Mission impossible: SANDF stretched in DRC, ignoring porous borders, Mozambique risk – DA MP Kobus Marais

The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has come under fire from opposition parties for what they term ‘reckless’ foreign mission deployments. This follows an incident where two soldiers were killed and three injured by a mortar bomb at their base in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where they are part of a peacekeeping force. Currently, 2900 South African soldiers are engaged in combat against M23 rebels in the country. Reports have also surfaced in recent days of an expired Denel contract for helicopter maintenance. In an interview with BizNews, the DA Shadow minister for Defence and Military Veterans Kobus Marais emphasised the “irresponsible” deployment of soldiers in the Eastern DRC citing an overstretched and underfunded SANDF with outdated prime mission equipment. Marais exposed challenges in maintaining essential equipment, particularly helicopters, and raised concerns about SANDF’s financial constraints, including the unfunded R2 billion for the DRC mission. Marais suggested withdrawing troops from the DRC to focus on upgrading equipment and prioritising national interests, particularly in Mozambique due to potential security threats. He criticised the lack of clarity on responsibility for troop deployment and the deadlock between Denel and the government. Marais also expressed concerns about our porous borders and the heavy reliance on an ageing reserve force. It is, he says, “like sending guys from the old SADF from an old age home with a R1 rifle” into combat. – Linda van Tilburg

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:00 – Introduction
  • 01:06 – Update on the SANDF
  • 03:51 – What equipment do they need?
  • 15:07 – Denel not being paid
  • 20:57 – Are our borders protected?
  • 25:09 – Prioritising South Africa’s borders
  • 26:58 – Conclusion

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Highlights from the interview ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Overstretched and Underfunded: SANDF’s Challenge Misunderstood by Political Leaders

We know that over the last few years, the defence force has seen a constant deterioration of its capabilities, specifically with regard to the availability and serviceability of its prime mission equipment… It’s a combination of factors that we have observed over a significant period. I have identified many reasons for this. The defence force’s capabilities and resources are overstretched, and there’s a total underfunding of what is expected from the defence force. In my opinion, there’s a complete misunderstanding by the political leaders of what is required for such a defence force. Furthermore, there’s a lack of political will to make decisive decisions and correct these misaligned priorities and defence budget spending. It’s a culmination of issues that have developed over the years. Unfortunately, we are seeing the consequences of this in the circumstances where our soldiers are returned in body bags. Ironically, about two days before the news of the death of the two soldiers, I warned the president and the minister, stating that they were reckless and irresponsible for sending our soldiers into situations where they could be returned home to their loved ones in body bags. Unfortunately, I was correct. There’s a long process that has led us to where we are now.

Prime mission equipment is old and dilapidated, SANDF overcommitted 

One must remember that the current South African National Defence Force is largely based on the old South African Defence Force, including its prime mission equipment and some munitions that was purchased under the controversial arms deal. These form our capabilities. Our defence force’s prime mission equipment is very old and dilapidated. There has been a total underfunding, specifically for maintenance, upgrades, essential upgrades, renewals, and replacements.

In the 2015 defence review, which was announced as a revolutionary defence policy for South Africa, they expanded on all the ideal situations. According to this policy, the budget should be spent as follows: 40% on the cost of employees, 30% on training and deployments, and 30% on maintenance, upgrades, improvements, and replacements.

However, over the last couple of years, with the overcommitment of the defence force, whether abroad or inside South Africa, we are spending over 70% on the cost of employees. With the nearly unchecked deployment of soldiers, whether inside or outside South Africa, most of the remaining 30% is taken up by deployment costs. This means that they are compromising on training costs and, most importantly, on prime mission equipment maintenance, upgrades, and replacements. As a result, our prime mission equipment is 40, 60, and even up to 80 years old. Our newest prime mission equipment, which comes from the arms deal, is now over 20 years old. So, if you don’t invest in your prime mission equipment, then you have a problem.

A dangerous situation in DRC: Rooivalk grounded, defence capability limited 

In the case of the DRC, we have been there since 2013. The United Nations has been there for the last 20 years. We had experience with the M23 rebels shortly after 2013 when we were extremely successful in defeating them, largely due to the involvement of the Rooivalk attack helicopter, which was highly advanced at that time. We urgently need an upgrade of the Rooivalk to a Mark II version, along with upgrades of technology, radar systems, ammunition systems, and weapon systems.

At that time, we also had five Oryx helicopters, (medium transport helicopters) which are essential for medevacs, evacuations, and transport of soldiers, munitions and goods. Whenever there was a flight into a red zone, it was always two Oryx helicopters supporting each other, usually escorted by at least two Rooivalk attack helicopters supporting each other. The Rooivalk’s purpose is not only to retaliate when fired upon but also to act as a deterrent. Unfortunately, over the years, we have seen less and less money being spent on maintenance.

