Feature: Some thoughts on arms acquisition


There is something of a “Catch 22i” in arms acquisition. During times of peace it is argued that there are higher priorities than military preparedness, while on the outbreak of hostilities equipment may be unavailable because industry is not ready to manufacture, because of embargo or because the supplier state has need of the equipment itself.

South Africa has experience of each of these situations. In a Military Academy research paper titled The Union Defence Force between the two World Wars, 1919-1939, Lt Col Dr Ian van der Waag quotes the then-defence minister, Oswald Pirow, as saying in September 1938: “In spite of all its potential wealth, South Africa has much poverty and there is a definite upper limit to what the country is prepared to spend on defence.” He was tabulating factors that made South African participation in an international war unique. Other factors included that no section of the population was prepared to support a defence policy which aimed “exclusively at making soldiers out of the youth of the country”; the certainty that the Union or its nearest neighbours could never become the main theatre of a major war; and that due to its geographical position, South Africa’s maximum effort will not have to be made until six months after the outbreak of hostilities. “This allowed a period for intensive preparation”. Pirow also noted the country’s manpower resources when compared with those of even second-class powers were very limited, that its geographical position was such that large-scale gas or air attack on the civil population need not be seriously considered and the certainty that, “with hardly any conceivable exception, our troops would be called upon to fight a mobile war.”

The development and production of modern arms take ever longer. Author Clive Wilsworth in his excellent “First in, First Out, The South African Artillery in Action 1975-1988ii notes the GV5 and self-propelled (SP) GV6 was developed from a need identified in 1968 and formalised in 1973 “when the gunners set the requirements to modernise their equipment in line with the Army’s upgrading programme”. Work began in 1974 under the rubric Project Boas. When Apartheid South Africa suddenly saw a need in late 1975 to intervene in Angola, neither system was ready and the South African Artillery had to rely on the 88mm towed quick-firing gun and the breech-loading towed 140mm howitzer. Both were outranged by the Soviet artillery available to the Cuban and Angolan MPLA forces, notably the BM21 multiple rocket launcher. Ironically, South Africa’s own MLRS programme, Project Furrow, had also started in 1974. As with the tube artillery, this system was also nowhere near ready when hostilities commenced. Wilsworth wrote that the G5 was conceived in July 1976. The first three were delivered to the Artillery on May 21, 1982. The first battery was commissioned in October 1985 and deployed the next July-August during Operation Alpha Centauri. The G6 followed under Projects Buzzard and Zenula. Three pre-production models saw action as “Juliet Troop” during Operation Modular, in November 1987. Regarding the FV1 Visarend MLRS and the Valkiri rocket, Wilsworth added it is still a common misperception that the quest for rocket artillery only started after Operation Savannah, the 1975 intervention. “The massive firepower of the [MLRS] was already appreciated before the first contact in Angola.” The system entered service in 1979 with the first instructors’ course held at Kentron South (later Denel Somchem and now part of RDM) in May 1979. The first use of the Valkiri in combat was in August 1981 during Operation Protea. All of these were “operationally urgent” requirements during a war situation when funding was less of an issue than otherwise.

Around the same time the South African Navy (SAN) would suffer major disappointment when on November 4, 1977 a United Nations Security Council armaments embargo came into effect against South Africa. The country had two years before ordered two D’Estienne d’Orves/Aviso A69-class corvettes and two Agosta-class submarines from France. Originally ordered for the French Navy, the corvettes were re-named the SAS Good Hope and SAS Transvaal while buildingiii. The South African ensign was hoisted on the Good Hope on September 17, 1977. The Agosta submarines were named SAS Astrant (Afrikaans, “cheeky”, “bold” or “impudent”) and SAS Adventurous. Both projects were progressing well when the embargo came into force and as a member of the UNSC France had no choice but to cancel both projects at the end of that month. The SAS Good Hope had its further sea trials suspended and was prohibited from leaving harbour. On November 7 the ship was moved upriver of the Scorff draw bridge in Lorient harbour – likely to prevent the crew from sailing the ship without authorisation – as the Israelis had done with their missile craft in the 1960s. The next day she and the Transvaal were embargoed when it was formally announced they would not be delivered. South African equipment and stores were removed from both – and the Agostas – and the project team and naval personnel in France were returned home by Christmas.iv The submarines and ships were later respectively sold to Pakistan and Argentina – although Nigeria also showed interest in the ships. The SAS Astrant became S135 Hashmat, SAS Adventurous became S136 Hurmat, the SAS Good Hope became the ARA Drummond (P31) and the Transvaal the ARA Guerrico (P32).

