Too many generals in the SANDF?


In addition to the view that the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is over-strength, there is an argument that it is badly over-ranked, and particularly that there are far too many generals and admirals and, for that matter, too many civilian officials at equivalent rank levels.

That is certainly true in respect of the SANDF as it stands today and, unlike the argument that it is over-strength, would still be true even were the SANDF to be expanded. But this, too, must be considered with some caution. One point is, again, that a middle-sized defence force will have a higher ratio of senior officers to troops than either a very small or very large force. Some posts are simply general or flag officer posts.

Between them the SANDF and the Department of Defence (DoD) have some 406 generals, admirals and civilian officials in equivalent ranks, although some may be specialists paid at that level without holding the actual rank. But staying with the 406 figure for argument’s sake, that translates into one general, admiral or equivalent official for every 184 members of the SANDF and DoD, which does seem a little over the top.

Worse, only 80 are in the three combat services, with another 17 at Defence Intelligence. Those figures are a little high and will be considered later.

More worrying is the number of generals, admirals and officials at the DoD/DHQ level (142), at Joint Operations (22), in the Military Health Service (121), which may include specialists at those pay grades but without the rank, and at General Support (24). One cannot but wonder what they all do. To be fair here, when one can find equivalent figures from other countries, they often do not include civilian officials, which are included here.

Returning to the combat services, the Army has 36 general officers for a strength of 38 300, which translates into one general for every 1 063 officers, NCOs and soldiers. That does look unnecessarily high, particularly when one considers that all of the corps directors that were colonels are now brigadier-generals with a bunch of colonels reporting to them. It looks a little better if we include the reserve units, when we arrive at one general for every 1 400 others, although it still seems to be too many.

But if we look at the British Army, we find one general for every 983 others or, if including the reserves, one for every 1 304. The US Army has one general for every 1 600 in other ranks.
The bottom line is that while 36 generals does indeed seem a lot, it is not out of line with other defence forces.

The one caveat here is that for all of having just over 50 000 members, the Army only has two brigade headquarters, so there does seem to be overweighting of supporting and administrative elements by comparison with the combat forces.

The Navy has 17 admirals for just 12 ships and one for every 589 in other ranks, which does seem rather over the top. But again we must remember that some command and infrastructure posts should be filled by a flag officer almost regardless of the number of ships in the fleet, and one can quite easily argue for 12 flag officer posts for the Navy – which number would not (or should not) change even if the Navy reached an envisaged fleet strength of 24 ships.

By comparison, the Royal Navy has 40 admirals for 54 ships and one for every 809 in other ranks, which is clearly better than the SAN’s ratio today, but worse than the ratio relative to the intended Navy fleet strength.

The Air Force has 27 general officers for 11 squadrons and one for every 367 in other ranks, which again seems high, particularly when considering how few aircraft some squadrons have on strength, let alone how many the present funding levels allow them to fly. The number of general officers would, however, not (or should not) change if the squadrons were filled up to normal aircraft strengths, and in fact would not change even if we added several squadrons.

The Royal Air Force has 114 officers of general rank (Air Commodore to Air Chief Marshal) for 23 squadrons and one for every 285 in other ranks. That looks vastly worse than the SAAF, but the RAF has many more combat squadrons and most of them have a full complement of aircraft. Nevertheless, it does suggest that the SAAF is not as over the top as simple figures suggest.

So, while I believe most people interested in defence would agree that we have too many senior officers and officials in the SANDF and DoD, we are not wildly out of line with the British armed forces.

There is still one other question to look at, the ratio of officers to other ranks:
• The Army has one officer per 3.8 other ranks (British Army 5.8, US Army 4.1).
• The Navy has one officer per 2.1 other ranks (Royal Navy 3.9).
• The Air Force has one officer per 2.2 other ranks (Royal Air Force 3.4).

So clearly the SANDF is somewhat over-officered at present. But, again, we must take into account the point of middle-sized forces versus small and very large forces. And in the case of both the Navy and the Air Force, we must consider that those services are intended to have rather more ships and aircraft than they have at present (or will have for some time to come), which will also mean adding more personnel in junior ranks. The point here is that it makes sense to be a little over-officered (also over NCO’d) in peacetime, giving the forces the framework on which to expand when needed. Back to the German Army’s pre-WW2 approach of having everyone in the leader groups qualified for two ranks higher than his post.