The Army is so under-funded that it no longer fields a combat-ready parachute capability. This has emerged from a recent briefing to Parliament. The briefing, by senior departmental officials, took place on June 4 but drew no attention at the time.
Democratic Alliance deputy defence spokesman Hendrik Schmidt says he will be asking what was meant by 44 Parachute Regiment being “not combat ready.” The regiment includes the Regular 1 Parachute Battalion and the Reserve 2 and 3 Parachute Battalions. 2 Parachute Battalion only exists on paper and 3 Parachute Battalion has become ineffective, apparently because many of its signed-up members have taken lucrative security contracts in Iraq. The situation at 1 Parachute Battalion is unknown.
Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota dismissed on Monday a weekend report that 89 percent of soldiers — 947 out of 1089 — at a KwaZulu-Natal base who volunteered for testing were HIV-positive. The SA National Defence Force (SANDF) was said to be losing at least 400,000 working days a year because of the disease. Lekota said yesterday the detail in the report was nothing new. Last year he put the figure for HIV/Aids-prevalence in the military at 23 percent, but Aids specialists say a more realistic figure would be 40 percent. The parliamentary briefing also showed the reserve component will take between three and five years — if adequately funded — to field a brigade of 3000 to 5000 troops and five to eight years to field another under peacetime budgeting conditions. Despite this, it is understood the Army plans to deploy around 10 reserve companies on peacekeeping in the near future to relieve pressure on the regulars. Current planning is that the first two companies should deploy in June 2005.
The Army was also increasingly concerned at what it called an ineffective procurement process and the high average age of their soldiers, coupled with a general deterioration in health — borne out by the weekend report. A briefing by the Department of Defence the week before highlighted similar concerns. The department’s strategic business plan for 2004/05 to 2006/07 said combat readiness was affected by the health status of the troops, with the report highlighting their advancing age and the ravages of tuberculosis — an opportunistic disease often associated with Aids. “Budget constraints are adversely affecting the ability of the SANDF to maintain and sustain certain capabilities… Thus, deployment of troops for internal and external purposes and also joint and multinational exercises may be affected negatively,” it added.
Also at the briefing, the Air Force complained of the deterioration of their aircraft, weapons and ground support infrastructure.
They were also worried about a decline in the numbers of suitably qualified and experienced personnel, such as pilots. Flying hours for training as well as operations were being reduced as a result. The Navy, meanwhile, was concerned about a lack of logistical support, ordnance and facilities available to it, principally for its four new corvettes and three submarines. It was closing some depots and support bases as well as its reserve units to free up funds. The Military Health Service was also hard-pressed by the high rate of medical inflation and an apparent inability to recruit medical professionals. In addition, its hospitals and equipment were in a poor state. The service was therefore reducing funding for defence against chemical and biological weapons.
Concern was also expressed about the standard of training and evaluation of troops deployed on peacekeeping. Troops are meant to receive “mission-ready training” before departure and must be certified “combat ready” before they go, but it was recently found that three out of four mortars deployed to Burundi were defective and that their crews were not trained to use the weapons.
The Institute for Security Studies’ Len le Roux said it was clear there is a growing mismatch between policy and funding. Le Roux added that the SANDF’s current budget guidelines presumed a six percent annual growth in the economy, no internal security issues, 1000 troops on peacekeeping duty and the rationalisation of defence force bases and personnel. The economy has not grown at nearly that rate, meaning that crime became a bigger issue than anticipated and today 3000 troops are deployed abroad. “These things cost money,” he said, adding that the lack of a retrenchment scheme has already cost the SANDF R5 billion. Le Roux said the reluctance to retrench was understandable considering high unemployment and the SANDF’s sense of social responsibility. But in keeping on unnecessary staff and deploying more soldiers on peacekeeping and in support of the police than planned, funding meant to train, equip and professionalise a small core force and a larger reserve. “Something has to give. You can’t take their pay or rations, so you take training and development funds. This is unfortunately what has happened. As a result the Army has run down.”
The SANDF could not be reached for comment.