The saga of the monitor HMS Erebus illustrates the last conundrum: when the supplier state has need of the equipment itself. In 1934, the Ministry of Defence took the decision to install 13-inch (325mm) coast defence guns on Robben Island to protect the approaches to Cape Town harbour. Under the same scheme, Durban would be fitted with nine-inch (225mm) ordnance. South Africa then approached the British Admiralty to provide the guns. Protracted negotiations followed, leading to a compromise in December 1938 in terms of which the British would loan South Africa the monitor, HMS Erebus, until the guns could be delivered and installed. With the South African Naval Service moribund, the Union Government (then headed by Prime Minister General JBM Hertzog) decided to designate the monitor a self contained artillery battery to be manned by the SA Army. She would be known as the Erebus Heavy Battery, Coastal Artillery Brigade. (A “monitor” is essentially a small hull fitted with battleship armament. The Erebus had been was built in 1916 under an emergency WW1 building programme, along with a sister, the Terror. Both served during that conflict and were used as training ships afterwards as a result of their limited utility. The Erebus was fitted with a single turret bearing two 15-inch 42-calibre weapons, the same as fitted to battleships such as the HMS Warspite. Her ship’s company was 13 officers and 191 men on a hull displacing 8450mt.) A detachment was sent to Britain to master the ships’ guns and were to have sailed home with her in mid-August 1939. However, some repair work could not be completed in time and with war imminent – and South Africa’s position uncertain – the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, indefinitely postponed the departure. When Britain declared war, some of the South Africans did indeed refuse duty and demanded repatriation. South Africa declared war on September 6 after a Cabinet revolt during which Deputy Prime Minister Jan Smuts ousted Hertzog. Churchill now wished to retain the Erebus and South Africa received some 9-inch guns for Robben Island in her steadv.

Thus one often has to make do with what is in the stores, or go without…

Of course, technology is not a panacea. Writing about the South African War (1899-1902), Douglas Porch noted that “technology and organisation were only adjuncts to, not substitutes for, inventive operational solutions”. Their firepower, which normally gave them ‘an important, but by no means decisive, advantage’ in colonial warfare was somewhat counter-weighted by the artillery of the two republicsvi.”

Paddy Griffith writes that beyond “the doctrines of offensive and the defensive, success in battle depends on the technical balance between the two sides in that battlevii. Wars tend to bog down when conditions are such that an initially favourable attack is unable to finish off the enemy with a single blow. Often this is a matter of general strategy: for example, when too weak a force is deployed to attack too large an enemy. In other cases, however, the failure to win a decisive result will have more to do with the technical tactical balance than with the numerical or strategic one. In both WWI and the more recent Iran-Iraq War [1980-1988] the fighting bogged down because the tactical attacker was unable to sustain his momentum and mobility through the whole depth of the enemy’s defences. His forces were too vulnerable when they moved, so they had to dig in and stay put. The tactical balance between two sides is decided by the relationship of four characteristics: fire-power, mobility, protection and the quality of the troops troops each side has deployed.”

Griffith continues that choosing the right new technology (NT) and tactics is never easy “and this is borne out by the 30 years before 1914. The problem was not that the general were stupid or lacked insight, but simply that they were faced with too many new weapons and potential technical innovations for sensible judgments to be made. In fact, the allegedly ‘unimaginative’ cavalry general Douglas Haig [by 1918 the commander of the British Expeditionary Force] was actually a pioneer in military aviation and motor transport before the war, and would later be sympathetic to the claims of the tank corps.”

NT often suffers from “gold plating”, where the designer or the project officer “wants to incorporate several new and desirable features into the new weapon. The result is that the complexity, difficulty and expense of designing the final version become so overwhelming that the basic original requirement is almost lost from view. And then during the work-up phase there will be teething troubles not just with one new technology but with several, and all at once. In many cases, such as the American attempt to produce an armoured divisional air defence system (DIVADS)viii [between 1977 and 1985] … finding solutions to the technical problems involved become so expensive that the whole project has to be cancelled.”

