Feature: South Africa’s Strategic Options


South Africa faces a number of defence and security challenge and consequently needs to develop forces that provide a useful degree of security against internal and external threats. Defence analyst Helmoed Römer Heitman looks at how South Africa needs to decide its place and role in Africa and in relation to the international community, and the way it must then develop its foreign and defence policies and structure its armed forces.


Africa, and particularly Sub-Saharan Africa, is both under-developed and under-governed.

One result of this is a general inability to provide security against irregular forces and even criminal groups. The well-known issue of Somalia-based piracy is just one example: Other security challenges include piracy in West African waters; large-scale armed banditry in the Sahel; guerrilla and militia groups in the Sahel, West and Central Africa; the expansion of Islamist extremist groups in the Sahel and to its south; and the expansion of South American narcotics groups in West Africa and of Asian narcotics groups in East Africa.

A further result is that Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region of the world in which new major powers will be able to contest with each other without incurring serious economic, military or political risk. This will not be to the benefit of Africa, but cannot be prevented or even contained in the absence of credible African armed forces.

There is also a real interest in Africa by the major powers, and particularly the new major powers for its resources, as a source of votes in international bodies, as a collection of potential client states, and as a market for shoddy goods that cannot be sold anywhere else.

If Africa does not get its house in order it will be raped.

Some sterling efforts have been made to address the overall challenge, most notably the initiatives that became MAP and then NEPAD and, still to come to fruition, the concept of the African Standby Force.

But there is still too much dissonance within Africa, too ready a willingness to believe in fairy tales and long out of date propaganda, and too little willingness to think seriously about defence and security.

There is a real and urgent need for some introspection. As things stand, Africa presents a wonderful example of battered wife syndrome: First came the Arab slave raiders, then the European colonial powers, then the Super Powers during the Cold War, and now the new major powers, not least the Chinese. All offer blandishments, none are honest, and none mean well by Africa.

One partial exception may be Europe – because Africa is next door and Europe needs a stable and prosperous neighbour.

The others really do not care much; they are doing what they believe is in the best interests of their countries, and that will not often coincide with the best interests of Africa: The USA wants secure access to oil and to other resources, and to keep China and al Qaeda out; Brazil wants client states and markets; India wants client states, markets, access to oil and other resources and farming land; China wants client states, markets for goods it cannot sell elsewhere, access to resources, farming land and, if one is to believe some Chinese officials, a place for surplus Chinese peasants. The Middle East powers want farming land.

They will compete in Africa and over Africa’s resources, and they will use military force if they have to – albeit mainly in the form of proxy forces provided by client groups and client states in Africa. It is the same old power game that states play, only with some new actors.

While Africa cannot even ensure its own internal and inter-state security and stability, it presents an open invitation to others to use it as a playground.

One of the fundamental challenges, therefore, will be to develop the forces that can provide at least a useful degree of security – against criminal groups, against irregular forces, against terrorists, and against military adventures by African governments that might turn rogue, thereby removing some of the potential excuses for military or semi-military intervention by outside powers.

That is going to be difficult to do, given decades of neglect, poor choices and a general lack of funds coupled with other real and urgent demands on governments. The donor nations will not be of much help here; few are willing to even consider security or defence aid, because African states are ‘not democratic enough’.

The problem is that democracy is going to be difficult to develop and settle in the absence of both prosperity and security, and prosperity is going to be impossible to achieve without security.

Back, therefore, to the challenge of providing for our security and defence. Africa is going to have to largely do that for itself. That will require sacrifice, giving up politically attractive social programmes to free up the necessary funds.

Where NATO and the Warsaw Pact once relied on Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) to keep their peace, Africa needs to look to Mutual, Interdependent Defence and Security (MIDAS), which might in time actually see the future turn to gold.

Once Africa can really demonstrate a willingness and ability to work together in a focused way, at least at regional level, those major powers who mean well by us will prove willing to help. But first must come the ‘own bootstraps’ phase.

South Africa must, in its own self-interest, take an active part in all of this.

We have the largest economy in Africa; we have one of the top 30 economies in the world and are among the top 20 trading nations and the top 12 maritime trading nations, and we have the only industrialised economy in Africa. That all sounds wonderful, but it actually means that South Africa is heavily dependent on Sub-Saharan Africa stabilising and prospering; we need a stable environment in which to grow our own economy.