Currently, the Rooivalk that is still in the DRC has been grounded for the last year and a half. There is no one to fly it. Of the 11 total that we have, I think there’s probably one of the 16th Squadron in South Africa where pilot training is taking place that is still flying.

Regarding the Oryx helicopters, we know that they are incredibly capable and essential for the South African Defence Force, not only in the DRC and Mozambique but also here on our borderlines domestically and in training. Of the 39 Oryx helicopters, we probably have about four available. We have one in Mozambique, which is not adequate. At the moment, we had two available in the DRC, but we lost one about two weeks ago when the pilot was shot at and the medic was wounded.

At the moment, we have one Oryx available, which is due for a major service back in South Africa. This means that our capabilities to support our soldiers are incredibly poor and in a dire situation. This specifically refers to Operation THIBA, which involves 2,900 soldiers. As I’ve said, we have been there since 2013 as part of the Monusco forces, our Operation MISTRAL, and we know that the United Nations has decided to withdraw from the DRC. The president of the DRC has requested them to try to leave earlier. They intend to leave by the middle of this year, while the contract period is actually until the end of this year. So, this poses the question of where we stand.

Unmaterialised SADC Refunds: The R2 Billion Dilemma for DRC Mission

The finances and budget of the Defence Force are critically important. Until now, our costs towards the United Nations were about R1 billion per year. We have recovered between R450 million and R750 million per year from the United Nations, based on the serviceability of our equipment. Supporting our soldiers, especially logistically, has been very difficult. We have one C-130 that often struggles to stay in the air, and otherwise, we must charter international cargo aircraft at the cost of hundreds of millions of rands, which has become unaffordable.

When it comes to SADC deployment, we were promised that the taxpayer would not foot the bill. However, I have yet to see any refunds from the SADC specifically for this purpose, for the deployment of the soldiers. This did not happen in Mozambique where we were promised. Now, we are very concerned about where the R2 billion to support the 2,900 soldiers will come from. At the Cape Town Press Club, President Cyril Ramaphosa stated that our soldiers have all the support, equipment, and resources they need. But in our portfolio committee on defence, where we discussed the third quarter report and the BRRR feedback report from the Department of Defence, I specifically asked the Secretary of Defense about the R2 billion two billion. She confirmed that it is currently unfunded.

In this year’s budget, there’s been no money allocated for that specifically. In fact, the defence budget is in real terms lower than the amended budget towards the end of last year. So, we know it’s unfunded, which means there will be compromises. The cost of employees will be incredibly high. Our budget for the use of the reserve force was 1.9 million man-days. After the third quarter, it was already at 2.6 million man-days, and that was before Operation THIBA in the DRC. So, you can expect the eventual man-days of the reserve force to be closer to 3.5 to 3.6 million man-days. This has a direct impact on the cost of employees, which means that it will go well above the 70% of the defence budget.. That means there’s only one place they can cut costs, and that is on prime mission equipment. We have seen lower provisions for the Air Force, specifically helicopters. As for the Navy, it’s a total mess, and I don’t even want to touch on that.

Deadlock between Denel and the Government

One must remember that Denel is the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) for the Rooivalk and Oryx helicopters. As an OEM, they have specific benefits, rights, and obligations that they will maintain over time. For some reason, they agreed years ago on a payment structure with Armscor and the Defence Force, specifically for the maintenance, upgrade, and availability of technicians and engineers to ensure that all our prime mission equipment is in a readily deployable state.

Currently, over 20 of our Oryx helicopters are at Denel Aeronautics. Due to the absence of the so-called PSS contracts between the South African Air Force and Denel, they don’t receive certain funds to invest in people, spare parts, and provisions. This has led to a standstill. There’s a conflict between the South African Air Force, who, in my opinion, want to remove Denel from the equation, and Denel, who see this as their lifeline and refuse to budge as they are the OEM. Because of this contract, there are certain things that the Oryx squadrons can do for minor maintenance. However, when it comes to major issues, repairs, and replacements, we are at a deadlock. This situation continues to cause problems, and the same applies to the Rooivalk.

Lack of clarity on who is responsible for SA troop deployment

From a political point of view, it doesn’t make sense. The commander-in-chief is in charge of all these cabinet members, including the Department of Defence, the Department of State of Enterprises, Minister Pravin Gordhan, and the National Treasury. It seems like they can’t find common ground on this very important issue. Yesterday, when the Minister of Defence was present at the handover of the bodies of the deceased to their families at Air Force Base Waterkloof, she was asked by a journalist about the funding for the operation. After a considerable pause, she suggested that the journalist pose the question to the Minister of Finance and National Treasury.

