Opinion: SANDF Combat Readiness – Some grave concerns

I am driven to capture these thoughts from a sense of deep moral duty and concern for fellow soldiers. Anyone who has studied military history, and the underlying factors for success of good military leaders, will know that the military leader’s love, care and concern for his subordinates is both a duty and a pre-requisite.
I have been involved in the SA Army for 27 years, starting out as a conscript and developing a love for soldiering, and fellow soldiers, along the way. I was subjected to the often brutally tough training that was the norm at the SAI (SA Infantry) units during the eighties. I questioned at the time the necessity and efficiency of those methods, but they were proven to be fairly effective when tested in combat on the Namibian and Angolan battlefields.
One aspect of the training that stands out on reflection is that what we were taught during training was often based solely on doctrine, “from the book”, and that on arrival at the Oshivello camp in Namibia, it was normal to be told that the training was wrong and that we needed to learn different methods based on lessons learnt from people who had been part of operations and found out the hard way what worked and what didn’t. In this way, the practicalities of lessons learnt were shared with inexperienced soldiers being exposed to operational realities for the first time. These lessons were shared both with ordinary riflemen at Oshivello and with Junior leaders via the operational exposure they got during their training at the Infantry School in Oudtshoorn.
At the very least, the combat readiness of all the soldiers was tested vigorously and deficiencies corrected before they were allowed to deploy further in the operational area.
It is generally undisputed that “green” soldiers are more likely to make mistakes, often deadly ones, and that poorly trained soldiers are more likely to suffer bad morale and combat effectiveness. What is even more significant is the quality – or lack thereof – and training of the junior leaders in direct command of those soldiers, with experienced and well trained junior leaders mitigating significantly for deficiencies in their troops.
I have been involved in the last two decades in training of new troops and the continuation training of supposedly experienced troops. It is clear that without the spur of operational demands, there is no desire or motivation to test the preparedness of troops for actual combat as it would be otherwise. It is my contention that the current state of preparedness of the general soldier in the SANDF and, more specifically, the junior leaders, is appallingly inadequate.
I base this contention on a number of factors including direct observation as well as anecdotal evidence, given the lack of any formal feedback from operational experiences within the SANDF.[1]
Exercise Mogadishu
My first example of observation is a training exercise held recently where various units held combined training for the purpose of testing and exercising their battle skills. Most of these units had only weeks before the exercise undergone “Combat Readiness Evaluations” monitored and “marked” by the regular force people responsible for this function, and a number of them had received excellent ratings and been assured that they met or exceeded the requirements laid down for this.
My argument is that the testing is flawed in approach as it is based on a “tick the box” evaluation which, in my opinion, tests the ability of the soldiers involved to carry out the “book” based drills that they have learnt by rote on canned exercises in fixed, familiar terrain and for which they have specifically rehearsed.
The exercise which I planned and carried out was different. Making the assumption that the soldiers, and specifically the junior leaders, were in fact correctly trained and prepared according to the minimum requirements for an infantry officer or NCO, I presented them with a simulated scenario. In this case, I acted as a “company commander” giving the platoon commanders orders according to the detailed scenario that I had developed.
These orders were enhanced by an intelligence brief and supported by maps and even print-outs from Google Earth. This is where I received my first indications that all was not as it should be, with the ability of these platoon commanders to understand and record these orders clearly lacking. When I discovered this, I proceeded to “spoon-feed” these officers with a suggested set of orders that they could use to present to their platoons.
I quickly realised that even this was insufficient, and proceeded to guide them further by taking them personally on a reconnaissance of the terrain (a standard element in Platoon Battle Drills) during which I walked the entire length of the area in which the exercise would be carried out with them, pointing out all the terrain features (high ground, dead ground, obstacles, possible ambush sites etc) and in fact talking them through what any barely competent platoon commander should be able to accomplish on the fly while under fire.
After this process, the platoon commanders had 12 hours (over-night) to prepare their own orders for their platoons, ready to present these orders the next morning before embarking on the exercise.
I monitored each platoon commander’s orders and was appalled once again at their lack of experience and skill in this area. Some of the areas of concern were obvious, others surprising. The obvious areas of concern dealt with their general lack of military knowledge and inability to present the information in a useful and coherent manner. The most surprising area to me was the fact that they, to a man, ignored the orders that I had essentially dictated to them fell back on using “pro formas” that they had obviously got from training. This was ridiculous for a number of reasons;
·         Inclusion of irrelevant information
·         Inclusion of incorrect information
·         Incorrect interpretation of the information presented to them, resulting in some of the orders being completely garbled
·         Completely ignoring the intelligence briefing that had been provided
One example of a trivial fault, but one that serves as an illustration. Every one of the platoon commanders followed the format for orders that they had been taught, in which they said that in the case of Air Attack they would blow a whistle as the signal for the platoon to disperse and regroup at an emergency RV. Not one of the platoon commanders could in fact produce a whistle when asked to do so.
