Is the South African defence sector fighting in the correct weight class?


SA has a new fighting champion, Dricus du Plessis. As he said after winning the UFC middleweight title bout against Sean Strickland of the United States: Nou weet hulle wat ons weet – Now they know what we know. This is applicable to the SA Defence sector as South Africa is fighting above its weight class in the international arena.

This statement is backed up by the Global Firepower (GFP) Index. According to the GFP website; “The GFP ranking is based on a nation’s potential war-making capability across land, sea, and air fought by conventional means. The results incorporate values related to manpower, equipment, natural resources, finances, and geography represented by 60+ factors used in formulating the finalized GFP ranks.”

In the opening line of The Art of War, “Sun Tzu said: The art of war is of vital importance to the State.” This is followed up by the statement that defence capability “is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.”

The problem is that our own government seems to take South Africa’s defence capability for granted, which can lead to ruin. In chapter 6, paragraph 24 of the Art of War, Tzu states; “Carefully compare the opposing army with your own, so that you may know where strength is super-abundant and where it is deficient.” South Africa needs to remember that a war-making capability is a deterrent. South Africa does not seem to be leveraging its capabilities to take up the country’s true potential.

Perception is Reality.

War-making capability is fundamentally based on funding. Where does South Africa stand in relation to other nation states? Below are a few extracts from the GFP ranking to compare South African defence capability with regional and international capabilities [although keep in mind the Global Firepower Index is not a completely reliable metric as it’s made for popular reading without serious analysis that takes into account verified facts, actual equipment status, funding, economy, politics etc. Nevertheless, it’s a useful starting point.].

Country GFP Ranking Defence Budget GDP Defence % GDP
South Africa 33 $2.7B $405B 0.7%


The SA GFP ranking is flattering as it uses SANDF equipment numbers, not equipment serviceability numbers. As example, 175 tanks are on account, irrespective that most of these are based on Olifant 1A versions that are not current fighting baseline. Nonetheless, SA has a solid ranking with super-abundant opportunity.

As a first comparison, South Africa need to compare countries surrounding it in the rankings:

Country GFP Ranking Defence Budget GDP Defence % GDP
Greece 32 $5.9B $242B 2.4%
South Africa 33 $2.7B $405B 0.7%
Philippines 34 $4.1B $440B 0.9%


We can see that South Africa is relatively close in comparison with the Philippines, but is still found wanting in terms of budget. It seems as though $4 billion (1% of GDP) may be a suitable funding target.

A comparison would not be complete if we did not examine the Africa rankings of the five top ranking countries, besides South Africa.

Country GFP Ranking Defence Budget GDP Defence % GDP
Egypt 15 $9.4B $475B 2.0%
Algeria 26 $21.6B $195B 11.0%
South Africa 33 $2.7B $405B 0.7%
Nigeria 39 $4.0B $477B 0.8%
Ethiopia 49 $0.9B $120B 0.75%
Angola 55 $1.6B $121B 1.3%


South African GDP is close to Egypt and Nigeria. The best comparison would be to examine Nigeria that has a similar regional influence ambition as South Africa. There is the possibility that in the near future Nigeria could leap over SA in the ranking based on their focus on defence capability. Again, the funding number of $4 billion (1% of GDP) may be a suitable funding target.

We need to compare South Africa with the neighbouring country rankings:

 Country GFP Ranking Defence Budget GDP Defence % GDP
South Africa 33 $2.7B $405B 0.7%
Botswana 126 $1.6B $21B 7.6%
Namibia 124 $0.37B $25B 1.5%
Zimbabwe 101 $0.14B $32B 0.4%


The GFP rankings of Southern African Development Community (SADC) neighbours are what could lead to the government taking the capability for granted. The GFP ranking takes into account a number of factors that negatively affect our neighbours. It is not just a defence force analysis. Why are SA’s neighbours spending so much on defence capability? Our neighbours seem to take the international norm of 1.5 – 2% of GDP spending on defence seriously. Even Angola is close to the 1.5% of GDP mark. They are intent on defending sovereignty and the economy. If SA were to spend 1.5% of GDP on defence there would be a $6 billion allocation. This would almost cover the Defence Review Milestone 4 force requirement, but it would definitely cover the Milestone 3 ambitions and force structure requirements.

On a purely defence funding comparison, I would like to highlight the status of the country that has the 33rd highest defence spending. The Country at rank 33 in defence budget spending is Iran:

Country GFP Ranking Defence Budget GDP Defence % GDP
Iran 14 $9.9B $366B 2.7%
South Africa 33 $2.7B $405B 0.7%


Iran is a state that is on a war footing status similar to what South Africa experienced during the 1970-80s. Their defence spending is high and the Iran defence industry is creating capabilities required due to exclusion from the international arms market.

Lastly, if you select South Africa in the GFP ranking, the site shows comparable countries to SA.

Country GFP Ranking Defence Budget GDP Defence % GDP
Sweden 29 $11.3 $648B 1.7%
South Africa 33 $2.7B $405B 0.7%
Norway 41 $8.2B $547B 1.7%
Czechia 45 $6.5B $335B 1.9%


These are all stable countries. Yet all of the countries are within the international norm of 1.5 – 2% of GDP spending on defence. Each country has industrial sectors that are linked with defence capabilities. Both Sweden and Czechia have robust aerospace industries and significant defence industrial capabilities. Norway is more like South Africa with Kongsberg (C4IRS/Electronics) and Nammo (ammunition innovator). This shows that defence spending can stimulate the related defence industry capabilities that allow a country to maintain strategic and sovereign independence. SA should be at a defence funding allocation of at least 1.5% of GDP to compete with similar nation states. SA should be considering spend at 1.5% of GDP on defence ($6 billion allocation).

The problem is that South Africa seems to be neglecting defence capability as a subject of inquiry. The comparative analysis indicates that South Africa should be in the defence funding bracket of $4-6 billion to align with comparative nation states in a defence readiness capability.

In summary, South Africa projects to fight way above its weight. Yet, South Africa is super-deficient in funding its defence capability. Government cannot complain. Now they know what we know. Something needs to be done urgently. This can lead to tears in the near future.

Written by James Kerr, Orion Consulting CC, which provides Market Entry Strategy and Bid & Proposal services to the Aerospace & Defence related industry and assists international SME mission system product suppliers to gain traction in South Africa.