Leadership: Running From Reality In South Africa


March 31, 2014:   In South Africa a government ordered assessment of their military capability became public in March 2014. This was the first thorough assessment since 1998 and what it had to say was no secret to anyone who has been paying attention to the growing number of media reports on problems within the armed forces. The new report concluded that the armed forces have spent too much on new weapons the budget could not afford to maintain and that personnel and leadership in the military have been allowed to decline to the point that it would take a decade of energetic efforts to rebuild. Such an effort would also result in a much smaller armed forces, but one that could be sustained on what little the government is willing to spend on defense. The armed forces currently have 74,000 uniformed and civilian personnel and the report pointed out that it would take five years of effort to halt damage being done by current practices. The military is unionized and opposed to losing personnel or pay increases, so change will not be easy. At the same time patronage and lack of money for maintenance and operations had caused many key people (pilots, engineers and other skilled technical personnel) to leave and not be replaced. Getting these people back will be very difficult without significant and sustained reforms.

The major problem is that the South African armed forces have spent billions in the last decade to buy modern equipment without providing enough money to maintain and operate it. The major purchases include 26 Gripen jet fighters, three U209 submarines, four MEKO A200 frigates, and 30 AW109 helicopters. The problem is that as more of these new systems entered service, the amount of time South African warships spent at sea and the hours warplanes spent in the air declined because the money was not there to pay for operations. The new Gripen fighters cost $13,400 an hour to operate, which was 62 percent more than the older Hawk aircraft. Likewise the new submarines and frigates are more expensive to operate than the older ships. This meant that by 2012 navy ships were only able to go to sea for 21 percent of the 35,000 hours they were supposed to be out there for.

South African politicians believed that having a lot of ships and aircraft in service, even if they didn't fly or go to sea much, provided the potential for putting a lot of ships and aircraft out there if the need arose. Left unsaid was the fact that sending a lot of inexperienced crews to sea or into the air increased the risk of accidents and failure in combat. Ships and military aircraft are complex beasts and the seas, especially around South Africa, tend to be rough, often extremely rough for ships and aircraft. This can be a fatal for inexperienced crews. The navy budget only allows ships to spend 5-10 percent of their time at sea. The U.S. Navy has its ships at sea about 50 percent of the time. This is the main reason the American fleet is the most effective in the world. Being the largest fleet on the planet helps, but having a qualitative and quantitative edge creates an unbeatable combination.

Many nations with large numbers of warships, staffed by inexperienced crews, believe that they will never have to use these ships a lot, in wartime or otherwise. That's a reasonable assumption for South Africa, which is surrounded by nations with even more decrepit armed forces. So the politicians are playing a cynical game, funding relatively large armed forces, which they cannot afford to adequately train, safe in the knowledge that they are unlikely to be found out.

Expensive (to buy and operate) new equipment wasn’t the only problem. To find the cash to buy these new aircraft and ships cuts were made in other areas. Thus money was not available to buy new ammunition and that resulted in less for troops to use for training. The military has to maintain a reserve supply of ammo for emergencies (like actual combat) but most of the “war reserve” now consists of older ammo that is not safe or reliable enough to actually use. Army trucks have not been maintained or replaced when worn out resulting in a very dilapidated truck fleet and the inability to move a lot of units by road in an emergency. Transport aircraft have also been allowed to get too old to use often or reliably.

The South African politicians are also living in the past with regards to what they think the armed forces are capable of. Back in 1989, 4.5 percent of GDP was spent on defense and the armed forces were large and well trained. Now, defense gets one percent of GDP and the armed forces have not shrunk over 70 percent to adjust for the smaller budget. Government mismanagement has reduced the value of the national currency in terms of Western currency to the extent that current defense spending only amounts to $3.5 billion a year. If there are to be changes they will have to be made with local resources because foreign equipment and technical assistance is too expensive.

Unwilling to cut the force in line with the smaller budget, the politicians prefer to run a scam. The sailors complain but at least they still have jobs. To South African politicians that's a reasonable outcome. To make matters worse, there is more corruption. A German investigation in 2008 revealed that some $40 million in bribes was demanded by South African politicians, and paid, to ensure that a German firm got the contract to build the three new subs. No bribery prosecutions of South African politicians resulted from the German investigation (which the German government tried to keep secret). The three German subs cost South Africa nearly one billion dollars. Because of the lack of qualified crew and training accidents none of these three subs are in service. One of these new Type 209 submarines has been out of service for over five years, ostensibly for maintenance. But it turned out that the main reason was that there were not enough qualified sailors available to operate the boat. Further investigation revealed that this was not just a problem with the three new submarines but with combat aircraft and much other expensive gear as well. 

Meanwhile the government wants to continue contributing troops to peacekeeping operations. The accountants have now told the government that all this is not working and failures will be more frequent and catastrophic unless changes are made. Many South Africans believe the politicians will not be motivated to change because so many similar disasters in other areas of government have been allowed to continue despite public exposure.





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