Feature: Protecting South Africa’s vital external interests


South Africa has external interests that are important or vital to the economy, some vulnerable to disruption and requiring protection commensurate with risk and threat levels that may arise in the future.

One such interest is the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, which is critical to meeting the water requirements of the industrial and economic heartland of South Africa, and which will in future provide 1 000 MW peak electrical power from a pumped storage plant.

The potential risk lies in instability or insurrection in Lesotho, but the technical risk is fairly low: The dams are massive structures beyond the ability of likely irregular forces to damage, and the water runs through tunnels difficult to damage, although it could be possible to block an intake to cause some disruption of the water supply. The pumped water scheme, though, offers potential for sabotage of the pumps, the generation plant and the power lines.

In Mozambique there are the Cahora Bassa hydro-electric power station (4% of South Africa’s requirements with the potential to provide more), the gas fields that are becoming important to South Africa, and Maputo port, which once handled 40% of Gauteng exports and is growing in importance as part of the Maputo Corridor with annual capacity of 13 million tons.

The potential risk lies in renewed insurgency, which could see these installations targeted, and the technical risk is more complex. The Cahora Bassa dam is an unlikely target, but blocking water to the turbines would disrupt power generation, while the converter and repeater stations and the 893 km transmission lines inside Mozambique are soft targets. The gas infrastructure includes 865 km of pipeline as a soft target, and the gas fields and processing plants as more difficult but more damaging targets. Maputo port and its rail link to South Africa present a similar target mix, including some 100 km of railway, plus the challenges of a sprawling target and of potential mining of the port or its approaches. That may seem unlikely, but is within the skills of an irregular force using improvised mines. Remember also the 1984 Libyan mining in the Red Sea.

Then there is the Mozambique Channel, through which flows half of South Africa’s imported oil (30% of energy requirements), as well as trade with East Africa, the Middle East and parts of West Asia.

Here the primary risk is piracy. While there have been no attacks since the SA Navy began its patrols, that is no guarantee of future security. The greatest danger would be if people on either coast were to conclude that piracy is a viable venture. The geography of those coastlines would make countering local piracy extremely difficult, similar to the difficulties in South-East Asia.

To the west, Botswana has been considering building power stations to supply South Africa, and there are the Namibian gas fields that are being looked to as a future energy source. Taking a longer view, there is also the Grand Inga hydro-electric scheme in the DRC, which is planned to provide 15 000 MW to South Africa.

Here the medium-term risk seems very low, with neither Botswana nor Namibia likely to face major instability, let alone insurgency. While that does not entirely rule out sabotage, it makes it unlikely. In the longer term, however, the power lines from Grand Inga could present a very difficult security challenge – assuming the security situation in the DRC allows it to be built.

The protection of these various installations is in the first instance the responsibility of the host countries, for whom these are major economic assets. But what if a situation arises that renders their efforts insufficient, for instance major rebellion or insurgency?

Could South Africa afford to simply hope that those governments find a way to protect the flow of water, electricity and gas? That might be an option in respect of the Cahora Bassa electricity supply, but less so in respect of Mozambique’s gas, and definitely not in the case of water from Lesotho. The rail link to the Maputo is also not something South Africa could afford to see broken for any extended period.

The risk of such disruption is low, but the potential for serious economic damage is sufficiently high to demand contingency planning by the Defence Force. That should focus on operations in conjunction with the armed forces and police services of the countries concerned, but there must also be plans for autonomous action if that should become necessary.

The first step must be to work with Lesotho and Mozambique to analyse potential risks and the relevant protection/reaction force requirements, jointly develop plans to deal with those risks, and then conduct exercises to verify and fine-tune those plans. Once this has been done, there will be a reasonably accurate picture of what forces are required. Of particular importance will be clear guidelines to govern when support or autonomous intervention would take place, and clear lines of communication and authority in each country and between them.

The actual force levels required will depend on the threat level, the nature of the threat and its likely duration as the strategic situation evolves.

The nature of the required forces is easier to predict: Infantry for protection tasks, helicopter-mobile infantry for reaction forces, marines and patrol craft for Maputo port, and UAVs to patrol power- and gas pipelines, the Maputo rail line and the Maputo port environs.

For a moderate threat situation, that would probably translate into a battalion for the Highlands Water Project, a brigade (APC-mounted infantry only) for the electricity and gas supplies from Mozambique, and a battalion with a Marine detachment and Navy patrol craft for Maputo port; Oryx helicopters for reaction forces, Rooivalk helicopters for top cover and reconnaissance, and spotter aircraft and UAVs for power-line, gas pipeline and port approaches surveillance.

These would be contingency forces, trained for the role, held at a level of readiness determined by the threat level, and provided with liaison officers from the local forces if deployed.

The Mozambique Channel, by contrast, will require standing patrols to discourage any piracy. Ideally there would be two ships on patrol with a tender to replenish them at sea, avoiding port calls that make patrols predictable. Assuming embarked helicopters, surveillance UAVs might suffice for support, although a mix of manned aircraft and UAVs would be better. Occasional deployment of a submarine to provide unnoticed surveillance would be valuable, as has been well demonstrated in the Caribbean by the Colombian and Netherlands navies. A forward base in Mozambique would make supporting the patrols more efficient.