Earlier this year elements of the SA Army used rail to move prime mission equipment – a first in the 28 years existence of the national defence force – a welcome tasking noted as “refreshing” by respected defence and military analyst Helmoed Heitman.
The decision to use rail rather than road, according to SA Soldier correspondents captains Thandi Setati and Boipelo Kolokoto, was prompted in part by this year’s State of the Nation Address (SONA). President Cyril Ramaphosa “touched on the importance of reviving the South African railway system”. Add to this “prolonging the lifespan of military vehicles by avoiding long distance driving” and “insurmountable expenses due to wear and tear” the instruction by CArmy Lieutenant General Lawrence Mbatha to Support Formation GOC Major General Mzikayise Tyhalisi made eminent sense.
This saw long disused Bulkop siding/station outside the Combat Training Centre (CTC) at Lohathla inspected, cleaned up and declared ready for use. Flat cars were loaded with Ratels, Rooikats and other equipment for the move to the Mpumalanga capital, Mbombela. The move took 58 hours over an undisclosed distance and route.
Commenting on what is hoped to become a more regular component of national defence force logistic operations, Heitman told defenceWeb “the use of rail was – to say the least – refreshing”.
He recalls as one of Roelf Meyer’s 2012 Defence Review team they found one of two sets of railcars for heavy equipment, such as tanks, scrapped and the remaining set at risk of the same fate.
“To me rail is an invaluable force multiplier when you have it – you can move vehicles, equipment, supplies and personnel smoothly and quickly over long distances with no wear and tear on either vehicles or people. This is always assuming no one blows up the line, but the Germans managed to do it in Russia pretty much to the end despite partisans and air attack.
“There is an old saying in the loggie world that if you need to move 10 000 tons, you need one small ship, ten trains or a thousand ten-ton trucks,” is his apt summation of the value of rail.
Looking at Mozambique, where the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) is part of a regional force combatting Islamist terrorists in Cabo Delgado, Heitman points out getting forces to the theatre of operations would be “simple, if South Africa had sealift”.
“Even SAS Outeniqua would have helped, but vehicles and equipment could also be railed through Zimbabwe to Beira and then by road, with the rider of the Beira line functioning”.
Still on the region he sees it possible for a long dog-leg through Malawi and down to Nacala, “then one would have to weigh up extra time and complication against simply driving north from Beira”.
His bottom line for the Southern African Development Community (SADC) is if all existing rail lines in the region were functional “they would be a major logistic multiplier for disaster relief and peace support operations, for both deployment and sustainment”.
“In South Africa the rail network would also be massively useful if we ever faced a direct threat, while a SANDF deployment into a neighbouring country facing a threat would be immensely simplified using rail.”
From the landward force’s side planning for the rail logistic move was handled by 43 SA Brigade working with a Transnet team and the hands-on work , particularly at Bulkop, done by 101 Field Workshop and 16 Maintenance Unit.