How the army was let down
Cape Town – If you run an army on the smell of an oil rag, you’re looking for trouble.
Armies need money - and ours isn't getting any.
That may well be the main reason behind South Africa suffering its greatest loss of life in an armed conflict since apartheid.
Thirteen troops have already died in the Battle of Bangui in the Central African Republic (CAR), after being severely outnumbered at odds of 15 to 1.
If not for brave soldiers fighting for their lives, losses may well have been higher and these men and women are a credit to the country.
But what preceded this sorry business?
In November 2012 I wrote an article
on the state of the South African armed forces.
It warned that the South African armed forces are so cash-strapped that the combat-readiness of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is under serious threat.
Four months later, the Battle of Bangui happened and if the status quo of government funding for the armed forces continues, this may be only the start of more tragedy to come.
We also have soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan. The attack in the CAR may well lead to attacks against our troops in the other deployment areas.
So how does budget hit an army?
The government bought Gripen and Hawk fighter planes. These planes are meant to provide air support to soldiers on the ground. Rebel forces have no air support.
Where are the air force’s Gripens? In long-term storage, as recently confirmed by the minister of defence.
Of course, getting our airwing to the CAR would be well-nigh impossible after government decided to let go of its in-air refuelling capacity, considered necessary when the Gripens were chosen in the first place.
Today we can’t refuel our planes in the air, so we can’t get them there.
Troop carriers and equipment carriers are another crisis area. The South African Air Force (SAAF) has to rely on two clapped-out Hercules C130 planes more than 35 years old.
These planes are limited to 64 troops per plane - forget about taking equipment over the long distance to a country like the CAR.
A plan to buy new Airbus A400M aircraft was cancelled in 2009 by then-defence minister Lindiwe Sisulu
The official reasons? Continued delays in the programme and cost escalations.
This was based mainly on Armscor CEO Sipho Thomo
informing parliament that A400M costs had shot up from an initial R17bn to R47bn.
This figure was denied by the supplier and it has to date never been explained where the R47bn came from, but MPs got such a fright that they demanded the contract be canned.
So we have no real plan to get our troops back home if an emergency evacuation is called for.
The defence department has a budget this year (2013/14) of R40bn, about 1.22% of gross domestic product (GDP).
The only countries in southern Africa that spend less on their armies are Madagascar and Mozambique.
The difference? South Africa is called upon first when a conflict arises on the continent. Angola spends 4.2% of GDP on its army, Botswana 3.3% and Zimbabwe 3.8%.
Budgetary issues have led to the air force's nine reserve squadrons already being grounded.
The navy has four frigates that were bought through the Arms Deal and are critical to battle piracy. Only one is operational at the moment. There are three submarines, of which one works - barely.
The army’s landward defence systems are ancient and still relies on apartheid-era weaponry and troop carriers.
, DA MP and spokesperson on defence, says the last time parliament had a proper briefing on the defence forces' combat readiness was in 2008.
“We don’t know the status of the readiness.”
Dr Thobs Gamede, landward defence systems chief of strategy in the SANDF, was asked last year about SANDF combat-readiness status. “We can’t discuss that in open forums,” she said.
The point is, if South Africa wants to be the big brother on the continent we need to be sure our troops know they can be backed up if needed and will be equipped properly.
Currently, they’re not.