SA military is ‘unravelling’

The SA National Defence Force is in an “appalling” state of readiness. It could not handle much beyond the most trivial crisis, the Sunday Tribune reports.
It yesterday quoted acknowledged defence expert Helmoed-Römer Heitman as saying that despite the purchase of big-ticket items in “the controversial arms deal, the defence force is ‘unravelling` rapidly”.

Heitman and other analysts blame ageing equipment, a skills shortage and the lack of a budget to match the increasing demands being made on the force, the Sunday paper added. .
“Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu has expressed happiness with the readiness of the defence force,” Heitman said in a full-page feature also placed in the Sunday Independent.
“The reality is that the state of readiness is appalling: The SANDF is in no way capable of handling anything but the most minor crisis.” Heitman says the present SANDF could not mount an effective intervention to stabilise Zimbabwe or rescue its peacekeeping troops in places such as Darfur.

It would struggle to patrol the Mozambique Channel if piracy moved south and hit our shipping directly.
“It lacks the aircraft and ships to patrol our waters effectively,” he says.

It also lacks the troops to take over border security from the police, as Sisulu has suggested it should.

Henri Boshoff of the Institute of Security Studies in Pretoria, a retired officer, agreed the defence force “would struggle to execute some simple operations”.

He adds that it cannot even deploy a cohesive battalion but must deploy composite units, because too many of the soldiers are “over-age and medically unfit”. And budget cuts have had a severe effect on, for instance, firearms training.

He also agreed with retired Brigadier-General George Kruys of the University of Pretoria that a high proportion of vehicles deployed for peace support operations are unserviceable.
“The roots of the problem are multiple,” said Heitman. “Most obvious is the mismatch between defence funding and what is demanded of the defence force.
“The SANDF is doing an 18-battalion job with an 11-battalion army. That cannot be sustained.”

Professor Renfrew Christie, dean of research at the University of the Western Cape, believes that “the secretariat and the generals have self-censored the requirements of the defence force.
“The result is that the real needs have not been communicated to the Treasury. They should be saying what they really need to do the job.”

Another root cause of the problem is “the overdone defence cuts after 1989, which created a massive bow wave of obsolescence that threatens to overwhelm the army in particular”, says Heitman.

He also blames the wasted cost of “re-engineering” the defence force according to business principles, which must now be undone.

And he fingers “the unwillingness to enforce discipline or demand integrity, even from senior officers”.

The result, says Heitman, is a defence force “that is unravelling, and that will unravel ever more quickly as equipment runs out of useful life, as pilots leave for lack of flying and technical personnel for better salaries, and as experienced officers retire and good junior officers leave in disgust”.

But not all the news is bad, he says. SA troops have performed well in Burundi, the Central African Republic, Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The government’s bold decision to deploy troops in Burundi 10 years ago and “the professional conduct of our troops” stabilised the country.

He says emerging young officers and Special Forces in particular are keen, properly trained and want to do the job professionally.

But he warns that the defence force must move quickly to keep them.

Despite the huge controversy around the arms deal, Heitman says “the actual equipment is good, suited to our requirements and was acquired on excellent terms.
“The four frigates, in particular, were a stunning bargain compared with what other navies paid for similar ships in the same period.”

Despite the good news, the defence force “is running on empty”.

The government must urgently review what it wants the defence force to do and the force must then set out clearly what it requires to do its job properly.
“The government must either provide adequate funding or cut back the demands it makes of the defence force,” says Heitman.

DA shadow minister of defence David Maynier says that if it does not do that, the country will be left with “soldiers without vehicles, ships without sailors, planes without pilots, and military hospitals without doctors”.

Pic: SA Peackeepers