In each case, I had to step in to provide abbreviated orders to ensure that the platoons had the bare minimum of a correct definition of the task, the rules of engagement and the simplified battle plan.
What was different about this exercise, compared to the evaluations that had been done? I discovered during the debrief that for a majority of the soldiers, and especially the leaders, involved in the exercise that this was the first time that, during training, they had been required to:
·         carry out an exercise with more than one stage (four in this case),
·         think tactically on their own without knowing what the entire scenario was going to be before-hand
·         control their platoons entirely by communicating via radio with their section leaders instead of being able to indaba over any situation before it developed
·         deal with “simulated” casualties during the course of the exercise, especially in critical leadership areas
·         call for supporting fire from mortars or other indirect fire weapons and
·         request assistance in breaching obstacles from engineers
After each stage of the exercise, all the “dead and wounded” were restored to health. This was fortunate for the platoon commanders because in almost every instance the platoon commander made stupid mistakes that at some stage forced one of the instructors to declare them to be casualties, for example, ignoring minefields that were clearly marked as such and in some instances with instructors explicitly and repeatedly warning them “don’t go there, there are mines there”. It was further helpful to the platoon commanders as out of the six platoons, three of them suffered what was judged to be 100% casualties in at least one stage of the exercise, with one platoon gaining the distinction of 100% casualties on each of the four stages of the exercise.
One specific area of concern for me was the patent the inability of leaders (Platoon Commanders, Section Leaders or Platoon Sargeants) to read the terrain and develop a tactical appreciation, and then, once having the features pointed out by virtue of having some of their soldiers “killed” by walking blindly into ambush, the inability to adapt and adjust by taking advantage of the terrain.
When key leaders were killed, and, according to doctrine, leaders were designated to step up to take over at the next higher level, almost all attempts were failures. Some of the successes were surprising, with a member of a signals unit being a shining example of someone who could take command of an infantry platoon, while in the fight, with no prior preparation. This particular Lieutenant was included as a supernumery officer with one of the platoons at his request, and when the official platoon commander was designated as a casualty, surprised the instructors and the rest of the platoon by simply taking over command and then running the platoon in the exercise with great confidence and skill. A large part of this was this individual’s skill in radio communication, but even taking that into account, this individual put most of the infantry platoon commanders to shame.
Each platoon was issued with four radios. One each for the Section Leaders, one for the Platoon Commander (the platoon net) and one to the Platoon Commander’s “orderly” or “signaller” which was tuned to the Company net. Use of the radios was chaotic. I stressed during my briefing that the platoon net was for the use of the platoon commander to control his platoon, and that if they wished they could ignore the requirement for use of English on that net and simply ensure that the net was used for effective communications to exercise control over their platoons. The Company net was designated as a means for the Platoon commanders to report back to the Company Commander, call for assistance (indirect fire and engineer support) and to communicate with the other Platoon Commanders if they wished.
Implicit in my briefing was that the platoons could assist each other if they wished, with the Platoon Commanders requesting assistance from each other if the confronted situations that they felt were beyond their ability to handle. Not one Platoon Commander made use of this, making the (incorrect) assumption that they had to carry out the exercise without assistance. During the debrief, they expressed surprise that they would be allowed to call for assistance from each other and stated categorically that in all the training that they had experienced to that point they had always been assessed and operated independently and forbidden contact with their peers.
Not one Platoon Commander called for assistance from the Engineers, who were present and briefed in their own tasks, primarily to simulate clearing and marking lanes through mine fields.
Not one Platoon Commander even considered the possibility of calling for support from indirect fire weapons. The briefing explicitly stated that there was a Mortar Platoon in their area of operations, with an observer placed on the high ground, so that if they called for fire the observer would have direct line of sight on any possible objective and place 81mm fire onto any of those objectives. When questioned about this at the debrief, the Platoon Commanders all stated that they had never been trained (or told) how to use the indirect fire in support of their battle plan. Some of the Platoon Commanders and Platoon Sergeants had qualified on the Battalion Mortar Specialist Course at Infantry School, and were theoretically qualified to fulfil the role of the Mortar Platoon Commander themselves (more on this later) but they had never been taught, or even told, how to utilise the Mortar Fire in support of a platoon attack.