Also, we need to have a voice in international affairs, and that demands that we pay our dues as members of the international community. One element of ‘paying our dues’ is to help stabilise our own region.

It is against this background that South Africa must consider its strategic options for the future.
The Strategic Options

South Africa must decide its place and role in Africa and in relation to the international community, and must then develop its foreign and defence policies and structure its armed forces accordingly.

The current parlous situation of the Defence Force results largely from a gross mismatch among the Defence White Paper and Defence Review of 1996 and 1998, the force design developed from them and the actual force commitments entered into on the other. This has led to gross operational over-stretch of the Army, of the Navy’s surface forces, and of the Air Force’s transport capacity.

Added to that has been gross under-funding of the Defence Force generally, which has added to the damage, and also brought the loss of, or failure to develop, capabilities that will soon prove to be essential, airlift and sealift among them.

The lack of funding has also resulted in the decline of our defence industry to a level at which it is on the verge of fading away altogether. That presents the risk of becoming entirely dependent on the goodwill of major powers for equipment, systems integration and support, as well as the loss of the ability to develop equipment optimised for our needs and the Defence Force’s operational style.

And, of course, we must cease considering party-political affiliation, race or gender as determining factors in deciding senior appointments and promotions. To continue to do so is to insult all of the competent members of the Defence Force, and especially the majority of perfectly competent black members who do not need special favours to rise through the ranks and who resent being regarded as needing those favours.

South Africa must urgently decide what role it wants to play, and what the role of its Defence Force is to be; and then we must focus urgently on rebuilding the Defence Force to meet the challenges it will face over the coming decades.

There are essentially eight possible roles South Africa could choose to play, although only a few are practicable:
International Power

That is to say a power that plays a political and when necessary also a military role over much of the globe. This is not within the realm of the practicable. South Africa lacks the economic strength, the industrial base and the population.

Super-Regional Power

That is to say a power that plays a political and when necessary also a military role over the wider African, South Atlantic and Indian Ocean region. This is also not practicable, for the same reasons as above.

Continental Power

This might theoretically be possible, but not at our current economic strength, and not while the countries north of the Sahara are more focused on Europe than on Africa and regard Sub-Saharan Africa as an unwelcome appendage.
Regional Power

South Africa could aspire to being the regional power of Sub-Saharan Africa. It has the economic strength and the industrial base to achieve and sustain that status. But that would require massive investment in the Defence Force, in building allied forces, and in the diplomatic efforts to develop and maintain this status. It would also risk alienating the major sub-regional actors such as Nigeria, Ethiopia and Kenya.

Regional Power in Partnership

A more logical route for South Africa to follow would be to establish itself as a joint regional power with the key sub-regional actors. That would ensure that the key country of a sub-region would be the lead-nation, drawing on its better regional understanding and intelligence, with South Africa free to focus on providing those capabilities that others in the particular sub-region cannot, and on its role as sub-regional power in Southern Africa.
Sub-Regional Power

The role of sub-regional power, ie the major power in Southern Africa is practicable, affordable, and not avoidable if South Africa wants to have a real influence on its immediate environment and at least a degree of influence in the adjoining sub-regions.
Isolationist Power

The role of isolationist power would assume keeping out of regional affairs but taking autonomous measures when interests in Africa are threatened. That would require armed forces of considerable strength and would bring the challenge of other African powers seeing South Africa as a threat.
Isolationist State

The ‘ostrich model’ is, naturally, the cheapest in terms of investment in the armed forces and, for that matter, in foreign relations. It would also, however, mean foregoing any ability to influence events in our immediate region, and would also mean not being taken seriously in international organisations and forums.

Even Germany and Japan have found that they can no longer dodge their regional and international obligations as major economic powers, and the recent failure of Europe to deal effectively with Libya has underlined how important military capability is to overall national capacity to exert influence in important matters, and to national image in the eyes of other nations.
The Choice

Practical realities suggest South Africa should choose between being a regional power in partnership or a sub-regional power.

Given the extent to which the Defence Force has been allowed to run down, the former is probably not truly practicable in the near term or even fully attainable over the medium term.

South Africa should, therefore, focus for the time being on the demands of being a sub-regional power, while also developing links with the other sub-regional powers of the continent with an eye to co-operation and later co-ordination and collaboration as a regional power in partnership.

