SA Army’s modern brigade is by and large rational

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Respected defence analyst Helmoed Heitman welcomes – with reservations – the landward force’s new addition, at this time going under the “modern brigade” title.

Some military watchers, including Heitman, see the new addition as a reincarnation “of sorts” of the mechanised and motorised brigades in the then SA Defence Force (SADF).

“It makes sense,” he told defenceWeb. “Some time ago I proposed the establishment of mechanised and motorised brigades on the basis of what was 43 and 46 (SA Brigades). This was in opposition to another proposal with only a headquarters, no permanent units and establishing an airborne/contingency brigade on the basis of 44 Parachute Regiment. This essentially would revive 44 Para Brigade with 1 Parachute Regiment, an air assault battalion (probably 6 SAI at Makhanda) and other elements”.

“That gives one brigade of each of the divisions proposed in the Defence Review and would enable the Army to re-establish its ability to actually operate brigades.

“All three would use relevant regular units with 44 possibly incorporating reserve para elements ensuring a standby capability when 1 Para is used in crisis response,” he said with the rider “it should not be doing routine work, except at company level for experience”.

On the “unveiling” of the landward force’s first – three are apparently planned – modern brigade at the Combat Training Centre (CTC) in Northern Cape earlier this month (November), Heitman made the point that “perhaps someone was paying attention”.

“The alternative is CArmy (Lieutenant General Lawrence Mbatha) and I think along the same lines.”

When it comes to equipment he “thinks” there is sufficient that is either serviceable or can be made serviceable to equip the proposed mechanised and motorised brigades.

“No tanks and the motorised brigade would not have armour, artillery or air defence as there is only one regular unit of each and that should go to the mechanised brigade.”

Heitman maintains “can be made serviceable” is key, doubting there is sufficient immediately serviceable to equip a full brigade.

The choice of the massive Lohathla training area as the modern brigade base makes sense.

“Other units can also train there, assuming careful management for proper equipment and vehicle maintenance as opposed to cannibalised or stripped,” he said quoting the example of 71 Brigade in the late 70s where what is now called prime mission equipment deteriorated due to lack of and shoddy maintenance.

Heitman sees the people part of the new brigade as “more complex”.

“I’m pretty sure there is no one in the Army who has moved a brigade from A to B, let alone deployed or employed a brigade. I am not aware of a full-scale brigade exercise any time in the past 20 plus years – it was always one or perhaps two complete units and bits of others. That does not allow officers to gain the necessary experience and grasp what can go wrong even with a ‘simple’ logistic move, let alone a deployment or an advance to contact.

“The old SA Army took a while to get to grips with that and I do not think the present Army will find it any easier. That is not a criticism of officers – if there is no funding for full-scale exercises, all they can do is map and computer war game. Those do not provide sufficient experience, valuable though they are. Bottom line is I would hate the national defence force to be in position to conduct a brigade level operation any time soon. On the other hand, I’m pretty confident if we put our minds to it, we can rebuild capability to a useful level, albeit only over several years of regular full-scale exercises – funding and equipment serviceability permitting.”

His parting shot is the term “modern” cannot be said to be apposite when taking into account all equipment is 20 or more years old, some even up to 40 years.

“Overall it is a rational move and I’m delighted the Army is going this route,” he said.

The first modern brigade will respond to modern threats including asymmetric warfare and was established in response to the current security situation. Mbatha  said the modern brigade is cognisant of asymmetric and terrorism threats to South Africa.

According to SA National Defence Force (SANDF) Chief, General Rudzani Maphwanya,  a second modern brigade (motorised) will be established in Bloemfontein with the third to be based near Pretoria, in all probability at Wallmannsthal.