Some technological solutions have an impact on organisational structure. Automation has reduced the size of vehicle and gun crews, saving labour in the primary function perhaps, but leaving the same crews short-handed when it comes to mounting guard, maintaining their equipment and changing tyres or fixing tracks. The infantry section still roughly musters ten, although up to three of these are now vehicle crew in the mechanised forces, reducing the dismount section to just seven. Furthermore, the strictures of the assigned vehicle means ten is generally a definitive upper number: it is generally the maximum number that can be carried by most infantry combat vehicles (ICV) or armoured personnel carrier (APC). These vehicles are cramped at the best of times, and when loaded for combat – with full stores of equipment, victuals and ammunition, can be completely jammed in.

The small starting size of the dismounted component of such a section should raise serious concern about the efficacy of this critical battlefield element, especially its ability to absorb casualties and stay in the fight. It bears recall it is these infantrymen who do the fighting in any army in every war. Every higher structure merely adds a leadership, administrative and support layers. Thus at company level one has nine sections and two layers, at the battalion 27 sections and three layers.

Seven section dismounts multiplies to 21 platoon dismounts, 63 company dismounts and just 189 battalion riflemen. For the 1944 infantry section it was 30 platoon dismounts, 90 company dismounts and 270 battalion riflemen. The represents a massive drop in “bayonets”, which is not offset by the notional firepower of the assigned APC or ICV. The APC, in theory, should carry the infantry to the edge of the battle area, where they debus and fight forward on foot. The APCs then retire to a laager and perhaps provide covering fire. How long they will survive to do this is debatable, considering the light armour of standard APC (proof against ball rounds from assault rifles and machine guns). ICV, doctrinally, carry infantry onto the objective (meaning into the enemy position). But the standard ICV is a thin-skinned APC fitted with a cannon, rather than a machine gun, and perhaps precision-guided missiles. Writing about the first-of-breed, the BMP-1 (Boyevaya Mashina Pekhoty, meaning “fighting vehicle of infantry”), Griffith noted it “seemed to represent a formidable mixture of firepower, armour and mobility for the infantry, to give it plenty of punch even against armour; in practice, as the 1973 Yom Kippur (October) War showed, the BMP was alarmingly vulnerable…”

A mounted attack into the “Smokeshell” complex during Operation Sceptic in June 1983 illustrated this to a South African audience when a Ratel ICV platoon fell foul of Soviet 14.5 and 23mm anti-aircraft guns used in the ground role. Three of its four vehicles, still carrying dismounts, were hit and two were “knocked out”; the driver and a soldier being killed in the “21A” vehicle and the commander and six troops in the “21C” vehicleix. The incident was one of the heaviest single cases of loss during the 1966-1989 Border War and graphically illustrated how vulnerable dismounts are when mounted in light APCs or ICVs – truly hostages to fortune.

The solution has been to up-armour the APC and ICV or even to convert tanks to this role. This happened as long ago as WWI, in the shape of the Mark IX tank. The next conversion was during the Normandy campaign of WWII, where surplus M7 Priest self-propelled guns (based on the M3 Lee/Grant) were stripped of their guns and sent into service carrying twelve troops. This and subsequent conversions became known as Kangaroos and were used as APCs throughout the remainder of the northwest Europe campaign. In the modern era, Israeli concern and experience with light APC has led to the revival of tank conversions. Several, such as the Israeli Achzarit, the Serbian VIU-55 Munja and the Russian BTR-T (Bronetransporter-Tyazhelyy, “Armoured Transporter–Heavy”), are based on the venerable T55. The BMPT, a slightly different concept (Boyevaya Mashina Podderzhki Tankov, “Tank Support Fighting Vehicle”), is based on the T72.

