanks.

The SA Air Force supported the exercise with Cessna Caravan and C212 transport aircraft along with Oryx and A109 transport/utility helicopters and a Rooivalk attack helicopter. The latter did not fire its weapons, but two Hawk Mk 120 lead-in fighter-trainers dropped bombs on the Lohatla range.

The exercise culminated in the handing over of the SA Army’s state of combat readiness by Army Chief Lawrence Mbatha to the Chief of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF).

Addressing SANDF members and invited guests, Modise said that Exercise Vuk’uhlome is an indication of the preparedness and readiness of the military to protect South Africa. She said the Department of Defence intends to rejuvenate the SANDF and remove obstacles that inhibit its progress. This includes ensuring equipment is in good condition and that discipline prevails.

The SANDF is badly affected by massive underfunding compounded by a growing list of duties, as well as ageing equipment – it is not clear when it will be receiving its new Badger infantry fighting vehicles from Denel, but the SA Army has acquired some new hardware in recent years, some of which was on display during Exercise Vuk’uhlome. Recent acquisitions include sniper rifles from Truvelo, 40 mm grenade launchers from Milkor, Carl Gustaf recoilless rifles from Saab, Land Cruiser-mounted ZSU-23-2 anti-aircraft gun vehicles, and Scorpion 60/80 mm mortar vehicles.

Another new addition was the SANDF’s new camouflage uniform, which was officially launched during Exercise Vuk’uhlome. Designed to replace the ‘old fashioned’ uniform that does not cater for African or female body profiles, it was developed in conjunction with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). Mbatha said the new uniform would help soldiers better blend in with their surroundings on deployments and that the new uniform will be rolled out across the defence force in stages.

Commenting on the capability and equipment of the South African National Defence Force, Modise told her audience on Thursday that, “I am confident we are doing everything in our power to ensure prime equipment is restored and upgraded…Those who think the Army is in decline are wrong. I have every confidence the SANDF can protect South Africa and its economy.”

The minister added that the Department of Defence is looking to reinvigorate the local defence industry. A sizeable defence industry exhibition formed part of Exercise Vuk’uhlome, with more than half a dozen companies exhibiting their wares. This included Reutech (radars and weapons turrets), Canvas and Tent (field accommodation), Rheinmetall Denel Munition (green energy), Global Command and Control Technologies (command and control solutions), Dinkwanyana Aerospace (unmanned aerial vehicles), OTT Solutions (armoured vehicles, including their Ratel Service Life Extension demonstrator) and Denel. The latter showcased its Badger and RG41 infantry fighting vehicles, RG21 and RG31 armoured personnel carriers and T5-52 self-propelled howitzer. SVI Engineering brought two of its armoured vehicles to the exhibition area (Max 3 and Max 9). The company has also supplied Scorpion mortar vehicles to the SANDF, but these were not used in the exercise.

Another highlight of the Exercise Vuk’uhlome Distinguished Visitor’s Day was the launch of a new publication showcasing the role of the SA Army, its recent achievements, and its structure and organisation. The 178-page coffee table publication is entitled ‘South African Army 2022-2022: Maintaining Momentum Despite Adversity.’

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