The SA National Defence Force is fast approaching the tenth anniversary of its founding on April 27, 1994. Although ten-year reviews are now something of a cottage industry, the moment is ripe for reflection and sober assessment.
That evaluation, in brief, should find that the SANDF has been a success beyond most expectations. This may strike some readers as odd coming from a Journal that has not hesitated to criticise the SANDF – and often to boot. What about the chaotic integration process or the shambolic auditing-firm driven reorganisation that followed? What about command affilitaions too convoluted to decode and a logistics system that has spawned personal fiefdoms instead of “just-in-time” delivery? These
questions should elicit the same response as US Colonel Harry G. Summers Jr’ famous 1975 observation to a North Vietnamese opposite number: “You know you never beat us on the battlefield,” said Summers. “That may be so. But it’s also irrelevant,” Colonel Nguyen Don Tu replied. The reason they are irrelevant is simply because for most of the last decade the country did not require a functional defence force: there was no visible immediate threat. We were not invaded nor conquered during that period, which, one might argue, proves the lack of requirement. What was needed, however, was domestic peace and stability — and a police auxiliary. That we got. This was the true mission of the SANDF most of the last decade. In absorbing many potential troublemakers — from all factions — and busying them with
military and police support tasks, civil society had the breather it required to recover from the tumultuous 1990s. We cannot thank the SANDF enough for doing this. Again success is measurable: There have been no coups, attempted coups, barracks revolts or other grave embarrassments to the government from the military’s side. Tempe and other racial shootings were personal tragedies, not an embarrassment. What embarrassment there has been was self-inflicted, such as the continuing public relations fiasco surrounding the Strategic Defence Acquisition (SDA) programme. In summary then, the SANDF has acquitted itself splendidly of its tasks – up to now.
Expectations change over time. While in the years after 1994 domestic concerns were paramount to the national leadership, international issues have in the last few years come to dominate. In the first part of the last decade South Africa effectively had no foreign policy (and many would argue it still does not). What passed as diplomacy was mostly an effort to explain to Africa and the rest of the world why we could not immediately assist them with their conflicts and travails. But from mid-1999, when President Thabo Mbeki succeeded President Emeritus Nelson Mandela, a foreign policy agenda became increasingly clear.
South Africa’s Foreign Policy
Mbeki’s ultimate foreign policy ambition is a seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC). In achieving this the Presidency and Foreign Affairs establishment, co-located at the Union Buildings on Meintjieskop, have deployed a number of tools designed to achieve that goal. They have also drafted strategies to protect the value of the prize in the meantime.
South Africa’s heavy focus on variously promoting human rights or acting as champion for the underdog and its attempts to export its peace-by-negotiated-settlement approach to conflict resolution are all examples of the first. The country’s new preoccupation with participation in peace support operations is another, as is the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). It is these instruments that are meant to portray South Africa as a middle power “punching above its own weight” and the only contender for the permanent African UNSC seat — when that time comes. South Africa’s reaction during the 2003 Iraq war, while partly an exercise in gaining recognition as champion for the underdog and peace-by-negotiated-settlement, was mostly a reaction to the threat US unilateralism seemed to pose to South Africa’s cherished aspiration. A permanent seat is worth a lot less with the US acting outside the multilateral system, than with America operating within its fetters.
But the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies warns in its 2002/3 Strategic Survey that these ambitions could become unstuck. First, the think-tank said there was a fear in South African circles that an aggressively idealistic US foreign policy might one day threaten the sovereignty of African nations. “In addition to its avowed ‘human rights` foreign policy orientation, underlying South Africa`s strongly independent line with respect to Iraq and Zimbabwe is the (ruling) ANC`s (African National Congress) latent anti-Western sentiment – shaped by a history of colonisation, the socialist background of many ANC leaders, some conservative Western leaders` historical ambivalence towards the ANC, and, to some extent, religion and race.” It also warned that NEPAD was veering from substance to process. “In terms of process, NEPAD witnessed a flurry of activity in 2002… Despite these nominal organisational successes, NEPAD has so far not adequately met four stiff challenges: the disputed nature of some embryonic African Peer Review Mechanism; the more tangible problem of Zimbabwe; organisational visibility; and organisational overstretch.” Further undermining NEPAD was a continuing schizophrenic Western response to African development needs, where some take NEPAD seriously, others see it as another attempt by poor nations to soak the rich – or have another go at milking the (European Union) cow – and many cannot make up their minds.
