Having argued previously that the problem is not too many people in the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) but rather too many old soldiers, it must also be said that the SANDF could be trimmed by perhaps some 10 000 people without harm in the short term – particularly if we can get rid of the incompetent, undisciplined and crooked, rather than the competent, disciplined and honest.
But once we look beyond the near horizon, we will have to again build up to the present strength or rather more if the SANDF is to be able to meet the challenges of the coming decades.
Staying with the short term, all three of the combat services could be trimmed a little in size:
• The Army is under-strength for what it is supposed to be able to do, but over-strength by perhaps 10% when comparing personnel strength to the number of combat and combat support and service support units.
• The Navy is similarly perhaps 15% over-strength for the current and near-term planned fleet, but considerably under-strength for the fleet South Africa as a maritime trading nation should have.
• The Air Force is perhaps 10% over-strength for the current number of squadrons, but under-strength for what the Air Force South Africa should have.
A key point to bear in mind is that a middle-sized defence force like the SANDF will have a higher proportion of personnel in command, logistic, administrative and similar functions than either a very small or a much larger force. A simple comparison with other forces on the basis of units, ships and squadrons versus personnel strength is, therefore, quite unrealistic.
The cuts suggested above are a best estimate, not a hard figure based on detailed analysis, but they should not be too far removed from what is practical. In each case the cuts would come not from the combat, combat support and combat service support units, but from the supporting and administrative elements. The reason is simple: The Army has too few combat forces for its current and probable tasks; the navy has too few ships to perform even its current mission set, and the Air Force has far too little airlift, no maritime capability and arguably too few combat and medium transport helicopters to meet probably near- to medium-term demands. So there is no room for cuts at that level.
In addition to the personnel cuts outlined above, there seems to be considerable potential to cut staff in the supporting services and divisions, some of which are clearly over-strength for what they are supposed to be doing, let alone for what they actually do.
Together those cuts would enable the Defence Force to shed about 8 000 to 10 000 people. That would not make a substantial difference to overall personnel costs but would bring a useful reduction. If it could be combined with shedding over-age and expensive personnel and replacing them with younger personnel without families, the cost reduction would be considerable. Not enough to make current defence funding adequate, but enough to buy some time.
In seeking to implement such cuts, however, it will be essential to ensure that we do not throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. We must not allow zeal in cutting personnel to go so far as to undermine the ability of the services to expand quickly should the strategic situation so demand – which is far from unlikely in the present era of renewed major power competition that will impact other regions of the world and not least Africa.
For instance, were the government to decide to implement the proposals of the Defence Review in terms of mission capability, the three combat services would between them need to add at least 20 000 personnel and probably 30 000. Such a decision is, of course, extremely unlikely at this point, but events in the world are moving rapidly and the strategic situation could see a dramatic change in a fairly short period of time. Even a more modest version of the Defence Review recommendations would see the SANDF having to grow by about 10 000.
The point of raising these unlikely scenarios is that they are not impossible, and therefore we must have at least the basic core of expertise and experience to enable a fairly quick expansion of the SANDF. The model might be the German Army between World War I and World War II, which took pains to ensure that every officer and every senior NCO was qualified to hold posts at least two ranks higher than the post he was in. That enabled them to expand the Army quickly and still retain expertise and build cohesion.
Keeping the essential core of expertise and experience will impact any personnel cuts we may wish to implement and will impact the proportion of personnel costs that can be saved – the people with the expertise and the experience are not the lowest paid in the organisation. And they are the people who can most easily find a job elsewhere, so it is not only a case of keeping them but also a case of ensuring that they are kept interested and happy. That might require some doubling up of key personnel and some level of rank inflation relative to the peacetime force.
In closing it is perhaps interesting that a calculation during the Defence Review suggested that the force level and funding level required to fully implement the recommendations would see the defence budget arrive at the magical 40:30:30 ratio (personnel:operating costs:capital renewal), but that was sheer coincidence.