Opinion: SA Defence Industry – 18 inches from greatness


British Politician Andrew Bennett stated that “The longest journey you will ever take is the 18 inches from your head to your heart.”

What we find is that many people spend their entire lives trying to make a genuine connection between what they profess to believe in their heads and what they actually believe in their hearts.

This could be seen as the difference between being involved or being committed. We all know the story of breakfast. The chicken is involved with the supply of eggs, but the pig is truly committed in delivering the bacon.

It is great to read in the defenceWeb article of 16 March 2021 that the members of the National Defence Industry Council (NDIC) would like to try and help the South African defence industry. The NDIC has been tasked with developing a Defence Industry Strategy and a plan for implementation to develop and transform the industry. A key takeaway from the article is that there is a defence industry master plan and that actions are being implemented to assist the sector.

Interestingly, a defenceWeb article of 27 January 2021 states that AMD is looking to reposition the Defence Industry amid uncertain times. The NDIC has a master plan, yet AMD is looking to plot a pivot in the defence industry. The Head has not yet convinced the Heart!

This raises an issue requiring serious thought. Are the people wanting to plot this pivot of an industry, or who have plotted a master plan, merely involved or truly committed? Alternatively, or more importantly, why is the master plan and pivot being driven by the head not yet translating to the heart.

During February I did a small survey of the current views of some of the defence industry business leaders. The focus of the study was on the current perception of unlocking opportunity. I approached small, medium and large businesses for inputs. The output of the study was interesting in that it provides a view of a resilient defence industry that still has the capability of wealth creation over the short to medium term future.

I also asked the business leaders two bonus questions. Firstly, have you read the Defence Industry Strategy, and secondly, would it be possible to for the SA defence industry to put forward a common strategy?

Most executives have read Defence Review 2015, but less than 25% of SADI executives I approached have read the South African Defence Industry Strategy. Worryingly, a large segment of the executives did not even know that such a document existed. Even more worrying is the view that the current Defence Industry Strategy document is only serving political interests. There is definitely no transition from head to heart in this process.

There are two fields of thought on a common strategy. The more commonly held view (60%) is that a common strategy is not possible. Some of the reasons are that the SA defence industry doesn’t stand together; there is no maturity in role-players; and it’s dog-eat-dog industry, with larger players trying to cater for their selves only. Nonetheless, there is reasonable segment (40%) that believes a common strategy would be possible. The views indicate that the defence industry needs to lead in the challenge to get a whole country approach with mutual support across the Aerospace, Maritime & Defence sectors. Export driven potential should drive common strategy as SA Inc.

The question then remains: can a set of heads be put together that can awaken the passion of the heart? The output of the short study may help.

There is a healthy set of entrepreneurial ventures in the SA Defence Industry. These businesses have a well-balanced opportunity-identification approach to deal with the challenge of successfully identifying commercially compelling opportunities. More importantly is the opportunity exploitation mindset for successfully implementing the identified commercially feasible opportunities. The entrepreneurial businesses have identified a definitive set of strategic objectives for the business that are guiding innovation execution, which in turn drives growth aspirations. So, strategy drives innovation, which provides growth.

The less positive element of the study was that it highlighted that a significant element of the medium to large business set are in a zone where wealth creation is at risk. The corporate approach is very prominent. The corporate approach is based on chasing growth from a wider, less rigid strategy, relying on low levels of innovation implementation. The business life cycle analysts categorise this type of entity as mature entities, or even businesses entering decline.

Who would you want to drive the actual pivot of the industry to a new vision? The entrepreneurial ventures have actually seen the future. Maybe they could lead a strategy document. The problem is that the NDIC captains of industry and major AMD funders are corporate entities. Would they release the reins?

I would like to close with the thoughts of Ewald Engelbrecht in a LinkedIn post about how he used a singular vision (the Head) and the principle of ownership (the Heart) in leading a team. “Focused leadership is about rallying your troops to a single goal; having a singular vision or purpose that you bring your whole team towards.”

“The longest journey you will ever take is the 18 inches from your head to your heart.”

Written by James Kerr, Orion Consulting CC, which provides Market Entry Strategy and Bid & Proposal services to the Aerospace & Defence related industry and assists international SME mission system product suppliers to gain traction in South Africa. Kerr has assisted various companies to enter, or expand footprint in, the defence industry with air, land and naval systems. He also served as a navigator, and completed an engineering degree, while in the South African Air Force for 13 years.