Defence experts, academics and the Department of Defence (DoD) are issuing warnings over the precarious state of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and how a lack of funding is compromising its capabilities.
Secretary for Defence Dr Sam Gulube said earlier this month that “We’re in a difficult situation now whereby we no longer have adequate funding to ensure that we have the necessary numbers of soldiers to defend our country’s borders. Our borders continue to remain porous.”
With the defence budget standing at .8% of GDP and shrinking in real terms, and an effective R5 billion reduction looming over the next five years, Gulube said “The resources available to the SANDF are no longer adequate to ensure that the territorial integrity of our country is adequately secured.”
"The defence force capabilities are now on a decline... In terms of our assessment, we need 22 companies to safeguard our borders effectively, but because of our reductions we can only deploy 15."
Defence analyst Helmoed Romer Heitman, in a recent interview with the Sunday Times, said that the target of 2% of GDP spent on defence is realistic over the medium term and would do the job government wants the defence force to do.
He said the current R48.6 billion SANDF/DoD budget is not value for money as we are paying too much for border guarding and too little to do the regional job, yet the borders are porous. “It’s a problem. We also don’t’ what flies over the border. We don’t have the radar coverage. We don’t know what comes over the beach, either.”
Heitman said the SANDF should be scaled back under the current budget, starting with administrative and support services. “There are lots of people pushing paper on desks. We can also scale back in the air force and navy. We have too many generals in administrative posts, and too many in three-star posts that used to be one-star posts.” However, he cautions that cutting too much would result in thousands of people without jobs, which is something any government would not like to look at.
Ideally, Heitman believes government should scale back its ambitions or find the money to pay for the SANDF, or the defence force fades away to sheltered employment, or implodes. This has happened to some extent, he said, with a lot of the good people going and a lot of young officers leaving because they don’t see a future. “We've lost capabilities that are critical.”
The SANDF is implementing some measures to address the funding shortfall, such as repairing vehicles internally, trimming the wage bill, implementing elements of the Defence Review and attempting to get United Nations peacekeeping reimbursements paid directly to the DoD.
Associate Professor of Strategy at the Stellenbosch University’s Faculty of Military Science, Abel Esterhuyse, recently said that the problem is not in the size of the budget; the problem is how that budget is divided. “A bigger defence budget is not the solution. Almost every problem in the SANDF is personnel related… Searching for the solution in the budgetary domain is the easy way out.”
Esterhuyse said the SANDF should not place hope in the rollout of the Defence Review as it was “drafted without considering the costs and threats facing the country,” nor should it expect an increase in funding. “It needs to accept the reality that it is not to receive a cent more than what’s already allocated. For the foreseeable future, defence spending will remain at about 1% of GDP. South Africa cannot afford the 2% of GDP that’s accepted for defence spending across the world.”
Esterhuyse believes the SANDF will struggle to avoid the tasks its political masters give it in spite of dwindling funding that makes it difficult to carry out these tasks as it is an element of foreign policy. “For the SANDF, these realities unfold along the lines of a need to be everything for everybody, with little strategic guidance and priorities forthcoming from the political domain.”
“Generals, functioning in a self-sanctioning institutional culture of misplaced political loyalty, stretch the defence capacity to please their political masters. In the process, they oversee the breakdown of the institution they command, because there are limits to what a defence force can do.
“Politicians don’t necessarily understand the borders of these limitations and, if not clearly outlined, this may have disastrous consequences for the military as an institution,” Esterhuysen said in an opinion piece.
Esterhuyse, like Heitman, believes the SANDF should be allowed to do only what it can with the current budget, or its budget increased to match its commitments. Regardless, Esterhuyse believes the SANDF spends too much on personnel and is burdened by looking after military veterans, and needs to start by solving these problems.