Griffith, writing in 1991, supposed these heavy APC and ICV would come to resemble the Israeli Merkava (chariot) main battle tank (MBT). He was right. The latest conversion is the Namer (both a contraction of Nagmash [APC] Merkava” and Hebrew for “leopard”), based on Merkava Mark IV. The Namer is armed with either M2 Browning machine gun or Mk 19 grenade launcher mounted on a Samson Remote Controlled Weapon Station, another 7.62x51mm FN MAG machine gun, 60mm mortar and smoke grenades. Like Merkava Mark IV it is optimized for high level of crew survival on the battlefield. Namer may carry up to 12 crewmen and infantrymen and a stretcher, or two stretchers and medical equipmentx. Arguably the most survivable MBT in the world, the Merkava is not invulnerable, as was demonstrated in the 2006 Lebanon War. Israel may have over-relied on the tank in order to reduce casualties and suffered accordingly. The wikipedia records Hezbollah missiles penetrated the armour of five Merkava Mark IV tanks, killing 10 crew. Weapons used included the Russian RPG-29 ‘Vampir’, AT-5 ‘Konkurs’, AT-13 ‘Metis-M’, and laser-guided AT-14 ‘Kornet’ missiles. Another Merkava IV tank crewman was killed when a tank ran over an improvised explosive device (IED). “This tank had additional V-shaped underside armour, limiting casualties to just one of the seven personnel (four crewmen and three infantrymen) onboard. In total, 50 Merkava tanks (predominantly Merkava IIs and IIIs) were damaged, eight of which remained serviceable on the battlefield. Two Merkava Mark IVs were damaged beyond repair, one by powerful IEDs, and another, it is believed, by Russian AT-14 ‘Kornet’ missilesxi. All but two Merkava Mark IV tanks damaged during the war were [eventually] repaired and returned to the IDF. The Israeli military said that it was satisfied with the Merkava Mark IV’s performance, and attributed problems to insufficient training before the war”.xii

The BBC reported in August 2006 “all of these enhancements have not proved sufficiently effective against the most modern anti-tank systems operated by determined fighters on the ground. Part of the answer may be to adopt new kinds of armour. But, as ever, part of the answer will be tactical – changes to the way tanks are employed and the way they operate in concert with other elements of ground-power, like infantry and artillery.xiii” Maybe, but the critic may wonder if this is not a repeat of the quest for a role for horsed cavalry on the 20th Century battlefield.

This, of course, does not address issues surrounding the small size of the dismount section, that will likely divide into two teams of perhaps three and four infantrymen each. When either of these comes under fire and takes casualties, the number of dismounts available for combat falls rapidly, especially when buddies fall out of the line to aid wounded comrades. Just one casualty in either team could reduce it to nothingness and evaporate the combat power of the section. Technology has changed the infantry, as much as any other branch, and a “task which would once have required a platoon of 30-40 men may now be carried out by a … section of eight to 12 men, each divided into two or three ‘fireteams’ that will similarly be capable of doing the job that previously needed the whole squad.xiv” This may be true, but there is a definitive bottom limit, and in the case of the diminutive mounted section, the line may have already been crossed.

Another irony of military organisation is that as the section atrophies the support elements have blossomed. The greater the technological prowess of the armed forces, the larger its support units and the lower its tooth-to-tail (or combat-to-support) ratio. The reverse is equally true. US author and wargame pioneer James F Dunnigan notes that a typical Western-style division is just “one third combat troops, the rest [is] combat support. Depending on the type of division and nationality, infantry comprises 8-30% of division strength, tank crews 1-10%, and artillery (including anti-aircraft and antitank weapons) 6-12%. … Since combat divisions account for 20-50% of army manpower, combat troops comprise only 10-25% of all personnel. In all armies, combat support troops are very much the majority.”xv

Since the working conditions of a military clerk or storeman resemble that of their civilian peers, it has been suggested that for the majority of military personnel, their employment is “just another job”. In their The Military : More Than Just a Job?, Charles Moskos and FR Wood noted that there has been a “creeping occupationalism” in the military, with more and more people seeing it as just another way of earning a living rather than as a “profession of arms”.xvi This is a major debate in itself that falls outside the scope of this paper. The question is what remedy there is for this phenomenon – at least within the context of this writing. One that suggests itself is the US Marine Corps approach of “every marine a rifleman”, an approach that has given that branch of the America armed forces great cohesion, moral strength and morale. On Wake Island, during the early days of the early days of the Pacific War (December 7-23, 1941), pilots continued the fight as ground officers, leading supply clerks and cooks in a final defensive effort after all the Marine aircraft were shot downxvii. In Vietnam, it led to a close cameraderie between the Marines on the ground and aircrew, with the latter taking great risk to provide close air support to the latter.
“There is both a practical and moral dimension to the credo ‘every Marine a rifleman’,” the writers of USMC Manual MCWP 6-11 Leading Marines aver.xviii “The force structure of the Corps reflects its central purpose: an expeditionary force in readiness. And because it is expeditionary, it is also austere. Austerity places a premium on the role of every Marine. There are no ‘rear area’ Marines, and no one is very far from the fighting during expeditionary operations. The success of each of these operations depends on the speed and flexibility with which Marines build combat power. Marines fighting with manoeuvre elements are backed up by fellow Marines who labour unceasingly to support the mission by building logistic bases, running truck convoys, distributing supplies, and fighting when needed to.
“There is almost nothing more precious to a Marine than a fellow Marine. This traditional bond flows from the combat training which all Marines receive, officer and enlisted, and the shared danger and adversity inherent in expeditionary operations. … This cohesion between Marines is not a function of a particular unit within the Corps. It is a function of the Corps itself. When a Marine reports to a unit, he or she may be unknown personally, but is a known quantity professionally.”