Becoming a sub-regional power will require rejuvenation of the Defence Force, some re-equipment and the development of additional capabilities, particularly in respect of force projection. It will also require a concerted effort to develop a coherent and complementary set of military capabilities in the region so that South Africa need not bear the entire burden.
The Military Implications

The military implications of being a sub-regional power lie mainly in the areas of foreign and defence policy and alliances, and in the need to develop and sustain adequate force projection capability.

That does not, of course, remove the need to develop and retain a basic self-defence capability and the ability to protect national borders and take on other tasks as assigned by government.

Deterrence and Defence

The basic functions of the Defence Force must remain those of deterring or defeating aggression and conducting operations to protect vital national interests.

South Africa can, clearly, not ‘deter’ aggression by any outside power with the strength to deploy a serious military force into the region, but it can develop a level of ‘deterrence’ that will discourage any such adventure by a major power and deter lesser aggressors.

The most cost-effective way to achieve that, will be to develop and maintain a ‘deterrent triad’ that comprises three core elements:
• A ‘Threshold Deterrent’ capability, in the form of mechanised conventional warfare forces and tactical air power at a strength that would demand the commitment of substantial forces for aggression to succeed, thereby making aggression politically and logistically costly.
• A ‘Denial of Entry’ capability, in the form of a submarine force and special forces elements of sufficient strength and capability to make the deployment of strong forces into the region by sea – the only practicable means for an outside power to do so – highly risky.
• A ‘Denial of Manoeuvre’ capability, in the form of fighter and attack helicopter forces and special forces elements of sufficient strength and capability to make it impossible for opposing forces to conduct the manoeuvre operations demanded by the low force densities and great distances of the sub-region, thereby making aggression unlikely to achieve its aim.

To some extent, this ‘deterrent triad’ can also be developed to provide a ‘deterrent umbrella’ for our immediate neighbours, although that would require expansion of the fighter and submarine forces.

Any intention to extend a ‘deterrent umbrella’ further afield will require commensurate expansion of general military capability, particularly airlift and sealift, beyond that required for crisis response and peace support missions.

It is worth making a point here: While there is no imminent threat of conventional attack or even of conventional war in the immediate region, major threats can emerge and major conflicts break out far more quickly than effective armed forces can be developed. Developing an effective defence force out of one that has been badly neglected over decades is a thirty year process. No one can guarantee thirty years of peace; especially in an era in which new major powers are competing for influence.

Protection of Vital Interests

The protection of vital national interests will require the development and maintenance of:
• Joint rapid response force elements to protect vital national assets outside South Africa’s own territory, such as the Highlands Water Scheme in Lesotho, the Cahora Bassa power station and power lines in Mozambique, and the natural gas fields of Mozambique and Namibia.
• Joint rapid deployment force elements that can be deployed to aid a friendly government that is faced with a sudden security threat and requests assistance.
• Maritime forces – mainly frigates, patrol vessels and patrol aircraft – able to protect shipping through the Mozambique Channel and along the west coast of Africa. It may in the future also become necessary to protect tankers en route from the Persian Gulf to African waters.

National Security

The Defence Force must also be able to perform other functions assigned to it by government, with some of those functions being:
• Border Protection, which will require substantial infantry forces with air support and the naval and maritime air patrol assets to monitor and protect our coastline and EEZ.
• National Key Point Protection, which will require specialised units including reaction units.
• Cyber Defence, which will require an expansion of the Defence Forces secure communications organisation to take on this additional task for government.
• Police Support Operations, which can be handled as a collateral function, employing existing force elements as required.
• Domestic Emergency and Disaster Relief, which can also be handled as a collateral function.
Support to Foreign Policy

The Defence Force must also be able to support South Africa’s foreign policy. This will include:
• The deployment of force elements for international and regional peace support, stabilisation and constabulary operations.
• The deployment of force elements to conduct autonomous operations when it is in South Africa’s interest to do so.
• Support for defence alliances, for instance by assisting other countries with training in time of peace and being able to deploy to their assistance in time of crisis.
• Development of defence industrial alliances, to advance inter-operability among the regional armed forces.

Some such operations may require conventional forces, as is amply demonstrated by the African Union operations in Somalia, and by the availability of armoured vehicles, artillery and even tanks to some other irregular forces.
Force Design Priorities

The first priority must be to maintain key existing defence capabilities, the second to address the challenge of operational over-stretch, after which thought can be given to capability optimisation and then longer-term force design, development and maintenance.

