Experts unpack the SANDF’s options in the DRC

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President Cyril Ramaphosa has committed up to 2 900 South African National Defence Force (SANDF) soldiers to the SADC Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (SAMIDRC) until mid-December. The deployment is off to a rocky start after two soldiers were killed in a mortar attack last week.

The M23 rebels that the SANDF (together with soldiers from Malawi and Tanzania who are making up the 5 000-strong SAMIDRC force), are facing are being equipped with modern weapons, including Rwandan-supplied surface-to-air missiles. They are also highly familiar with the terrain and can operate easily amongst the local population. The SANDF has limited to no air support and far too few troops on the ground, making the prospect of further deaths and injuries highly likely.

Seasoned defence expert Helmoed Romer Heitman believes the best option would be to “accept the loss of face and pull out” from the DRC as at least 20 000 troops with considerable air support are what is really needed to ensure success against the M23 and other armed groups operating in the east of the country. Heitman noted that the United Nations mission (MONUSCO) with 20 000 troops over two decades failed to bring peace to the eastern DRC, making it unlikely 5 000 SADC troops would do any better.

Failing a withdrawal, Heitman said the SANDF deployment should at least be equipped with 120 mm mortars if not some G5 155 mm howitzers, along with mortar locating radars, “if we still have any”.

At least around Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, the SANDF should deploy 35 mm guns and radars to protect against any larger unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – last week, Goma airport was attacked by small UAVs that apparently damaged some aircraft. The SANDF should also “urgently acquire portable anti-drone systems.”

Ground forces need to ensure that there are enough armoured vehicles for any likely movements. “We do not want another Bangui Y-junction,” he said, referring to the 2013 Battle of Bangui where dozens of South African paratroopers in unarmoured vehicles faced thousands of Seleka rebels, ultimately resulting in the deaths of 13 South African personnel.

In addition, some anti-tank weapons should be deployed. “The last time we faced a situation like this the CNDP had a company of T-55s in support,” Heitman said, referring to the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP in French), a political armed militia established in the Kivu region of the DRC in 2006 and engaged in the Kivu conflict against the military of the DRC before disintegrating in January 2009.

“Make sure there are enough medium direct fire weapons to counter technicals and car bombs as used in Somalia. Ensure that there is no clear vehicle run up to any gate or bunker/tower. Have everyone watch the clips of Al Shabaab attacks on Kenyan and Ugandan bases in Somalia.” Heitman also recommended ensuring there are trenches and bunkers everywhere.

If the South African Air Force can get aircraft in, it needs to ensure that their electronic countermeasures systems are up do date, Heitman urged, especially in the face of the surface-to-air missile threat.

African Defence Review Director Darren Olivier added to these recommendations by suggesting the return to flight of the Oryx and Rooivalk fleet “in any way possible…Light a fire under Denel, provide the funding from outside the budget, bring in a foreign provider, whatever you need to do.”

He also suggested having a defined plan for what to do at any escalation point, that should include withdrawal if, say, Rwanda enters directly. “Have this be rock solid between the Department of Defence (DoD) and Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) and communicated to both the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the DRC government. Obviously the specific details need to be kept secret, else it just gives the Rwandans a lever, but this cannot be a ‘there until the end’ scenario.”

Olivier recommends that the SANDF build proper bases and defensive positions, in addition to the trenches and bunkers. “South Africa appears to have forgotten the art of building defensible bases, being too used to UN-provided ones which were mostly awful too.”

To free up resources for the DRC, Olivier believes the SANDF needs to refuse to be part of an extension of the SADC Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM). “Tell government that if they want SAMIDRC they really need to wind down the internal deployments for Eskom and illegal mining.”

In addition to this, he believes South Africa “should be playing hardball with other SADC members to come to the party as well,” as SADC countries like Angola have large and well-equipped militaries but are not contributing to SAMIDRC.

“Engage in some high-level diplomacy with Rwanda. We need to know what their red lines are and what might push them into more overt support and when, so we can anticipate and avoid that. The diplomatic staff need to be urgently doing all they can to find a credible path forward that’ll work for both the DRC, Rwanda, and M23. Use our position to apply leverage on the DRC government too,” Olivier concluded.

Heitman believes that the SANDF should remain in SAMIM as South Africa will face “serious risk” if SAMIM is not extended or expanded – this year there has already been a big increase in ASWJ insurgent attacks in northern Mozambique ahead of SAMIM’s planned withdrawal.

“Cabinet should find funds to refurbish and upgrade equipment for both missions and to call up the entire Army reserve on a rotation basis to take over internal and border tasks,” Heitman said.

Speaking on the sidelines of the 21 February repatriation of the two fallen soldiers, Defence and Military Veterans Minister Thandi Modise defended the presence of SANDF members in the DRC and dismissed reports that the two deaths came because the country’s soldiers were ill-equipped.

“Will you congratulate us if we turn tail and come running home without concluding the mission that first of all Mandela set us on the path of? I don’t think South Africans would be proud of us,” she said. “We are not going into any country asking for war. We are going there trying to help build the peace”.