The International Situation
NEPAD is not the only game in town. There is also the “War on Terror.” Surveying the continent like Roman pro-consuls from Stuttgart and Florida respectively, the commanders-in-chief of the US European (EUCOM) and Central Commands also have a direct impact on events. General James Jones, the Marine in charge in Europe, is also the head of NATO, where he carries the title of Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR). NATO has for some time been pursuing a “Mediterranean Dialogue” with coastal North African states and is intending driving that engagement south. EUCOM has for some time been engaging Africa through a number of Offices for Defence Co-operation. There is one in Pretoria. What is the US agenda? Simply this: “Police yourselves, and we are willing to help you in this; or we will garrison you and do the job ourselves.” This is merely a variation on the old German saying that you always have an army on your soil – either your own or someone else`s. The choice is ours. However, peace support is expensive and the US would, no doubt, prefer to see African states police their own backyard. In this regard it can be argued that Egypt has the manpower, equipment and will to do the job. Libya, for now lacks the means, but it has the money and indications from Colonel Moamer Qadhafi himself are that his intelligence services have already been cooperating with the US for some time. This raises the question of what South Africa brings to the party. An attitude problem? Bluff and bluster?
South Africa`s National Defence Force
“Speak quietly and carry a big stick” was a proverb US President Teddy Roosevelt (1859-1919, in office 1901-1909) apparently picked up in West Africa. As the “Madiba magic” wears off this will become increasingly true for South Africa`s foreign policy practitioners. The more resistance they encounter to their ambitions, the larger the stick needs to be – and the more likely that it will see use. That big stick is the SANDF. What is required is an “oak” defence force: strong and properly crafted to meet the requirements of its wielder. What we have now is an “oak tree” defence force: despite healthy outward appearances, it is weak and hollow in the middle. Indeed there is a growing opinion that we are back to the bleak days of the 1950s – the time after the infamous “Erasmus purges.” Then defence minister Frans Erasmus had stripped the Union Defence Force (UDF) of much of its capacity by sacking capable English-speaking officers and replacing the with indifferent Afrikaners, often newly-promoted sergeants. Much of the malaise now troubling the SANDF can be traced to this event, for much of the traditions and military ethos of the pre-1948 UDF did not survive. Prior to this event, the UDF commissioned officers. Afterwards, and arguably to this day, it trains functionaries, uniformed civil servants.
There are at least three factors at play that have given us an oak tree instead of an oak staff. The “oak tree” approach was all that was needed during the uniformed welfare service days. However, Mbeki`s ambitions require more of it. But what exactly? That`s where Mbeki himself enters the debate. Its is he who must decide what type of oak staff he wants. The public also has say. It is they who must ultimately pay. Even the SANDF now agrees the current Defence Review is outdated. Yet no one seems to be in much of a hurry to replace it with something more relevant. This could be because the President has not yet applied his mind to the problem, but is more likely the fact that the current situation suits the bureaucrats in the Armscor building (defence headquarters.) With the old “outdated” and the new yet to be written, they are in hog heaven – and accountable to none – not even Parliament. For without a benchmark, who can say when objectives are met? Under such circumstances it is easy to be sidetracked by statistics and racial quotas. The first Parliament (1994-1999) deliberately excluded the SANDF and the intelligence services from most labour legislation. The second Parliament (1999-2004), deprived of any other meaningful criteria in its oversight of the armed forces, seem to have forgotten this.
This brings us to the next major mystery – the actual readiness of the SANDF`s regular component. In one sense it is yet another reference to the hackneyed “Aids and age” debate but on the other it is the apparent ability of the military to generate great paperwork but only mediocre follow-through. Thus we have Human Resources Strategy 2010 on paper and confusion on the ground. We have clever structures on PowerPoint, with 17 infantry battalions and other regiments galore, but to the north we suffer “overstretch” after deploying three. How can that be?
The Reserves are no better – and indeed every further cent spent on them is potentially a wasteful expenditure. Our Reserves enjoy an expensive luxury – the ability to serve at their pleasure rather than the President`s. A strange oversight in the new Defence Act, coupled to an absence of a contractual commitment, means any Reservist can absorb as much paid-for training as he can take – but can resign within 24 hours if he is called to arms. An organigram of the Defence Reserves has as much real value as a guarantee of financial propriety at Parmalat, the Italian dairy. Until the oversight is corrected or the contracts are amended, the entire structure is a swindle.
The single most important strategic lesson of Exercise African Shield, held in November last year, is that the SA Military Health Service (SAMHS) is an impractical anachronism. Attempts to treat it as an equal alongside the Army, Air Force and Navy, all combatant services, failed early on and the medics were relegated to a joint support command. Once in their proper place, they could nearly seamlessly operate with their British peers. South Africa is one of the few countries that have insisted, for parochial reasons, on giving their military doctors and health professionals a Service of their own. This is no longer sustainable. The sooner the SAMHS join the military police as an agency within the SANDF`s Joint Support Division, the better. There it can also be trimmed down from its current, excessive, establishment of around 8,000. To give credit where it is due, the plan proposed by SAMHS Reserve Force Colonel and medical doctor GR Hide in a Parliamentary briefing in November last year to establish an Anglo-US-style Reserve Officer Training System to train reserve officers and medical practitioners deserves execution. One concern is that it does not appear the US Reserve Officer Training Corps trains doctors. They are not supposed to have time after hours or in vacations to undergo military training. The Army should certainly vigorously push ahead with such a scheme. It is provided for in HR2010.