The overall longer-term aim should be to develop a continuous force optimisation/capability maintenance cycle, which should use either continuous low-rate re-equipment or half-generation replacement of equipment to avoid the military and financial challenges of block obsolescence.
Capability Maintenance

The most urgent matters to be addressed are:
• Funding adequate training at individual soldier, unit and combat group level, followed by the training of at least one brigade to full operational standard. The Army is not currently capable of deploying a brigade in the face of any serious opposition, and all reports suggest that all training is badly under-funded, from the marksmanship training of the individual, to the proper field training of units. Also, all services are critically short of technical personnel.
• Retention of the fighter force: If funding is not found immediately to increase flying hours at 2 Squadron and 85 Combat Flying School to at least 140 hours per pilot per year, with a realistic prospect of reaching at least 180 hours over the near term, the fighter force will become ineffective because the pilots will lack the necessary skills and experience. Many of the pilots will also leave the Air Force. The fighter force will then close itself down, and it will take 20-30 years to recreate that capability.
• Rejuvenation of the Mechanised Infantry force: The Ratel is no longer effective as an infantry combat vehicle, both in terms of its design and in terms of the age of the vehicles. Failure to do replace it now will place the mechanised infantry at risk should they be deployed for peace enforcement or similar operations in which they may well encounter more effective vehicles. It will also leave the Army facing a much costlier project, probably very much later.

They must be addressed now, because there is not much time for an effective intervention before the situation results in long-term damage.

Both the fighter force and the mechanised infantry will be key elements of any realistic force design for the Defence Force of the medium and long-term future:
• Fighters are essential:
o For the control of our airspace.
o To ensure our ground forces freedom to manoeuvre in a theatre of low force densities, great distances and few roads.
o To deny opposing forces the use of air space and the freedom to manoeuvre.
• The mechanised infantry is the single most generally useable force component of the Army, as well suited to conventional warfare operations as to ‘operations other than war’, such as the various forms of peace support operations. Its infantry combat vehicles can perform all of the functions of an armoured personnel carrier and many of the functions of an armoured car or combat reconnaissance vehicle. The ICV is the most all-round useful vehicle in an army.

Taking immediate steps to ensure the survival of these two force components will not, therefore, in any way compromise the freedom to develop a new force design.

Addressing Overstretch

The next most urgent requirement is to address the problem of operational over-stretch, which has badly damaged the Army in particular.

The Defence Force needs the personnel strength, the structure and the equipment to be able to stay the course in current peace support commitments (Darfur, DRC), diplomatic commitments (Central African Republic), constabulary operations (Mozambique Channel) and border protection (border and national waters, including the EEZ), as well as potential additional commitments (for instance the mooted deployment of forces to South Sudan). If the President is to be taken at his word, the Defence Force must also prepare for additional commitments, for instance a deployment to Mali.

The Army needs to be given the funding and the authority to take the necessary steps to match its force structure to current and likely deployment requirements, by:
• Forming new units or ‘2nd Battalions’ of existing units, to allow a safe rotation cycle that will provide the forces for deployment without damaging the training programme or undermining the family life and morale of personnel.
• Expanding its personnel strength to fully staff all units required for such operations, to ensure that cohesive units can in future be deployed as such, instead of units that are cobbled together from elements of many different units.
• Adapting its personnel system, including adoption of an optimised short-service system, to allow an effective and efficient cycle of training and operational deployment.
o A carefully worked out and implemented unit staffing and training system could, for instance, allow external deployments on a 1 in 4 cycle rather than the typical 1 in 6, while moving experienced personnel from units employed for external missions to border protection could allow that task to be handled on a 1 in 3 cycle; conceivably even a 1 in 2 cycle if units in training relieve border protection units as part of their operational training.
• Acquiring:
o Light protected patrol vehicles and sensor equipment for the border protection role, which can be developed locally in very little time and at low cost.
o Light armoured vehicles for its rapid-deployment force, with sufficient vehicles for at least the sea-landed battalion groups, allowing them to serve in the follow-on force role, filling the deployment gap between the early entry force that is the first on the ground in a crisis, and the forces intended for stabilisation. Such vehicles can be developed in South Africa in very little time and at affordable cost, drawing on existing technologies.
o Mine-resistant/ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles, to allow operations in theatres in which roadside bombs and similar threats are likely, this threat having arrived in Africa, as demonstrated in Somalia and Uganda. Such vehicles are readily available in South Africa.
o Deployable artillery, able to deliver suppressive fire against weapons commonly used by irregular forces to shell towns, airports and bases, such as the 20 km range 122 mm artillery rockets. A suitable 30 km range 105 mm gun and ammunition are already in development in South Africa.

