Defence analysts say a cut in the defence and military veterans budget will hurt the military. Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan yesterday cut this year’s defence budget by R272 742 000, taking the R30 715 333 allocated in February down to R30 442 591 just for the year to March 2011.
The cut is in addition to R3.2 billion pruned from this year’s budget in February. This caused the Department of Defence (DoD) to warn in March that it was underfunded by at least R7.335 billion for the current financial year.
Consultant and naval strategist, Rear Admiral Rolf Hauter (Retired) says the cutting of defence budgets “has recently been the ‘in thing’ in several countries. Examples like the UK, Germany and France stand out. It was therefore a question of time for South Africa to follow. However, cuts in South Africa appear to be ad hoc ‘to balance the books’. That is not necessarily a bad thing but over a period there should be a balance i.e. one must be able to make up what was lost sooner or later. Unfortunately this is not the case.
“The South African defence budget, defence policy and the actual employment of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has been out of sync for years, in fact since the early 1990s,” Hauter adds. “Warnings on the sustainability of the SANDF have been sounded countless times, alas to no avail. It actually goes beyond SANDF sustainability because it impacts directly on the defence industry. The latter is being compromised in its ability to retain employment levels, never mind creating employment, while irreplaceable skills are being lost. If there was ever an urgency to balance defence policy and budget the time is now. No defence force of the size and shape of the SANDF, nor the associated defence industry required to support it has ever been, nor will it ever be, sustained on the current budget.
“I must therefore call for an urgent defence review in the short term. The review must strike a manageable balance between the size, shape and employment of the SANDF with the available financial resources that government can afford to allocate to defence in relation with national priorities. Most important is that such a review must be implemented to the word without fear or favour. If not, the review will be to no avail and the SANDF will suffer even more. In addition, the review must be sufficiently transparent to allow the defence related industry to plan the supply of products and services to the ‘reviewed SANDF’ in a way that will ensure the reliability required.
“Last but not least, Government will have to brace itself for further industry closures, job losses and the eventual disappearance of high tech skills in the industry. Added to this will probably be an increased reliance on foreign suppliers which will lead to added strategic risks over the medium to long term.
“Nevertheless, I salute all in the DOD and congratulate them with what they keep achieving despite the dire challenges with which they are faced. Such achievements will, however, eventually become impossible,” Hauter says.
Defence analyst Helmoed-Römer Heitman says that time may be closer than one thinks. The DoD’s April 2010- March 2013 strategic plan cut flying hours for he Saab Gripen advanced light fighter from this years’ 550 hours to just 250 for next year and 2012. He noted the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation requires fighter pilots to log at least 20 flight hours per month (240 flight hours per year per pilot) to remain qualified. That is obviously not possible on the current budget.
“A defence force is a complex machine that needs to be maintained carefully over time; it does not respond at all well to on/off funding, and very quickly loses its edge and also becomes brittle when underfunded,” Heitman says. Cutting defence funding because of a – visibly so – temporary hiccup in government cash flow is a thoughtless kneejerk action that is going to cost us in the long term.
“Given the damage that it will do to the defence industry, it is also going to cost us economically – companies will shrink or close down, and future equipment acquisition will be from overseas, so money that could have been spent here, and which would have retained and developed skills, will flow out of the country. I do not think there is another sector that will have quite the same knock-on damaging effect as a result of cuts as defence.
“The cut coming on top of the not fully funded salary increases and World Cup will also force the DF to take even more money away from training and equipment maintenance just to fund day-to-day running costs, with the result that the availability and combat effectiveness of the SANDF will slide. The effect on morale will also be very negative, although we will only notice this a little later when we wonder why even more young officers and non-commissioned officers are leaving.
“The White Paper on Defence specifically said that government ‘will request from Parliament sufficient funds to enable the SANDF to perform its tasks effectively and efficiently’ (that was para 43.4 of Chapter 3 in the draft). We are clearly not doing that, and have not done so for a considerable time, despite clear warnings by the service chiefs of the danger involved.
“The white paper also specifically said that ‘the government will not endanger the lives of military personnel through improper deployment of the provision of inadequate or inferior weapons and equipment’. We are very clearly and unambiguously endangering the lives of our personnel by not providing adequate equipment and by forcing them to operate with inferior – as in extremely old, for example the C-47TP – equipment (that was para 43.6).
“The bottom line is that government is not meeting its unspoken commitment to our soldiers to give them the tools they need to perform their duties,” Heitman added.
“A few months ago I voiced the view that we probably had two or three years in which to catch the slide and turn the DF around (and a bit less time for the industry). Unless this cut is undone come next year’s budget, the period of grace is now probably two years at best. After that we are almost irrevocably on the way to having an expensive constabulary pretending to be a DF, and turning that around will require a massive, expensive, effort.”