At one stage, I came across a Platoon Commander who was running around the battlefield all on his own. I stopped him to ask him what he was doing. He told me that he was looking for his section leaders, that his radio operator had been designated as a casualty and that he had absolutely no idea where his platoon was or what they were doing. When I pointed out the radio he carried on his back, he told me that was the radio on the company net, so he couldn’t use it to contact his section leaders. I lost my composure at this point, telling the Platoon Commander that he was now a casualty himself as it seemed he was serving no useful purpose to his Platoon as he had not only lost control of them, but contact as well.
During the debrief, I pointed out to all the Platoon Commanders that the radio was their trigger and the platoon their weapon, and without the radio they could not fight their platoon. It had never occurred to this Platoon Commander that he could have hunkered down in cover and changed the frequency of his radio to get onto the Platoon net and he could have called for help on the Company net. This Platoon Commander explained, after some prompting, that he was embarrassed about losing control of his platoon and felt that calling for assistance would mean that he didn’t do so well in the evaluation. When I explained the concept of mutual support, the Platoon Commanders all expressed surprise.
One part of the exercise involved emerging from a very busy area at the top of a ridge. The ground dropped away from the ridge to an open piece of ground of approximately seventy meters away from a building. I had placed the “OPFOR” in the building armed with R4s and blanks. The real objective was for the platoons to cross the open ground and assault the building, capturing or killing the five members of the OPFOR. I over-estimated the tactical ability of the Platoons. Without fail, every single platoon suffered debilitating casualties (as assessed by the instructors) trying to cross the open piece of ground. What was surprising was that these casualties were caused by a single member of the OPFOR who had taken cover a few meters in front of the building with a single R4. Not a single platoon attempted to Fire and Move across the open ground to assault the building (which is what I wanted to evaluate), rather trying to sneak around the side of the open ground where there were clearly marked mine-fields. The Platoon Commanders threw their platoon piece-meal into the fight leading to an inevitable defeat in detail. Concepts such as reinforcing success and adapting battle plans were almost foreign concepts or had never been explained to any of these leaders.
What was surprising, and encouraging, was that some of the section leaders demonstrated initiative and creative thinking, with two, from different platoons, managing to surprise the instructors with flanking manoeuvres in an area that the instructors had initially considered impassable.
In NO case could a Platoon Commander present his thoughts on a cohesive battle plan, nor justify his use of the sections in the assault. One Platoon Commander resorted to leading some of his men on a frontal assault, but this was simply a charge with no battle discipline or fire and movement, to overwhelm the single rifleman. In every case, the exercise had to be paused here to allow the Platoon to re-organise as its casualties where magically restored to full health.
A very clear and important lesson about leadership emerged from the exercise. There were two platoons put together from the same unit, and a Platoon Commander assigned to each on the morning of the exercise. There was no difference between the soldiers in the two platoons as they were assigned completely randomly and were almost interchangeable as platoons. The difference between the two platoons was striking. One platoon’s morale was non-existent and performed poorly in every area of the exercise without fail. The other platoon, while failing as detailed above in some areas, high morale and aggression and willingness to tackle the battles at every stage of the exercise. The difference was clearly the difference in the character, experience and military skill of the two Platoon Commanders. One infused his platoon with his own determination and desire to overcome, the other didn’t. The training and experience of the two Platoon Commanders was very similar, with the poorly performing one actually having more operational experience having deployed externally as a Platoon Commander on two occasions. The only conclusion that the instructors were able to draw from observing the performance of the two was that our selection of Platoon Commanders was flawed; both in terms of the initial selection for Officer Formative Training as well as assignments on the day.
At the commander’s debrief, held after the exercise, the OCs and RSMs of a number of the units participating in the exercise admitted that they would have to re-evaluate their appraisal of training in general and Combat Readiness assessment in particular.
Some of the primary areas of concern were identified as:
·         General leadership skills.
·         Officers doing NCOs jobs
·         Lack of a depth of understanding. The understanding of a large percentage of the skills required by soldiers was based on proformas and was superficial.
·         Soldiers should not be evaluated on drills only, but made to apply those drills to varying terrain and situations
·         An OPFOR lends a level of reality that is required to evaluate the ability of soldiers to fight and leaders to lead
·         Putting pressure on leaders during evaluation and training is vital to determine the ability of those leaders to perform their jobs on the battlefield
·         Selection for promotion must be based on a demonstrated ability to perform the functions of the job, not simply academic performance or other non-relevant factors.
