SANDF personnel strength


There is a constant refrain that the South African National Defence Force should cut numbers and thus personnel costs, that those are at the heart of its funding woes. That is true, but only to an extent and not because it simply has too many people.

The argument about the Defence Force being over-strength bases on the 40:30:30 formula that unfortunately found its way into the Defence Review from a source unknown to me. Like most attempts to develop a formula to explain everything, it is nonsense.

Every defence force will have different personnel requirements growing out of the force design developed for its missions and the geography of its region. A defence force that must operate in mountainous terrain or in jungles will be army-heavy and its army will be infantry-heavy. The result will be a far higher proportion of the budget going to direct and indirect personnel costs than another defence force that is technology-focused force.

The SANDF is army-heavy and infantry-heavy because its mission set includes border patrol and peacekeeping, both of which require mainly infantry. So personnel cost will be higher than those of a defence force relying more on air power and mechanised forces.

So much for the background, but a look at some numbers is interesting:

  • The direct personnel costs of the SANDF in the current year come to a little over 56%, although the infantry-heavy Army tops out at around 71%.
  • The average for NATO defence forces is 51.72%.
  • Only five NATO forces spend 40% or less on personnel – Estonia, Latvia, Luxembourg, Norway, and the United Kingdom, of which Estonia and Norway still have conscription, which lowers personnel costs.
  • Four NATO defence forces spend more than 70% of their budget on personnel costs – Belgium, Greece, Montenegro, Portugal and Slovenia.

So, the SANDF is not as wildly out of line as some seem to think. Add that, unlike the five that spend less than 40%, the SANDF has a high proportion of infantry, raising its personnel costs.

The immediate reaction might be to say close down some infantry units to reduce personnel costs. But the reality is that the number of infantry battalions is marginal for the mission set:

  • One battalion-strength peace support mission ties up at least four battalions (on a 1 in 4 rotation, or six on a 1 in 6 rotation favoured by many countries to minimise impact on training programmes and the personal lives of the troops).
  • The border on the current approach requires 22 companies on duty which, if the support companies are used as infantry, translates into 5.5 battalions. Assume a 1 in 3 rotation – i.e. a battalion spending four months of every year on border tasks, cutting deeply into proper training and readiness – that translates into 16.5 battalions.
  • Unfortunately, the Army actually only has 14 infantry battalions if one includes both the Parachute Battalion and the battalion focused on air assault operations, which should be excluded as they form a mobile reserve. That leaves us 8.5 infantry battalions short.
  • For now, the difference is made up with troops of other corps, which cuts into their corps-specific training, and by drawing on the 25 reserve battalions. But they are not anywhere near full strength, and that is only feasible because of high unemployment, which means people are available for duty. Unemployment will be with us for a long time yet, but there will come a challenge providing officers and NCOs, as they will find employment first, and will then not be able to simply go away for a month or two every year.

So, the problem is not too many infantrymen.

The real problem faced by the Army specifically and to an extent by the other services, is that too many in junior ranks are too old for their ranks and posts.

Some time ago figures were published that the average age of the infantry is 37. That is not just bad, it is disastrous: At 37 most people are no longer fit enough to be in the infantry. Perhaps more to the point of this article, at 37 many if not most are married with children, which makes them horribly expensive (housing, medical et al).  The average age of an infantry battalion should be around 23 to 25 at the most, with most of the junior ranks unmarried and living on base, and with the senior officers and NCOs averaging 32.

So, the problem is a bunch of expensive old soldiers. Simple, let’s get rid of them.

But how? We cannot just throw them onto the street. That would neither be moral nor practical – what are they to do once their gratuity is used up, and how are they to bring up and educate their children?

One approach would be to place the ‘old and bold’ in other government departments where their service experience can be relevant. The Prussian Army did that – after 20 years of service an NCO was guaranteed a civil service post, often in small towns where younger officials did not want to be but where an older retired soldier often preferred to live. But they will still be on the government payroll.

The quicker solution would be to find the money to top up whatever pension they have been able to accumulate to a level that will allow a decent life.

Neither will be cheap, and we will have to replace at least some of them with younger soldiers, which will reduce the saving that can be realised over the near- to medium-term.

Or we have to grit our teeth and simply wait. Once they have retired much of the problem will go away. But in the mean time we will sit with high personnel costs and over-age soldiers, and that does not seem like a good idea in a world entering a new phase of major power competition that will spread conflict in places such as Africa.

The bottom line is to find a decent way to ease the old soldiers out of the Defence Force and replace them with young soldiers on a contract system that gets them out of the military into a civilian career before they become old and expensive.