Many red flags in SA’s DRC deployment: R2 Billion, operational constraints, exit strategy, Rwanda – Prof Abel Esterhuyse

South Africa’s military is leading a mission of troops in collaboration with the Southern African Development Council (SADC), to neutralise M23 rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) after the withdrawal of 2000 United Nations peacekeepers. The deployment of 2,900 soldiers to the eastern part of the DRC will cost over R2 billion this year. President Cyril has said that the deployment of the force is South Africa’s international obligation. However, Prof Abel Esterhuyse from the Department of Strategic Studies at Stellenbosch has identified several red flags. He said although there is a broader issue of stability in Africa and for SADC, it is not clear what the national interest in the DRC conflict is. Prof Esterhuyse stated that South Africa is facing extremely difficult logistical and operational challenges for the DRC mission, which is not essentially a peacekeeping mission. A lack of infrastructure means no trains or roads for logistical support and airlifts would be needed to sustain the force which South Africa does not have. Additionally, there is a clash of interests with Rwanda, equipment incompatibility between the different SADC forces and a potential soldier morale problem as medical support would be complex. The military involvement is also taking place against a backdrop of severe SANDF funding constraints. Prof Esterhuyse pointed out that South African Military (SAMIL) trucks date back to 1981. He also wanted to know whether the R2 billion for the DRC mission would come out of the already challenged Defence Budget of R50 billion and whether the government has an exit strategy. Commenting on global tensions, he said, “The bigger picture is that we are increasingly seeing the kind of divide we saw in the 1930s with the democratic world on the one side and the autocratic world on the other, and there is growing tension between the two worlds.”

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:48 – Why South African troops are in DRC?
  • 02:48 – Is there a need for us to go into DRC to protect our interest?
  • 04:57 – Rebel groups operating in DRC
  • 09:59 – What resources does NDF have to undertake a peace keeping role?
  • 13:17 – 2021 July riots
  • 15:38 – The West get involved in wars
  • 18:03 – Donald Trump to ask Putin to attack
  • 20:48 – Conclusion

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Highlights from the interview ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Political motivation to sustain DRC involvement unclear

Well, it’s difficult to digest and work through what precisely the South African national interest that’s at stake in the DRC is. The government is framing this against the backdrop of international and African stability, and the withdrawal of the UN peacekeeping forces from the DRC. We’ve been in the DRC for the last 20 years without much strategic effect, I should say. I mean, we’ve seen about 17,000 UN forces, not peacekeepers, about 12,000 of the 17,000 were peacekeepers. However, it’s difficult to see through the build-up to where we are today, what precisely motivates the government to sustain the South African military involvement in the DRC and what interest there is for South Africa. Of course, there’s the broader interest of security in Africa. Of course, there’s a broader interest in SADC security. And of course, we all have an interest in the security of Africa. But, the closer you come to asking the question about South African interest in the DRC, the more you are searching in vain for answers.

SA’s mission in DRC is an extremely difficult logistical challenge 

Well, I think there are a lot of questions hanging in the air about the political motivation and South African interests, precisely because it is so far from South Africa. For the South African military to conduct a SADC peace mission where we are essentially the lead nation raises even more questions. It puts South Africa in the lead in conducting whatever they want to call that operation. I don’t think it’s really a peace mission anymore. I don’t want to call it an intervention. It’s difficult to digest precisely what kind of operation we are dealing with here. 

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But let us be very frank about this. From an operational perspective, it is an extremely difficult operation to conduct for a variety of reasons. It’s difficult for South Africa to project forces over that particular distance. The lack of infrastructure in Africa means we can’t use the trains for logistical support. We can’t really use road networks for logistical support. We are dependent on air, the strategic airlift to sustain the forces. To sustain a force of that nature over such a long distance with strategic airlift requires quite a substantial amount of strategic airlift. Of course, we don’t have that. We don’t have strategic airlift in the South African Air Force. So, it raises operational questions and quite a substantial amount of political questions about our involvement. 

Clash of interest with Rwanda, working with them in Mozambique, against them in DRC

We’re essentially dealing with a complex emergency with the main agent at the moment being the M23 rebels. However, the M23 rebels are supported by the Rwandese and a number of countries within the Great Lakes region. This makes it a very complex situation. Keep in mind that we are supposed to work with the Rwandese in resolving the issue in Mozambique, in the Mozambican counter-insurgency effort that we are involved in. So, we’re dealing with a clash of interests between South Africa and Rwanda.

There’s the potential, and this has always been to some extent the reality of what unfolds in the Eastern DRC, that there are so many role players involved that it’s very difficult to unpack the situation and understand precisely who the destabilising entity is and who is supporting whom. The reality is that there are so many resources at play in the Eastern DRC and for all practical purposes, no governance footprint from the government, the DRC government, in the Eastern DRC. So, it’s in many ways an ungoverned space where you have a whole range of actors trying to take some form of control.

Equipment incompatibility between various forces in the DRC 

We are pulling a large contingent from the UN out of that area of operations and we are now going to replace that with about 5,000 soldiers from SADC. It is  South Africa, Malawi, and Tanzania which leaves a whole range of questions hanging in the air from an operational perspective, in terms of the interoperability between the forces of those countries.  To what extent they are aligned, and to what extent do their logistics align. There are simple things like the South Africans using their main R4 rifle which is a 5.56 rifle, while both Malawi and Tanzania are using the 7.62. So, it’s a difficult alignment that we are dealing with in terms of forces and eventually a contingent of 5,000. I cannot see how the force-to-space ratio will allow the SADC Force to be proactive and eventually create some form of strategic effect..

