The South African Army, supported by other branches of service and the defence industry, held a spectacular capability demonstration at the De Brug training area outside Bloemfontein this week, involving dozens of armoured vehicles, jets and helicopters, which showed that the Army is a force to be reckoned with.
The main focus of the SA Army Capability Demonstration, with the main event on 18 May, was to demonstrate the Army’s state of combat readiness and show that the military stands ready to defend and protect South Africa, safeguard South Africa and its people, contribute to regional and continental security and provide support in times of crisis and disaster.
The demonstration saw airborne and firepower demonstrations, mechanised attacks and the static display of weapons and vehicles. It began with pathfinders parachuting in from cloudless blue skies and paratroopers being dropped from a C212 light transport aircraft. After various demonstrations, such as by tanks, infantry and artillery, it was all brought together in a massive offensive involving troops, armour, artillery and a Rooivalk that stirred up huge clouds of dust and smoke.
The Army in very explosive fashion put almost all its weapons in action, including 80 and 120 mm mortars, G5 and G6 artillery, Ratel 20 mm and 90 mm variants, Rooikat armoured cars and Olifant main battle tanks. Bateleur rockets made an eerie whine as they streaked across the sky while ZT-3 and Milan missiles hissed as they crossed the range to their targets.
Although primarily an Army demonstration, the Air Force was not left out and provided two Gripen fighter jets, which dropped bombs onto the range. Oryx and A109 helicopters dropped and picked up troops and equipment while a Rooivalk provided close air support to forces on the ground with its 20 mm cannon and 70 mm rockets. Two C212 light transport aircraft dropped troops and cargo.
The engineering formation set off a 450 kg crater charge, which sent up huge clouds of dust, and a water spout charge, used to propel a jet of water under a bridge to demolish it. An attempt to clear a simulated minefield with the Plofadder breaching system did not go according to plan – due to a technical problem it had to be manually detonated.
A wide variety of technologies used by the SANDF was demonstrated, including laser-based firearm training systems supplied by Saab. This is integrated with other training and simulation systems such as the Chaka command and control system and Battletek simulation training system. These form part of the Battle Lab systems the SANDF is rolling out in Oudtshoorn, Bloemfontein and Potchefstroom.
Apart from huge array of military hardware present, the local industry also had a chance to demonstrate their weapons in action and exhibit their solutions. Rippel Effect fired their twin 40 mm grenade launchers from a Mamba while Denel Vehicle Systems fired their 7.62 mm SD ROW turret from their Africa Truck prototype. Sister company Pretoria Metal Pressings demonstrated their Inkunzi and automatic Inkunzi Strike weapons, firing 20×42 mm rounds.
Raising the South African Army’s profile is high on Army chief Lieutenant General Lindile Yam’s priority list, as he wants to ensure the public know the important work the Army does, and for South Africans to feel safe and secure.
However, Yam said he was not satisfied with the current frequency of training for the Army. Due to funding shortages several events have had to be converged into one. He said he would like more and larger exercises for the comfort and security of the people of South Africa.
The chief of the landward arm of the SANDF also said a lack of funding meant the tasks it is given are out of synch with its funding level and that the defence force has half the budget it used to have. At around 1% of GDP, Yam said this is uncommonly low. Even if it was 2% of GDP, the Army would still be behind. He said the Army feels the budget shortfall the most.
The lack of budget is also hampering the implementation of the Defence Review and Yam said no progress will be made implementing the Review until funding is addressed.
Some good news was the continued revival of the Army’s capabilities under Project Thusano, with Cuban mechanics bringing hundreds and hundreds of unserviceable vehicles back to life and saving millions of Rands in the process.
Yam said at the moment the SANDF is preparing to rotate troops with the United Nations mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and will soon see 4 South African Infantry (SAI) battalion return home. Ladysmith-based 5 SAI is currently preparing to join the Minusca mission in the DRC at the beginning of June, having completed most of its training, including jungle warfare training in Port St Johns. 5 SAI is currently at De Brug ahead of its rotation.
Yam said lessons learnt by 4 SAI in the DRC were being incorporated, and centred on personal protection. He said deployments like the DRC are tough as soldiers not only have to fight rebels but the terrain and climate too – boots last only three weeks in the tough tropical climate, for example, and there are many hidden challenges that people don’t comprehend.
The Defence Service Commission visited the DRC earlier this year and was impressed with what it saw, praising the performance and conditions of soldiers in the DRC. Chairperson of the Defence Force Service Commission Professor Edna van Harte told Yam that soldiers have a high reputation while South African pilots are regarded as heroes. When South African soldiers in the DRC move, the civilian population moves with them. She said it was important for the public and the government to know this.
The deployment to the DRC is one of the Army’s biggest commitments but Operation Corona to protect South Africa’s borders is another big one. Yam said there is a requirement to increase the number of troops on the border from 15 to 22 companies but he doesn’t know with what as resources are scarce and it takes a long time to train soldiers.
Yam said that in spite of limited resources the Army, along with the rest of the SANDF, is committed to the advancement of the African Union’s Agenda 2063 which seeks to deliver a peaceful, prosperous and integrated Africa.
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* This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Ratel 20 mm and 90 mm vehicles took part in the demonstration and not Badger vehicles.