·         Formal schooling at the various training facilities was not sufficient to prepare soldiers for the battlefield and that continuation training should be utilised to ensure that the “book” knowledge was supplemented by experience of actually putting the theory into practice, preferably in an environment that requires tactical thinking.
·         Soldiers must be encouraged to fail. A training environment where they are scared of failing is one where they will never experiment or learn.
·         Live-fire exercises, while useful, are counter-productive as concerns for safety and lack of an OPFOR prevent simulation of the battlefield. Field expedients such as burning tyres, add (literally) to the “Fog of War”.
·         Lip service is paid to the concept that soldiers should be trained to one or two levels above their rank. Actually putting a Sargeant in command of a Platoon, or a Corporal into the post of Platoon Sargeant, when the incumbent has been judged to have died, should be practiced randomly, with no possibility of prior preparation. That preparation should be incorporated into the standard approach of all leaders who should communicate effectively both up and down the chain-of-command.
·         A large number of personal skills and general military knowledge need to be taught and practiced.
Formal Courses
I have experienced first-hand, as well as had reported to me, the results of the training at formal schools. Suffice it to say that the approach is not always successful. I would contend that only the top few graduates of formal schools are actually competent to carry out the roles that they have been trained in, with a disappointingly large number of people who have been judged to be competent to be anything but. Part of this results from the fact that there seems to be an imperative to ensure that everyone passes their courses, part being that there is a requirement for promotion irrespective of the nature of the post and part of it from the lack of opportunity to practice what has been learnt subsequent to the course.
As one example, there was a corporal on the Battalion Mortars course at Infantry School who’s posting meant that he would never in the course of his career ever again see a mortar, but was required to attend a “specialist course” as a pre-requisite for promotion. This particular Corporal clearly didn’t have the aptitude to pass the course irrespective of what assistance he might have been given, so an “arrangement” was made to ensure that he did, in fact, pass the course. The assumption was clearly that it was necessary for him to pass the course to receive a promotion and that there was no risk in marking someone not competent as actually competent.
On another occasion, out of an entire course of sixty four members, less than five passed a particular evaluation. The instructor proceeded to hand out blank evaluations and dictate the correct answers to the questions to ensure that the pass rate was higher.
Morale and Training
In the course of informal debriefing of various soldiers returning from deployment externally, I have heard a number of things that lead me to believe that there are even more serious problems facing the combat readiness of our soldiers. One of the most disturbing is one that I heard recently and which prompted me to write this article.
The story that I was told, and I acknowledge that it is only hear-say, was that a platoon of soldiers (reportedly serving under the MSD system) were confronted by rebels. They threw down their weapons and retreated. Apparently these men were then pursued and a large number of them were raped. I have no confirmation of this, but it horrifies me on a number of levels.
The first is that of the Rules of Engagement. If the ROE are actually so restrictive that soldiers feel that they cannot fight back, this is an indictment of the highest levels of command that permit the deployment of soldiers without the authorisation to protect themselves when it is required.
Secondly, the ability and judgement of the commander of this group of soldiers needs to be evaluated carefully to determine the reasons why this was allowed to happen. If they were unaware of the possible consequences of surrendering themselves in this manner, then it was an intelligence failure; if they were in fact aware of this threat, then the commander should have exercised his judgement and ordered the platoon to defend themselves (and each other) while he called for support.
It is my suspicion though that these soldiers were simply poorly prepared for the role that they were required to fulfil that day. They were probably expecting to give humanitarian aid or assistance rather than being prepared for a battle, and the training and mindset that they received was ill conceived or inadequate to prepare them for that role.
Another story that illustrates this point is that, I have been told, a base was suddenly attacked with mortar fire. The people tasked to perform the base defence, manning the LMGs in the bunkers and on the base perimeter, abandoned their bunkers and ran to hide under their beds in their tents, leaving the base essentially unprotected against any ground attack.
There is no doubt that the demands placed on the SA Army in its missions into Africa are vastly different from what they would be if there was an actual state of war. This is, in many ways, a lot more difficult to train for as the “enemy” is different each day and the role spans a vast array of differing tasks.
Even taking this into consideration, it is my contention that this should ensure better Combat Readiness evaluation and training, not worse, with the general drills and knowledge ingrained in such a way that they can be applied in a flexible manner fit for purpose depending on the situation, terrain and task. When soldiers are deployed without this preparation it makes the people making the decisions to deploy them, directly liable for the consequences of their poor performance when it counts.

[1] Contrast this with the US Army’s “Centre for Army Lessons Learnt” or CALL which reportedly has sent out notifications to changes in SOPS and tactic Army-wide as little as 24 hours after an incident which  prompted such a change.