The most forward-thinking Service, on the evidence available, is the Navy. This can be seen, among other things in Vice Admiral Johan Retief`s approach to the Naval Reserves (NR). The current system is being scrapped because the R7 to R8-million spent on it per year is yielding negligible returns. The seven NR bases were administrative units that required weekly parades but generated little training. “The NR is designed to focus on the combat capability of the Navy. They have no other focus or any other reason to exist,” a Navy briefing document said. In this regard the current system failed entirely, and although the units “represented a strong emotional aspect, with trophies and get-togethers into which a lot of voluntary work and dedication had gone,” it did not enhance the wartime combat capability of the Navy in any way. Sensible.
Less judicious is the Navy`s unfathomable insistence on presenting itself as “non-aggressive,” as evidenced in the latest South African edition of Popular Mechanics. The February edition carries a well-illustrated feature on the SAS Amatola, the first of South Africa`s new Valour-class “patrol corvettes” – the term itself another fib. Supposedly small, all-purpose warships, the Valour Class is more powerfully armed than most recent US guided-missile frigate designs. It is sad that an otherwise media-savvy organisation should choose to hide behind such fabrications. One can only hope the Navy is not to blame for the situation and that misguided political forces in the ministry, DoD and SANDF are. The unfortunate consequence of this “non-aggressive” approach is a lack of “punch.” Neither the Valours nor the Type 209 submarines also under construction for the Navy have a land-attack missile capability – an unequivocal essential in so-called littoral (coastal) warfare these days. Asked by this writer why the ships and subs would lack such a capability, a senior admiral almost seemed appalled at the question. While the urge to attempt to assure all and sundry that the ships and boats will not be used to invade neighbours or attack fellow continentals, it must be asked why this should still be necessary. Is this not clear from the 1996 Defence White Paper or the later Defence Review? Is there not a SADC Mutual Defence Pact and is South Africa not a prime mover behind the African Union`s Peace and Security Council? Instead of aggression the admiral and Popular Mechanics stressed deterrence. Yet the Valours` means of deterrence are limited to a puny 76mm gun and eight Exocet anti-ship cruise missiles. The latter cannot be reloaded at sea. Theories of deterrence usually stress the high cost of aggression – people generally avoid stepping on snakes for the nasty bite a snake, so offended, can inflict.
The Army is at present dismantling its rear-area protection function because it became confused with supporting the police. In addition, the present government remains skeptical of the political reliability of the Reserve component tasked with area protection, the Commandos. This skepticism led Mbeki to announce their disbanding by 2009. This has suited the Army well. Supporting the police has become a multiple burden. The Army is not allowed to budget for police support and are not reimbursed by the SAPS for doing so. Funding therefore has to be “stolen” from elsewhere in the budget. Supporting the police also required an extensive infrastructure – a joint tactical headquarters in every province and nearly 20 “group headquarters” under their command to control the commandos, in addition to several regular infantry battalions tasked with rear area protection. All this can now go – or so they seem to hope. The Army also appears to use this exercise as the legal peg on which to hang the demobilisation of several thousand “supernumaries” or otherwise unwanted rank and file. The expectation is this will free funds to implement HR2010, recruit youths and step-up training. Let`s hope so. Let us also trust some of this will be used to build up the “conventional” reserves. At present, the Army`s 52 conventional reserve units have to share R10-million out of a R22-billion budget – a sick joke. This raises the next decision required: The Army`s actual needs. At the moment a top-down approach that justifies the number of generals at Dequar Street rather than articulate the number of units of all types required is used. “Actual needs” will also have to consider those of the Joint Support Division, who told Parliament in November last year that they were concerned about supply-line security. This brings us back to the Commandos – the function of rear area security forces is not police support – it is guarding national key points, roads and bridges, railways, depots and supply dumps during war from saboteurs and enemy special forces. By executing a perceived political requirement to do away with the entire function, the entire logistics system could be left vulnerable. It is not reasonable to expect supply units to provide rear-area security beyond their own immediate self-protection – they already have a day-job. Neither is this a task for conventional reserve units as some have suggested – they will be needed at the front. It will also be trouble to ask the police to do this function. Wartime rear-area protection is a military task. The police made much of their demilitarisation some years ago. Have they since secretly re-militarised and acquired the skill to defend a bridge or supply dump against a determined ground attack? This is not some security-guard type function or a problem requiring a “bobby-on-the-beat” solution.
The Air Force needs to train more Reserve pilots. This is not a job that can be outsourced. At the same time, the reserve must be more vigorously utilised. The Swiss have been doing it for years. As in so many other cases, working examples are in place. All we need to do is notice them and implement.
11 January 2004