Morale could be a problem if medical support is complex

If you talk about problems with logistical support, there are also problems in terms of air support. How many helicopters will we have within the area of operations? Will we have close air support perhaps by means of the Rooivalk attack helicopters that are not operational in the region at the moment? If you start talking about medical support and logistical support, the moment you create some form of doubt in the minds of the soldiers on the ground, you are immediately dealing with a problem of sustaining morale. If you cannot guarantee their medical evacuation, if something happens to them within a relatively short period of time, if you cannot provide them with close air support when they are in trouble, or when you cannot guarantee their logistics, it eventually affects the morale of the troops on the ground, and  the willingness of troops to put themselves out and to do what must be done.

There is no indication where R2 billion rand for SANDF deployment in DRC will come from

I found it quite intriguing when the President informed Parliament that it’s going to cost about R2 billion, but he was very explicit in his announcement that the expenditure will not impact provisions of the Defence forces’ regular maintenance and emergency repairs. It’s interesting that he highlighted that specific reality. It’s almost as if he wants to say this is the strategic problem we’re sitting with in the Defence force, but he’s not telling us where that money is actually going to come from.

So, let’s work on the assumption that R2 billion rand is to come from the more or less R50 billion that we have in our defence budget and it is a defence budget that is already overstretched. It’s a defence budget that is already raising questions as to how they’re sustaining the size of the South African Defence force with that kind of defence budget.

Personnel expenditures is a problem in defence budget

So, it’s going to create a lot of pressure on the South African defence budget. We need to keep in mind it’s a defence budget that is more or less covering a small number of operations, but the rest of it is almost exclusively allocated to personnel expenditures and that’s been the problem in the South African defence budget for quite some time. And so, it actually highlights the depth of the problem we’re sitting with because there’s very, very little money available in the defence budget that’s allocated for operations. If you then throw the R2 billion that will be required in the DRC into that small pot of money, you will more or less drain it.

There’s also the deployment in Mozambique that we need to sustain. It’s also a battalion plus deployment. It’s a relatively large deployment and then of course there’s quite a number of domestic deployments. The South African military over the last couple of years has become the stopgap, the security apparatus in South Africa, wherever problems are flaring up, they use the military. I don’t see the ability to manoeuvre within the defence budget to make provision for this R2 billion. 

SAMIL trucks date back to 1981, been through the border war

There are serious technological challenges in the South African military. I made the point the other day that our main logistical fleet, the SAMIL fleet of trucks that the military uses, was introduced in 1981. You need to ask yourself the question: they’ve been through the border war, through the bush war, through the war in Angola, the operations in Lesotho, how many deployments have they been in? How many of you are driving a vehicle that was registered in 1981? Our fleet of logistical vehicles is simply under pressure, and we will have to replace our fleet of logistical vehicles.

That’s just one of the problems that our military is sitting with, but it’s a vital problem. South Africa’s  deployment is 2,900 soldiers. On average, NATO is working ton a six-to-one tooth-to-tail ratio.Out of the 2,900, that gives you about 600 deployable troops, operational troops in the area. The rest are support people.. Unless the logistical support element is not included in the 2,900 troops, but that’s more or less the doctrine that most nations are working on is a 1-to-5, 1-to-6, tooth-to-tail ratio. So, this places the force-to-space ratio in the DRC even under a bigger spotlight. 

Where is the exit strategy? Lessons from the West and UN

Getting involved in wars and taking years to extract themselves is in a way what is happening with the UN mission at the moment. They have probably provided a lot of protection to civilian refugees and have done a lot of good during the 20 years of deployment. But you have to ask the question as to what strategic effect they had in ending the conflict. Very early on, the South Africans dealt quite decisively with the M23 rebels. But in the last week, we have seen them all of a sudden returning in numbers and shooting at South African aircraft in the DRC, shooting at South African helicopters, and people being wounded.  We have picked up that in the last two days there are South African casualties in the DRC as well. So all of a sudden, we’re sitting with a critical problem in the DRC. 

What is the South African exit strategy here? We have a deployment that’s approved by parliament for one year. But what after that year? What is going to happen by the 15th of December this year? Are we going to pull the forces out? What are we going to do? We don’t see an exit strategy here. I haven’t seen, I haven’t heard people talking about an exit strategy. It’s not quite clear what will happen by 15 December this year, whether we’re going to see another round of deployment for South Africa.

Divide of 1930s: Autocratic world versus the democratic world is back 

It’s an interesting situation we’re sitting with internationally. I think the bigger picture for me is that we are increasingly seeing the kind of divide that we saw in the 1930s, with the democratic world on one side and the autocratic world on the other. There’s growing tension between these two worlds. There’s a clear indication that there’s greater cooperation  in the autocratic world than in the democratic world. That is probably what’s going to happen if Donald Trump is elected as president in the United States. It’s quite clear in his expression of his relationship with the European Union.

There is the potential for a huge divide between America and the European Union, and I think this is part of Putin’s plan. This is perhaps part why Putin and Iran have provided so much support to Hamas because Hamas is playing into this divide. The American strategic interests are definitely more focused on support for Israel than on support for Ukraine at the moment. Whilst Europe’s focus is almost exclusively on Ukraine and not Israel. So, we’ve already seen some form of a divide kicking in there. One wonders to what extent that was a deliberate strategy from the autocratic world. 

I think the important reality for us, whilst there’s greater cooperation in the autocratic world, there are also a lot of economic pressures unfolding both in Russia and in China. That is perhaps our saving grace, if you’re sitting in the democratic world, that two realities will not merge and there’s a bit of tension between the political realities and the economic realities in that part of the world.

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