SANDF accidents point to the breaking point being reached

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The deaths of seven South African National Defence Force (SANDF) personnel in two accidents last week have experts warning that the underfunding of the SANDF has reached a breaking point.

Three submariners died after being swept off the submarine SAS Manthatisi on Wednesday 20 September while carrying out an exercise in rough seas, while four soldiers were killed when the Samil 50 truck they were in suffered a burst tyre and rolled while on the way to Exercise Vuk’uhlome that same day.

Naval disaster

Defence expert Dean Wingrin noted the deaths of the sailors and the hospitalization of four others has shaken those in the Navy, the SANDF and the public. Wingrin explained that the vertical replenishment exercise that was being carried out with a Super Lynx at the time of the submarine accident is something that occurs regularly, and while risky, is not overly so if all standard operating procedures are adhered to. “There is a safety diver in the helicopter. The new Inshore Patrol Vessel [SAS King Sekukhune I] was in the area as well. It was carried out opposite a major NSRI base (Kommetjie). A safety line is strung from the hatch in the sail to the bow, submariner on deck will be hooked to this line, carry personal inflatable life jackets, etc. All this would have been factored into the safety plan.

“The seas were rough: 3 metres waves; Cape Point recorded 11 metre swells! There was a strong wind blowing. The exercise director made the correct call when environmental factors exceeded safety limits and made the call to knock it off. This was just as a freak wave hit them. The safety line was in place, but it does not prevent a person from falling off and hitting the side of the sub (repeatedly) before being retrieved,” he said.

While he believes the declining defence budget certainly has had an impact on man days at sea, and limited sea time means less experience at sea, it’s hard to say if this had a direct impact on the SAS Manthatisi accident. “Did the declining budget have an impact on the deaths of three sailors? Maybe not directly, perhaps indirectly? I don’t believe human negligence was 100% to blame.”

Breaking point

African Defence Review Director Darren Olivier said that it’s too early to say that what happened on board the SAS Manthatisi was because of the underfunded and overstretched SANDF: “We don’t have the full facts of the situation yet, and it would be inappropriate to judge the actions of those onboard without more information as yet. However, we do know that the more we continue to underfund the SANDF so badly compared to its role, force structure, and mandate, cutting into training time and opportunities, and the more we keep pushing our uniformed personnel to their breaking points, we are going to see more fatal accidents as a result. Not because the personnel are untrained or incompetent, but because they are human and they are performing extremely difficult tasks in all kinds of conditions.”

Olivier pointed out that the SANDF’s budget shortfall this year is huge, and amounts to about R7.9 billion. This includes R2.8 billion in unfunded employee costs from last year; R2.4 billion for a civilian employee increase that government approved but Treasury hasn’t provided more funding to departments for; R1.4 billion in unfunded ‘excess’ employee costs this year; and a R1.9 billion budget cut.

“This level of underfunding is causing, and will cause, a few things:
“A reduction in the frequency and intensity of training, meaning that personnel are less comfortable with and skilled at hazardous tasks;
“The reliance on increasingly aged vehicles, vessels, and aircraft which are much more prone to failure;
“The use of older parts on those systems, stretched as far as they possibly can be in order to maintain some operational tempo, whereas in a fully funded environment they’d be replaced more conservatively;
“Increasing deviations in maintenance standards, as it would become impossible for anything to go out if you didn’t relax those slightly;
“Fatigue, as an ever smaller pool of personnel are pushed harder to try to perform miracles despite all the above, making them more prone to mistakes.”

He said that “we as the public need to take responsibility for our own part in this. There has for the most part been silence and acquiescence as the size, scope, and number of missions allocated to the SANDF has continued to grow even as the budget has been drastically cut over and over again. That has meant that the only way for the SANDF to stay within its budget allocations has been to cut back on training time, maintenance spending, and the acquisition of new systems or upgrades to existing ones. As this year’s budget shortfall shows, even that is no longer enough, not without a huge cut in the number of SANDF personnel, its bases, and the missions it can carry out.