Thought must also be given to near-term measures to enable the Army to be effective in a situation such as would arise, for instance, in a conflict prevention deployment interspersed between the forces of North and South Sudan, both of which have large numbers of tanks. This will require, among other measures, bringing more Rooikat armoured cars and G-6 guns out of storage and training up the requisite personnel.

The Air Force needs to be given the funding to:
• Acquire maritime patrol and surveillance aircraft, and additional shipboard helicopters, to enable it to effectively complement naval anti-piracy and sea land control operations.
• Rejuvenate its light and medium transport capability, especially with an eye to supporting the Special Forces.
• Acquire precision weapons for the Rooivalk, to enable it to engage heavy targets (such as tanks in the east of the DRC) and lighter targets (such as ‘technicals’) that need to be engaged precisely to avoid casualties among civilians and damage to surrounding buildings. With the Mokopa missile fully qualified, this would not be an extraordinarily expensive matter.
• Acquire precision air-to-ground weapons for the Gripen and Hawk, as well as additional air-to-air weapons.
• Acquire long-range/heavy-lift airlift capability, to enable it to deploy a reinforced parachute battalion group with supporting light armour to anywhere south of the Equator within 48 hours, and to deploy forces further afield with no, or no more than one, refuelling stop. The starting point here could be sufficient airlift to deploy a reinforced company group within that timeframe, with follow-on forces deployed within 96 hours.
• Acquire a sustained reconnaissance/surveillance capability.
• Operate its systems at effective utilisation rates.

The Navy needs to be given the funding to:
• Acquire sufficient offshore patrol vessels of adequate size to be able to conduct effective patrols of South Africa’s EEZ, assist other SADC countries and complement the frigate in the anti-piracy role.
• Acquire two additional frigates or large ocean patrol vessels of similar general capability, to enable it to maintain an effective presence in the Mozambique Channel for extended periods.
• Acquire a second support ship, to make sustained regional patrol operations practicable.
• Acquire landing platforms, to enable it to deploy a light mechanised battalion group or similar force and supporting helicopters in a single lift, and to support that force until logistic support can be established.
• Operate its systems at effective utilisation rates.

These steps must be accompanied by the acquisition of the necessary command, control and communications systems, and by the rejuvenation of the logistic and technical support system.
Capability Optimisation, Force Design and Force Development

Once the Defence Force has been able to initiate projects and programmes to enable it to meet the demands of current and pending commitments, it can look to long-term capability optimisation as a first step, followed by developing a forward-looking force design and then initiating a suitable force development programme. These interlinked processes should address:
• The full development of a joint crisis response/rapid deployment capability.
• The creation and equipping of force elements to allow sustained simultaneous deployment of up to one brigade group and two battalion groups, which is the level currently envisaged by elements of government, while still maintaining a reserve for crisis response operations and short term deployments.
• The development of expanded and enhanced constabulary capability for border protection, anti-piracy and similar operations.
• Modernising the conventional forces that form the core ‘threshold deterrent’.

This overall process will be a thirty-year or longer undertaking, and the details will change as the strategic situation develops, national policies are adapted and new technologies mature. But it must be initiated now if South Africa is to keep ahead of challenges instead of, as several times before in its history, having to scramble to catch up with reality.


In closing, it is worth stressing that South Africa can afford a Defence Force with the capabilities that its regional responsibilities and interests require.

What is needed is a coherent long-term view and the courage to make the necessary investments. The result will not only be improved national and regional security, but also expanded employment within the Defence Force and within the defence industry, and the spread of technologies and skilled workers throughout the wider industry and economy.

Given that long-term view and courage, the Defence Force that South Africa needs can be built on a defence budget of around 2% of the GDP, assuming that no sudden emergency requires the process to be accelerated.

The longer South Africa dithers in a fairy world delusion of ‘peace in our time’, the more sudden will be the shock, the less will be the time available to play catch-up, and the higher the cost – in cash and perhaps also in lives lost unnecessarily. That basic lesson has been taught over and over again by history, and there is no excuse for not heeding it.