A lack of funds is harming the South African Army, increasingly undermining training, skills retention, operational capability and equipment acquisition. It also means the landward service cannot sustain combat operations, force preparation and assistance to the civil power, called “support for the people” at any scale simultaneously.
The Department of Defence (DoD) earlier this year warned Parliament that the Army faced a budget shortfall of R2.688 billion, including a R1.616 billion “operating shortfall”, for this current financial year alone. While underfunding is not a new phenomenon, it was exacerbated this year by R2.1 billion being taken from the land service’s Strategic Defence Account, used for equipment acquisition an technology development.
South African Army director strategy Brigadier General Eddie Drost last month told the National Assembly’s Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans landward renewal – a stated top priority for the DoD – “is not coming to fruition” with most projects “on hold because of cost escalation”.
Drost told MPs the Army had limited funds to staff current approved structure and was suffering a critical loss of skills because they cannot pay soldiers a competitive salary, especially in the more technical musterings such as the Ordnance Service Corps, Technical Service Corps and Catering Corps. A lack of of logisticians, mechanics and cooks are having a “major impact on combat readiness.” Those who are available are being over-utilised, which has “social implications”, including family trouble and resignation.
The general cautioned that no humane exit mechanism was available to exit unfit, sick and aged troops, which left the military in a position where it has troops, but cannot deploy them. The human resources (HR) budget is depleting the operating budget. In February this year, the National Treasury allocated R9 982 892 000 to the Army, of which R5 674 660 000 was for “compensation of employees”. In October, the total budget was reduced to R9 900 566 000 but salaries increased to R6 798 803 000 as a result of the salary increases for lower ranking personnel announced by President Jacob Zuma last December. One practical effect of this is that there is no funds – HR or operating – for larger Military Skills Development System intakes. These recruits are needed to rejuvenate and lower the average age of the lower ranks while also reinforcing the Reserve. Drost warned MPs that the current limited feed would cause the Army Reserve to “implode if tendency prevails.”
The funding shortage has also seen stock levels – including ammunition – depleted; which impacts on training. The age of the Army’s vehicle fleet – well over 30 years – also means they are more prone to breakdown and cost more to maintain than had they been younger. The current lack of funds means broken-down vehicles cannot immediately be repaired, reducing the number available to support operations or training. Drost says this has affected the Army’s holding of A (armoured combat), B (trucks), C (engineer or construction) and D (commercial off-the-shelf) vehicles.
The Army is also hobbled by “old, unserviceable, beyond economic repair and obsolete equipment kept in service at high cost.” The R4 assault rifle, for example, is being kept “operational through cannibalisation”. Also troubling the Army is their “zone 1 anti-tank weapon’, the RPG-7 and the M5 120mm mortar equipping the the Light Battery assigned to the Chief of the South African National Defence Force’s Reaction Force.
There is also limited preparation and capacity building for future operations. The Army lacks suitable training areas and equipment for urban, jungle, desert and mountain warfare and had found that simulation was “too expensive”. As a result, knowledge is declining. Drost lamented limited funds and capacity to do research-and-development or to test new doctrine.
Drost cautioned that the “SA Army is no light switch that can be put on and off and the effect would be immediate. It takes time to build capabilities.” If a requirement arises suddenly, there may be too little time to start building the capability. “Capabilities must be constantly maintained. If no or limited capabilities exist, this may invite opportunism from international role players.”
Meanwhile, the Army provided a reinforced battalion to the Joint Operations Division (J Ops) for peacekeeping duty in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Operation Mistral) and another in Darfur, Sudan (Operation Cordite). The SANDF also recently ended a lengthy deployment to Burundi (Operation Curriculum) that also required it to provide a battalion for service there.
External training in the recent period included schooling the Namibian Army’s artillery corps in the use of the G2 (140mm) medium gun and Opration Vimbezela,where 14 courses have been presented to the armed forces of the Central African Republic. In the DRC, Mission Thebe has trained one infantry battalion, an artillery battery, an intelligence troop and support personnel.
At home, the Army supported the police by way of J Ops during the soccer World Cup (Operation Kgwele) and took back the border security function (Operation Corona). The Army also hosted foreign forces for training, notably the British Army for Exercise African Thorn and the Singapore forces for Exercise Lightning Warrior. The Army further hosted Southern African Development Community militaries for Exercise Golfinho and over the New Year built three bridges in the Eastern Cape (Operation Chariot).