i Wikipedia, Catch 22, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catch-22_%28logic%29 , accessed February 6, 2011.

ii Clive Wilsworth, First in, First Out, The South African Artillery in Action 1975-1988, 30 Degrees South Publishers, Johannesburg, 2010.

iii Commander Thean Potgieter, The Secret South African Project Team: Building Strike Craft In Israel, 1975-79, Scientia Militaria, http://academic.sun.ac.za/mil/scientia_militaria/Internet%20Vol%2032(2)/05%20Potgieter.pdf, accessed January 22, 2006.

iv AVA Systems, Profile of the SA Navy, Surface ships, A69-class.

v AVA Systems, Profile of the SA Navy, Surface ships, Erebus.

vi Douglas Porch, Imperial Wars: From the Seven Years War to the First World War, in Townshend (ed), The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern War, Oxford Univrsity Press, Oxford, 1997, pp84-85, 90; available online at http://books.google.co.za/books?id=x5ABVyHeIrYC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Oxford+Illustrated+History+of+Modern+War&source=bl&ots=3sSP4AYugT&sig=tf_JIhD_TaeYRtwwnJb4XoDpwO0&hl=en&ei=PmpPTZecJ8KCOtmDuA0&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CCMQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q&f=false; quoted in Ian van der Waag, South Africa and the Boer Military System, in Peter Dennis and Jeffrey Grey, eds. The Boer War; Army, Nation and Empire, Canberra, 2000; online at http://www1.army.gov.au/AHU/docs/The_Boer_War_vanderWaag.pdf, accessed February 10, 2011.

viiPaddy Griffith, The Ultimate Weaponry, Blitz Editions, London, 1991.

viii The M247 Sergeant York. For more, see the wikipedia, M247 Sergeant York, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M247_Sergeant_York, accessed February 12, 2011.

ix Willem Steenkamp, Borderstrike! South Africa into Angola, Butterworths Publishers, Durban, 1983, pp192-202.

x Wikipedia, Merkava, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merkava#Merkava_IFV_Namer, accessed February 12, 2011.

xi Author Colonel David Eshel (Ret) ascribes this to an IED as well. Colonel David Eshel (Ret), Assessing the performance of Merkava tanks, Defence Update, undated, 2007, http://www.defense-update.com/analysis/lebanon_war_3.htm, accessed February 12, 2011.

xii Wikipedia, Merkava, , http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merkava#Merkava_IFV_Namer, accessed February 12, 2011.

xiii BBC, Tough lessons for Israeli armour, August 15, 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4794829.stm, accessed February 12, 2011.

xiv Paddy Griffith, The Ultimate Weaponry, Blitz Editions, London, 1991, p151.

xv James F Dunnigan, How to Make War, 4th Edition – A Comprehensive Guide to Modern Warfare for the 21st Century, William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, 2003, p124.

xvi CC Moskos & FR Wood, The Military : More Than Just a Job?, Pergamon-Brassey’s International Defense Publishers, Washington DC, 1988. See also Charles Moskos, From institution to occupation: trends in military organization, Armed Forces and Society, 4(1), 1977, p41-50.

xvii Lieutenant Colonel R.D. Heinl, Jr., USMC (1947). Marines in WWII Historical Monograph: The Defense of Wake. Historical Section, Division of Public Information, Headquarters, USMC. http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USMC/USMC-M-Wake.html.

xviiiUSMC, Leading Marines, Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, Department of the Navy, Washington, D.C, January 1995, http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/usmc/mcwp611.pdf, accessed March 6, 2011.