This indicates a lack of clarity about who’s in charge, who authorises the deployment of soldiers, and what conditions they set for that. The president has stated that they have all the resources, but we know for a fact they do not. In our opinion, this is part of why we say it’s irresponsible, illogical, and very dangerous.

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

Other SADC members don’t see DRC as a threat to national interest, why does SA?  

If I were the Minister of Defence advising my leader or president, I would question this as a national interest of South Africa in the Eastern DRC. We do have national interests in the DRC, but they are predominantly around Kinshasa and the West Coast. Why is it the responsibility of South Africa, as the southernmost member of SADC, to rescue the northernmost member, the DRC, and specifically the Eastern DRC? This is actually a conflict within the East African Community Block. It’s a conflict between Rwanda and the DRC, and there are even rumours of support from other neighbouring countries to various rebel groups. So, where are Uganda, Burundi, and Kenya in this scenario? There’s a bit of support from Tanzania and Malawi. But where are Zambia and Angola? None of them see this as a real threat to their national interests. So why should it be so for South Africa? Why must we be the saviour? I also stated that this is not a SADC operation, although the president claimed it to be. It’s predominantly South Africa, with a little bit of support from Tanzania and even less from Malawi.

Our borders are porous, no high-tech support 

It is unfortunately true that our borders are porous. We have only 15 companies deployed on our northernmost borders, which include the Northern Cape, Northwest, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, and the north of KwaZulu-Natal. However, these 15 companies are primarily conducting foot patrols. Without the necessary high-tech support that allows for continuous reconnaissance and the deployment of rapid response forces, we have no control. I have personally observed, using certain radar technology available in South Africa but not currently in use, how people can cross the border once the South African patrol has passed a specific point. So yes, our borders are porous, and I haven’t even touched on our maritime borders.

Withdraw SA troops from DRC, upgrade primary mission equipment

With the increased maritime traffic around the Cape, due to problems in the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, the risk for South Africa has increased enormously. This is why I suggest we withdraw the troops from the DRC, regroup, retrain, re-equip, and upgrade our primary mission equipment. We need to ensure that we have naval vessels on land and in the maritime area and that our most essential air platforms are operational. The minister has confirmed that at least 85% of all our platforms are grounded due to maintenance upgrades and budgetary constraints. They reported yesterday on the issue of ‘currency’ in the Air Force, a term used to refer to the certification of competencies required for certain flights. If pilots’ currencies are not up to date, they cannot fly. If you cut the budget and they can’t fly, you actually force them to retire or resign and pursue their passion elsewhere where they can fly and where funding is available.

Prioritise Mozambique and borders: Bad actors have already crossed our borders

We have enormous porous borders and in my opinion, Mozambique is of much higher priority and importance than a country far away that is not of national interest. Mozambique has enormous liquid natural gas resources, as well as other minerals and oil. We can directly benefit from these liquid natural gas resources, especially in Gauteng. It is easy for rebels and other bad actors to cross our borders into our country. We know it already exists. I don’t want to cry foul, but it already exists. We know that there are cells of the Muslim Brotherhood in South Africa. We know that we are already being put on the grey list due to doubts about whether we are channelling or laundering money for Hamas and others. So, it is a real threat. That is part of why we should re-prioritize our defence budget and spending towards where it is most needed, based on the mandate in the current constitution and what is in the best interest of our people in South Africa.

Relying heavily on reserve force: Like deploying old SADF in the old age home with R1 rifle

There’s also this tendency to deploy soldiers within South Africa when there’s a failure in other government departments, most notably the police, but now also Eskom, and even in relation to illegal mining. If you consider the number of people already being deployed, you’ll see that we’re facing a significant problem and challenge with regard to human resources. Because of all of the current commitments, we require a maximum of about 12,000 soldiers at any given time. But when you carry out these deployments, there’s always one group deployed, one group back at home, and one group preparing to be deployed, you must actually multiply that number by three. Then when you compare that with what we have available, you’ll see that we don’t even have half of that available on a regular basis from our infantry and other support formations. That’s why we have to rely so heavily on our reserve force. But in the meantime, our reserve force is ageing and there’s no rejuvenation of our reserve forces, nor our regular forces. Now, you can tell me anything if you want me to go and be deployed. I admit that would be the biggest mistake because that would be like sending in guys from the old SADF who are currently in the old age home and giving them an R1 rifle in their hands. Then you will see what a mess they are making, and that is basically what is happening.

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