Tomorrow, South Africa’s finance minister will address parliament and the country with the national budget. The economy has stalled, with below-one percent growth plaguing a declining treasury. In military terms, these conditions will result in a budgetary bloodbath for the SANDF.
While this is understandable from a fiscal point of view – justifying military budget increases during austere economic times is never a popular political move – it will have significant consequences. The result of this inevitable downscaling is that the defence force will be further away from the recommendations of the Defence Review than ever before. A hoped-for 2 or 3 percent increase in defence spending is now a fantasy. The SANDF is likely to experience another ‘pruning’ of its budget, if anything. ‘Pruning’ in this case is becoming more like ‘amputation’.
Nonetheless the budgetary evisceration is coming, and as argued before, there is no plan B for the current Defence Review path. Although a sound policy, the 2015 Defence Review is simply unachievable. For the defence force, the task of matching strategic objectives with significant financial restraints has never been harder. The Defence Review laid out an array of foreign and domestic objectives for the defence force. All of them were coherent and entirely achievable under favourable funding levels. Upholding a robust expeditionary capability whilst maintaining sovereign defence required effectively three SANDF divisions. Without the funding, it’s time to look at an alternative to this.
An effective African defence force would be one that maintains a high elasticity in its ability to respond to multiple threats. This is possible, but requires a dramatic rethink of just where the SANDF should be headed. The Defence Review painted an impressive picture of high-end, technologically-advanced forces spanning all spectrums of warfare. Without funding, this is impossible with current troop levels and strategic objectives.
The lack of a plan B is not the fault of the Defence Review’s authors. They were under clear instructions from former Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu to pursue a long-term framework that was based on the assumption the money would come. Since then the minister has been removed from her portfolio and the money has not come.
So what happens now?
A small, highly capable force could be equipped with modern weapons and tactics, while fulfilling many of South Africa’s strategic needs. The current alternative to this would be to see a large, over-staffed military slide into decline and, ultimately, obsolescence. The South African military is in for an extremely harsh budgetary year. It may well be time to shelve the Defence Review’s primary aims in favour of a realistic, intelligent alternative.