Archive: Doing the “Petronius Arbiter”


The SA National Defence force is currently in the midst of yet another re-organisation and yet the talk is about deployments at strategic distances into the heart of Africa — and not about ensuring proper logistic lines to make this possible.

Doing the “Petronius Arbiter
14 July 2004
“We tried hard – but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams, we would be reorganised. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situations by reorganising –and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation.” 
— Attributed to Petronius Arbiter, Roman writer.
Amateurs talk strategy while professionals ponder logistics, a popular saying tells us. There is undoubted truth in this saying. It is an enduring irony of German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s African campaign was that his plans were dominated by the availability — or more usually the lack thereof — of fuel. Yet under the Libyan sands his army was fighting over, lay what we today know are vast oil reserves. Today, logistics triumphs over strategy in Nigeria in a similar manner. The world’s sixth largest oil producer, it nevertheless remains unable to supply its domestic market with sufficient refined fuel.
The SA National Defence force is currently in the midst of yet another re-organisation and yet the talk is about deployments at strategic distances into the heart of Africa — and not about ensuring proper logistic lines to make this possible. Judging by reports from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi, the supply situation there is near catastrophic. Although the about 3000 troops deployed there are under the UN’s flag they remain South Africans and the SANDF is ultimately responsible for keeping them in good supply. By all published accounts it is not. By all published accounts — for the SANDF has to date not invited any South African journalists to investigate and find one way or another.
The reorganisation is, for once, most welcome. It indicates the SANDF has now finally given up on the unworkable structure it paid an auditing firm well over R60-million for. What they seemingly got was a system suitable for keeping supermarket shelves stocked with bread – not a durable, workable, redundant system that could cope with the stresses and strains of operations. Thankfully the system was not tested by a war, for it could not even cope with UN peacekeeping — a sedentary form of guard duty at best.
There are sound reasons the better militaries the world over, traditions aside, resemble each other. The structures and systems they have adopted work under the stress of combat operations. This is the ultimate test.
NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance, has now swallowed most of the former Warsaw Pact. The Polish, Hungarian, Czech and Slovak militaries, among others, all followed the Soviet pattern and had to undergo major surgery to fit the NATO mould. The extent of this could be seen in Chris Donnelly’s article, Reform Realities, published in the August 2001
edition of the NATO Review (accessible at Much of what Donnelly had to say about the pattern reform followed in Eastern and Central Europe is familiar as the former SA Defence Force was in many ways an “East Bloc” military too. The point is the changes, although painful, were carried out and the Polish, Czech, Hungarian militaries transformed into NATO armed forces that could take their places alongside the British, Americans and Germans.
Defence transformation in South Africa is focusing too much on the racial imperative and too little on the professional. For this the military has only itself to blame: It has so excluded the public and their Parliamentary representatives that the debate has become all form over substance — endless talk about race quotas instead of why there is not a young, healthy, disciplined, deployable, sustainable defence force. Race has become such a distraction in the public debate that behind it the generals and officials are — considering the recent death of peacekeepers in the Congo — literally getting away with murder. 
Not all the “Grand Bazaars” reforms were a mistake, however. Despite initial scepticism, several of the joint structures established to find efficiencies or improve co-ordination have delivered on the promises of their sponsors. But further improvements are possible — and desirable — particularly on the medical front. It is high-time to correct the aberration called the SA Military Health Service and incorporate it into the Joint Support Division where it belongs — as clearly indicated by
lessons learnt from the Anglo-South African “Exercise African Shield” held last year. The designers of the new structure must continue the department’s oft-stated desire to reduce the number of generals and admirals — and adjust post-levels down. Too many officers are still employed to do the work of sergeants, particularly in the sport, occupational health and health inspector fields. In addition, many officers are two ranks higher than their peers in most militaries abroad. An example are the skippers of the country’s four new corvettes, who are naval captains. Australia, a country with a defence force slightly smaller than South Africa’s but with a much larger navy, has in commission a class of frigates (a larger type of ship than a corvette)
that are skippered by lieutenant commanders. Of interest id that the ships, the Anzac-class are alternatively known as the Meko 200 class — substantially identical to the South African ships.    
Designing a newer, better, SANDF does not require reinventing the wheel. This journal alone has published numerous articles over the last decade on the subject (see below). Like the German statesman Bismarck who thought any donkey could learn from his own mistakes, we have numerous examples of others to profit from, notably NATO’s efforts in assisting its new members in the East. Let us profit from their successes and failures — and get the job done.
A selection of AAFJ articles on defence transformation:
Feb 04                   Leon Engelbrecht                SANDF at 10: An assessment*
                                Leon Engelbrecht                Military Engineers: Masters of Mobility
Jan 04/Dec 03     Leon Engelbrecht                Gods of War
Nov 03                   Anon                                      Armour, the Modern Cavalry
Oct 03                    Anon                                      NATO looking for bases in Africa
Anon                                      SADC Mutual Defence Pact
Leon Engelbrecht                SANDF Annual Report 2002/2003
Jul 03                     EA Thorn                              The ASF takes shape
May 03                  Herman Acker                     The SAIC: Introducing change
Apr 03                    Herman Acker                     A New Model Army
Anon                                      A critical look at the “Reserve Force Volunteer”
J Eatwell                                How long is a piece of string?
Mar 03                   Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi    An African solution for an African problem
Dec 02/ Jan 03     J Eatwell                                The case for a bottom-up Force Design
                Anon                                      Obesity a SA phenomenon? Does the SANDF have too few generals?
                Anon                                      Restructuring: What are the norms?
Jul 02                     Anon                                      Is the SANDF ready? 
Jun 02                    Leon Engelbrecht                Towards an IMPI for Africa: A proposal
Mar 02                   EA Thorn                              The Air Ground Task Force
Feb 02                    Anon                                      Promoting Continental Defence in Africa
EA Thorn                              A tenet for military professionalism
Nov 01                   EA Thorn                              Reorganising the SANDF for expeditionary maneuver warfare in the
African littoral
Feb 01                    Leon Engelbrecht                Reserves for Africa
May 99                  EA Thorn                             The Reserve Forces: The way to go
May 98                  Leon Engelbrecht                The Infantry Battalion
Mar 98                   Leon Engelbrecht                The Infantry Company
Dec 97/ Jan 98     Leon Engelbrecht                The Infantry Platoon
Nov 97                   Leon Engelbrecht                                The Infantry Section
* The underlined articles may be of special interest to reformers.