“We have been stretching the SANDF’s people too thin, forcing them to do more with less to the point of insanity and to keep their skills sharp despite never being given the ideal amount of practice in realistic conditions.

“Rather than apply pressure on government for systemic change to end this downward spiral, to either fund the SANDF to the level it needs or cut its missions, size, and mandate to match its funding, the response of most of the public, many in the media, and the majority of the MPs in Parliament is to cynically let it happen while heaping scorn on individual SANDF personnel whenever things go wrong.”

The SANDF is committed to numerous local and international obligations, including peacekeeping missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo (with the United Nations) and Mozambique (with the SADC Mission in Mozambique), border safeguarding duties under Operation Corona, as well as numerous ad-hoc taskings such as counter-poaching, flood relief, protecting Eskom power stations and other critical infrastructure, assisting police in crime-fighting etc. The Department of Defence has estimated the SANDF is 45% underfunded given its ever-increasing obligations.

Unserviceable vehicles

Observers have pointed out that the Samil 50 crash on 20 September involved an unserviceable vehicle being towed, and that the vehicle under tow had little tread on its tyres, which may have led to the tyre burst that caused the fatal rollover.

Olivier said in a high risk environment like a military, underfunding and lack of maintenance and serviceable equipment will lead to more fatalities, and “it’s already happening.” Recent accidents are above and beyond the deaths that will be caused by non-availability of assets, such as the lack of air support for the SADC Mission in Mozambique that may have contributed to the death of Corporal Tebogo Radebe at the hands of insurgents in 2021, or the deaths of 15 paratroopers in the Central African Republic during the Battle of Bangui, which saw SANDF personnel outnumbered hundreds to one and unsupported by aircraft or more heavily armoured and equipped vehicles.

Many in the top echelons of the SANDF believed the March 2013 Battle of Bangui would convince politicians that the SANDF needed more resources or more people would die, but since then, the defence budget has received even sharper cuts in real terms, Olivier emphasised.

Pressure needed to be applied on Commander-in-Chief and President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is either inexplicably unaware of the issues facing the SANDF or choose not act on them, Olivier said. Blame also lies with Minister of Defence Thandi Modise who is ultimately accountable for her department.

Leadership responsibility

Wingrin believes it is the duty of the political leadership (including the Minister of Defence) to be extremely vocal in Cabinet and in the Security Cluster. “Without a strong Minister, the current situation will continue. But in South Africa, politics takes precedent over all else and the military is a victim of its own success, having made do and succeed with so little for so long. That point of breaking is coming, and it’s coming soon.”

Olivier suggested it’s coming to a point where the SANDF may have to refuse to carry out an order because it doesn’t have the resources to do so.

The various SANDF chiefs of services and the Minister of Defence have already said publicly and in Parliamentary briefings that the budget cuts affect defence capabilities and impact the ability to carry out missions, Wingrin pointed out, but added that they cannot go further than that without resigning. “They can talk, but if the Government does not want to listen/understand/has other priorities, then there is nothing more they can do.”

Retired Lieutenant General Lindile Yam, former SANDF Chief of staff and former Chief of the South African Army, speaking at a Sovereign Security Conference on 21 September, said the SANDF is not just underfunded but defunded and those responsible should be jailed. “The budget has been going down – that’s defunding and it’s criminal,” he complained.

He criticised Cabinet and Parliament for accepting and approving the 2015 Defence Review yet allowing the defunding of the SANDF to continue. “South Africa does not have the ability to project a sustained force any more,” he lamented.

Experts have cautioned that it could take over a decade to rebuild the SANDF by fixing, modernising and upgrading equipment, closing capability gaps, and developing senior leadership, amongst others. However, with an election coming up in April next year, it does not appear defence is a focus area for Cabinet, which appears to have little grasp of the strategic realities facing South Africa.