Hi-tech a headache for SANDF


Whatever the future of military organisations, it`s unlikely to be low-tech.In the mid-1990s, I asked a senior officer in the SA Navy how he saw the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and in particular the South African Navy (SAN) of the future. His said it would either be a small hi-tech force, or a large low-tech force.

While the trend before the strategic arms package seemed to be towards a large low-tech force, the trend has definitely changed – not necessarily towards a small hi-tech force, but definitely away from the former trend.

Modern weapons

Any new (as opposed to used/"second-hand") weapon system procured today, if not intrinsically hi-tech, contains at least some hi-tech functionality or components. This has implications in terms of operational use and/or operational support.

While this is generally true for all modern defence forces worldwide, what are the implications for the SANDF?

A further complicating factor is the type of operations the SANDF has to be able to perform, ranging from very low-intensity peace support operations (PSO) to defending the integrity of SA against a conventional onslaught. The potential area of operations, ranging from savannah to dense forest and marshland, does not make the task any easier.

Conflicting implications

The recent experience in armed conflict worldwide has also showed that while hi-tech systems, weapons and armaments can achieve an initial "shock and awe" effect, it has to be followed up by "boots on the ground" to ensure final victory and achievement of the military and therefore political objectives.

This has conflicting implications in as much as that it requires some mix of hi-tech capability as well as sufficient numbers of soldiers with basic infantry training and abilities. In terms of the SANDF, this is evident in the sophisticated aircraft being acquired by the South African Air Force, the hi-tech submarines and patrol corvettes of the SAN, while the SA Army conducts PSO requiring the basic infantry capability.

In order to be able to fully meet the strategic objectives set for it, the SANDF, and specifically the SA Army, also needs a hi-tech capability. This is being addressed by projects such as the ground-based air defence system currently in the acquisition phase, the new generation infantry fighting-vehicle (Project Hoefyster) to be acquired, and Project African Warrior (infantry modernisation), among others.

Becoming sophisticated

In addition to sophisticated electronics, the IT component of modern weapon systems is becoming the heart of its evolving functionality. This means soldiers are being exposed to more and more sophisticated (often embedded) IT systems as part of their trade.

The new weapon systems have far-reaching operational and support implications. From an operational perspective, it requires new or adapted doctrine, operating procedures, training and training systems.

In order to optimally integrate new systems and/or equipment into the SANDF joint operational capability, the use of constructive simulation (or "war gaming") is being seen as an excellent tool. The SANDF fortunately has access to world-class solutions in this regard.

Gaining support

An even more challenging aspect of the hi-tech systems is the operational support. Traditional, entrenched approaches are being challenged by the sophistication of the equipment and the multitude of engineering disciplines required for maintenance.

A single platform can require a combination of electrical engineering, electronics skills, hydraulics knowledge, mechanical expertise and IT capabilities to maintain. It is virtually impossible for even the most advanced First World defence forces to main sufficient depth of manpower for this purpose.

Involved transformation

So what is the solution to this problem? While there is still an international transformation in progress in this regard, it is obvious industry needs to become much more involved – from the second line of support in many cases, right through to depot and industry level.

This again has implications in terms of faultfinding and diagnostics, which need to be more user-friendly, allowing the military to identify a fault to a "line replaceable unit" or functional component, which can be swapped out. The soldier will not open any "black boxes", but will simply send it to industry for repair (or replacement). This, in turn, has a knock-on effect in terms of spares holding and cost.

The real challenging aspect here is software. Theoretically software is deterministic, and should be integrated into weapons platforms and systems in a fault-free manner. However, should there prove to be a "bug" or a critical required functional enhancement, it is mostly only the original software provider who would be able to fix the bug or implement the enhancement. This cements the support relationship between the military and the industry.

For the SANDF and the local defence-related industry, this is an area we still have to jointly address.