The 2013 defence budget is again entirely disconnected from what government expects of the Defence Force. The result will be a continued decline in capability that will accelerate if not arrested within the present Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF).
That is not to say that defence is grossly under-funded, but the defence budget is grossly inadequate for the missions and tasks assigned to the Defence Force.
Thus an Army of 13 battalions and commitments requiring 17; a Navy of 5 surface units with commitments requiring 12; and an Air Force critically short of airlift and flying 70 year-old aircraft for maritime surveillance. That can only lead to implosion, even if the Army can rely on reserves fed by unemployment to postpone the inevitable.
Government must decide what it wants the Defence Force to do and then provide appropriate funding, otherwise it will fail at some critical moment.
If South Africa wants to play the regional power role and enjoy the influence that comes with that, it must provide the funds to expand the Army and replace its 30+ year old equipment, to acquire the necessary ships and to acquire the necessary aircraft.
If government deems that to be unaffordable, it must relinquish its regional power aspirations and task the Defence Force to focus on border security and a core capability to protect critical external assets and interests.
Government must then also accept not just the loss of the influence that comes with regional power status, but also that other African governments will feel betrayed by Africa’s largest economy declining to accept commensurate regional security responsibilities.
If we are not going to fund a Defence Force with regional capability, we must begin now to refocus and restructure appropriately. To continue the pretence of regional capability is a sad waste of money. Worse, it could lead wilfully blind politicians to make commitments that we cannot meet.
So what can a defence budget at 2013 levels actually sustain?
Assuming restructuring of support and infrastructure elements becomes more efficient, the Army could sustain:
• A border protection force of eight battalions.
• A mechanised brigade as a mobile strike force, incorporating some reserve units.
• An air assault battalion as a ‘swing force’ to support either of them.
That force would cost about R8.5 billion per year, assuming that new equipment is phased in over ten years, leaving R5.35 billion for the support and infrastructure elements and for field training. While this provides for re-equipping two mechanised infantry battalion groups and for some new trucks, most units would retain 30+ year old equipment over the decade.
That small but reasonably balanced Army could meet immediate defence needs for a time but would have no ability to provide forces for regional security missions, let alone to conduct an intervention. It would also require twenty years or more to regain any deterrent credibility.
The Navy could retain its four frigates, three submarines and single combat support ship, and add either two offshore patrol vessels or a second multi-role support ship, as well as replacing its mine-countermeasures systems and its various small craft.
That fleet would cost about R1.6 billion per year, leaving about R1.5 billion to cover ‘spiral upgrades’ of its ships, new small craft and training, and to fund its infrastructure of bases, the dockyard and various depots.
While the strategic surveillance capability of the submarines would enhance the effectiveness of the surface ships, that fleet would still be badly short of patrol capability: Allowing for refits, crew training and transit times, at least twelve major surface units are needed to cover South Africa’s waters and the Mozambique Channel through which our oil supplies move.
The fleet outlined here cannot do that job, let alone allow the Navy to respond when maritime crime on the west coast of Africa interferes with oil supplies from there and trade along that coast.
Assuming restructuring of support and infrastructure elements for greater efficiency, the Air Force would be able to:
• Keep the Gripen multi-role fighters and acquire additional airspace surveillance radars.
• Keep the Rooivalk attack and Oryx transport helicopters, for tactical Army support;
• Acquire four additional Super Lynx helicopters and eight maritime surveillance aircraft to support the Navy;
• Keep six of its 50-year old Hercules transport aircraft until they have to be retired.
The direct cost of those squadrons would be about R2.5 billion per year, leaving about R3.7 billion to acquire weapons for the Gripen and the Rooivalk (missiles, guided bombs), operate utility aircraft, carry out routine upgrades of aircraft, conduct flight and weapons training, and to fund the infrastructure of air bases and supporting units.
The Air Force would have to shed the Hawk fighter trainers and the A109 helicopters, future fighter pilots being sent to other countries for fast jet training. It would also have to retire the 70-year old Dakotas without replacement, and would have no funding to operate VIP aircraft.
This smaller Air Force would be able to protect and police South Africa’s airspace, provide a reasonable measure of support to the Navy, and effectively support the much smaller Army. But it would have no ability to deploy or support forces for regional missions and would not have any ability to patrol distant oceanic waters, such as around Marion Island or in terms of South Africa’s international search and rescue commitments.
Should government decide that its regional peace support commitments cannot be dropped, it would have to provide at least an additional R2.8 billion. Even then South Africa would be a sort of military labour broker – able to provide troops for others to employ, but incapable of deploying them, or of reinforcing or extracting them should a situation suddenly deteriorate. That capability would require a further R2.8 billion to acquire and operate the minimum fleet of transport aircraft needed. The only alternative would be to discard the ability to protect vital national interests and hope no threat materialises in the next thirty years.
If the Defence Force is to be more than sheltered employment, it will have to shed people to afford this force design, probably around 20 000. This smaller Defence Force would also not generate sufficient work to support the defence industry, which would wind down to a small support industry over the decade, shedding probably another 10 000 jobs over the decade. The roughly R8 billion of annual export income would also be lost.