Time for a long, hard look at the SANDF


The latest defence budget can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, according to African Defence Review director Darren Olivier, who maintains the time has come for hard decisions if South Africa is to have a national defence force worthy of the name in the future.

Following Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s national budget speech in Parliament on Wednesday, Olivier points out “again and despite desperate pleas by senior military commanders to Parliament and National Treasury to avoid further reductions, the defence budget has again been cut in real terms with the majority of the decrease from its operational and acquisition budgets”.

“That this is now an urgent issue is an understatement; we’ve gone way past urgent and are now at the stage where capabilities are being permanently lost. If you continually underfund operational and acquisition budgets, the inevitable end result will be a fully staffed force without equipment nor the current qualifications on specialised skills.

“Clearly, the current approach by the Minister of Defence and Military Veterans to persuade her Cabinet colleagues to allocate more funding to the SANDF is not working and should be abandoned. She and her predecessor have been utterly ineffectual at managing to convince successive Finance Ministers of the need for increased defence spending, let alone the rest of Cabinet and the wider public. Nor does it seem the Minister truly understands the urgency of the problem. It’s past time for something else to be tried.

“In my opinion the only logical option is to have a new Defence Review with a mandate to downsize the SANDF and its capabilities to fit sustainably into a smaller funding allocation. It’s going to be unpleasant, requiring difficult decisions and much pain in the short term, but it’s preferable to having a force gradually grinding to a halt with ever-worsening morale.

“The SANDF’s design today is based on a core force containing the bare necessity capabilities, with structures, high-level posts, equipment pools and facilities designed for a small peacetime force with a large pool of reserves to fill in as needed, along with the ability to easily absorb new recruits quickly without needing to restructure. That’s why the SANDF seems over-generalled at times, as it has the high-level posts, facilities and equipment for a larger force. It was an interesting concept and idea, but can no longer be afforded.

“For instance, do we really need to maintain both 43 and 46 Brigades? Do we need to maintain 166 tanks, mostly for reserve regiments? Do we need to have Defence Intelligence as a separate structure with its own general staff (I would argue not)? Can we downsize the SAMHS and return the combat medic role to the services?”

Olivier maintains a new Defence Review must achieve at least five difficult objectives. They are:

To figure out the absolute minimum set of non-negotiable mission requirements and the force design to match, as the baseline.

Spell out, in painstaking, costed and quantified terms in ways easy for non-experts to understand the purpose and value of each system and capability and what will be lost if it is not taken up. For example, downsizing the infantry means losing most border control and peacekeeping options. This is not the time to be secretive, it must spell out for Cabinet, Parliament and the public exactly what it costs to maintain the capabilities, including search and rescue, they desire a defence force to have. Offer costed force design options.

Start with buy-in from Cabinet and National Treasury that guarantees a set fiscal framework for the next 10 years, perhaps a commitment to keep defence spending to one percent of GDP. This has to be non-negotiable. Without it long-term planning is impossible and the entire process might as well be moot.

Ruthlessly re-examine each post, role, facility, requirement and system for its value in a constrained environment and remove what doesn’t qualify. There should be no sacred cows. The emphasis must be on freeing up operational and acquisitions funding.

And, identify the most strategic capabilities in the local defence industry and ensure SANDF acquisitions and technology funding can be spaced out at regular enough intervals to sustain them.

Olivier sees this process, if taken, resulting in “a very different looking force which loses a lot of useful capabilities on paper but retains the ability to use its reduced set of roles more effectively and sustainably”. He also envisages “substantial downsides” and South Africa being left “more vulnerable in many ways”.

“Overall, it will be better and less harmful than allowing the national defence force to degrade the way it is going now.”