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A tragic incident involving the South African Navy has shed light on the country’s deteriorating military capabilities. Three submariners lost their lives when a freak wave swept them off their vessel while taking supplies from a helicopter. An official inquiry will probe the incident, likely revealing a mix of inadequate training, budget woes, and declining equipment, says Jonathan Katzenellenbogen. South Africa’s defence force has struggled to maintain a high-tech arsenal, hampered by severe budget constraints, leaving many key weapons systems inoperable. With only a fraction of its naval and air fleet operational, tough decisions loom about the military’s future role, raising concerns about national defence capabilities and international obligations.
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Our wider defence tragedy
By Jonathan Katzenellenbogen
Last week three South African Navy submariners were swept off their vessel’s hull to their deaths while taking on supplies from a helicopter.
An official inquiry into how a freak wave swept the three, and others, into the sea will be opened, but a report in City Press suggests a combination of inadequate training, experience and judgement, in part due to severe budget problems, was the background to the accident. Key questions for the inquiry will be why the replenishment of the submarine by a helicopter was carried out in extremely rough seas and why a number of senior crew members were incapacitated in the incident.
The incident has to raise questions about the state of the national defence force and how the budget should be best allocated. For years the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has been stretched in attempting to keep up a high-tech force with submarines, frigates, fighter aircraft, and air transport, as well as provide manpower for peacekeeping, border protection and increasingly for internal stability.
There was no way that South Africa’s military would receive the funding levels post-1994 that it did under its peak during apartheid. But there were hopes that there would be a well-balanced and efficient force that could play a larger regional role if necessary. These have been eroding fast, as many of the big-ticket items bought under the arms deals are now out of service. There are pockets of excellence, but these too are increasingly difficult to sustain.
The economy presently cannot generate the sort of tax revenue needed to support a defence force with the sort of budget required for its envisaged role. South Africa only spends about 0.72 percent of GDP on defence, well below what the World Bank says was the global average of 1.85 percent last year. The overriding problem is that the budget deficit and the growth in public debt are in dangerous territory, and there are demands from fast-growing spending that cannot be cut, including health, education, grants and debt service.
All this could force some hard decisions on what roles the SANDF should focus on. The current situation, with many key weapons systems inoperable and a lack of focus, cannot be sustained without increasing risk.
Parliament has been told that only one of the Navy’s four frigates and only one of the three submarines are currently in service. The Navy’s planned refits of the frigates is well behind schedule, in part due to lack of parts and spares. And of the 217 Air Force fleet, less than 45 are in service. Only six of 17 Oryx helicopters, used in all sorts of military operations, are in service. And only about half of the 26 Gripen fighters are flying. Two of the 11 Rooivalk attack helicopters are in service. We have six C-130 transport aircraft but only one is in service.
The result of this is fewer flying hours, less time at sea, and not many large-scale exercises, all of which means less training and experience. Fewer aircraft means less support for the army should it run into problems. The problems are compounded by critical shortages of technicians to work on these systems.
The dire state of our defence was shown up in the recent naval exercises with the Russians and Chinese. Our contribution amounted to only one frigate, a hydrographic survey vessel and an offshore patrol vessel meant mainly for fisheries protection. By contrast China sent a guided missile destroyer, a frigate and a supply ship. The Russians sent a frigate plus a tanker. As host, this would have been a good opportunity to show off another frigate and a few submarines. After all, naval exercises are about a show of force.
Last financial year South Africa’s defence budget was about 23 percent above what it was five years previously in real terms. But the burden of salaries, the depreciation in the exchange rate, and high administration costs, have exacted a large toll on operations and training hours. And over the next three years the defence budget will be almost flat in nominal terms with a rise of less than one percent a year, and therefore a decline in real terms.
Salaries and compensation made up nearly 62 percent of defence spending last year, and are not expected to substantially decline, even with the offer of a voluntary service package. In the US, compensation amounts to about 25 percent of the defence budget. That is low by international standards, but leaves lots of budgetary space for doing what militaries are meant to do.
The high share of salaries and the rand’s depreciation has meant a reduced budget for maintaining, refitting, and upgrading the big-ticket items that were bought under the arms deals of the mid-1990s Over the past ten years the rand has lost more than 50 percent of its value against the Euro, the countries that sold the bulk of the systems to South Africa in the 1990s. And, as in other government departments, empowerment requirements add an extra margin on work and parts, on top of what is charged by the prime suppliers.
With the country’s military decline and poor management, Denel, the country’s state-owned defence contractor, has been in distress. It is over a decade behind on the key project to supply the army with infantry fighting vehicles.
While South Africa faces a low-level threat from terrorism and unconventional attacks, and there appear to be no conceivable conventional threats, the absence of key defence capabilities certainly leaves a vacuum. No continuous naval presence along the Mozambique Channel and up the East Coast of Africa opens a heightened chance of piracy as a result of the insurgency in northern Mozambique. And lack of capacity also means our international obligations for search and rescue and for a naval presence off Mozambique could be in doubt.
The idea of having four frigates and three submarines is that a continuous sea presence should be guaranteed while others are being maintained. Fewer serviceable Gripens and helicopters means a degraded capacity. If a decision is made to scrap or greatly cut back certain capabilities, the country could take years to rebuild these. In the event of a conflict, these cannot suddenly be reinstated. The other problem is that these capabilities work together.
In the end the decline will force the decision. The decision might have to be made to focus on retaining a few fighter aircraft and a few Oryx helicopters, and to focus on mechanised infantry for domestic stability and peacekeeping roles.
There is little economic or strategic sense in supporting one submarine and one frigate.
The real tragedy is that it should never have come to this. Had the ANC pursued growth-promoting policies and had Eskom not been a drain on the economy, then the budget would be in a different place. We might well have been able to afford a suitably sized defence force.
Rusting frigates and submarines along the Simon’s Town quay and Gripen fighters in long-term storage are a damning symbol of the long years of ANC rule.
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- Katzenellenbogen: South Africa’s looming economic crisis – National Treasury at a crossroads
- Katzenellenbogen: Zimbabwe’s electoral quagmire and South Africa’s tight corner
Jonathan Katzenellenbogen is a Johannesburg-based freelance financial journalist.
This article was first published by Daily Friend and is republished with permission
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