In another blow to South Africa’s ability to backup its growing profile as a major power on the African continent with matching military muscle, the South African Air Force (SAAF) was forced to abandon the use of its reserve pilots for the rest of the year. The wings of its elite air display team, the Silver Falcons, have also been trimmed and the Navy has its own problems staying afloat.
In February this year, defence analyst Helmoed Romer-Heitman in analysing the defence section of the national budget warned that the SAAF is in “deep trouble” with a cut in operational flying hours to 6 500. “This could be the final straw in closing it down as an air force.”
He also warned that the cut in the Navy’s sea days and a cut in the strength of the landward arm of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) are creating a potentially dangerous situation.
Since 1994, the SANDF has been repositioned as a purely defensive instrument of the state. In the meantime, as was graphically illustrated by the recent near fiasco in the Central African Republic (CAR), a much wider mission on the African continent has been added.
In February, already, Romer-Heitman observed that “There seems to be no understanding at all of the simple fact that, if we want to be taken seriously in the region, we must pay our dues and that will require a stronger SANDF.”
He also concluded that, “Government does not understand the link between its posturing as a regional power and the inadequate and disintegrating instrument of power it relies on.”
The dangers of the situation emerged clearly from the situation that developed around the SANDF’s involvement in the CAR. When the members of the SANDF, who were supposed to be only involved in training and peacekeeping activities, were caught up in conflict, the SAAF was not in a position to supply air cover. And eventually personnel and equipment had to be evacuated with leased heavy freight aircraft.
Some expert observers have now aired fears that the cost, in the order of R300 million, spent in that process and on other international missions in Africa, has just about wiped out the SAAF’s budget for the current financial year.
Tellingly, the Silver Falcons quoted a shortage of funds as the reason for the cancellation of all but a very few participations in air shows for the rest of the year as part of a cost-saving package.
Other measures include the non-use of reserve force pilots for the rest of the year, despite the fact that they constitute the total available pool of sufficiently experienced pilots to train younger pilots at some squadrons. They also filled the void left by the departure of more experienced personnel for better opportunities outside the SAAF.
In the case of the Silver Falcons, participation in air shows also creates an opportunity for young flight instructors to hone their skills.
In the meantime, in the wake of President Jacob Zuma’s announcement that anti-piracy patrols by the Navy in the Mozambique Channel have been extended for another year, Navy Chief Vice Admiral Johannes Mudimu has warned that the maritime arm of the SANDF is facing a crisis that could leave it on the verge of collapse.
The problem lies with Simon’s Town dockyard, which just cannot cope with the Navy’s needs since it was transferred to the state-owned corporation, Armscor, in 2007.
Now, six years down the line, Mudimu, when recently delivering the State of the Navy address said the problem had become “so severe that vital repairs to the frigates and submarines are being delayed by more than two years, endangering both crews and vessels.”
"One is told that under the old dispensation, we had these capabilities in South Africa. Today, if we want to fix any of our systems, we are foreign dependent. The turnaround is very, very long.”
He added that while the dockyard is one of Africa’s biggest, its labour force is virtually non-existent. “How do you operate a dockyard with a handful of welders and no other artisans?
"We have never recovered from the retrenchments that took place [at the dockyard], even long before integration, and after.
“To avert this crisis the dockyard must be run by the Navy. For our fleet to survive we need to control the dockyard. If we don’t the Navy is sunk.”
At the same time, he announced plans to re-establish the naval base at Durban’s Salisbury Island, which was downgraded to a naval station in 2001. Navy ships taking part in anti-piracy operations in the Mozambique Channel, and up the east coast, needed to operate this base.
Both the Simon’s Town and Durban projects will, however, put even more pressure on the SANDF’s budget, which presently constitutes only 1.2 % of GDP – well shy of the IMF’s recommended minimum of 2%. And, according to projections to date for the next three budget cycles, there are no plans to increase it.
Besides the fight against piracy, South African troops are involved in several peacekeeping missions on the continent. The SANDF’s budget is still mainly focused on the conventional tasks of defending the country in terms of tasks like border security.
Military threats to South Africa are unlikely, given the regional balances of power, but complacency could be dangerous.
According to a recently released report by Business International Monitor the SANDF may be on the verge of collapse if its funding shortfalls are not urgently addressed.