The end of 2014 saw a surge in activity for many conflicts on the continent, and with it, a changing South African National Defence Force (SANDF). The country’s much-touted defence review remains in legislative limbo, while the country’s troops continue to occupy the Eastern DRC, Darfur and the Mozambican Channel with uncertain outcomes. Nonetheless, requirements placed on the SANDF by the government and regional organisations are propelling the SANDF into a 2015 that will demand that hard decisions be made, lest the force become catastrophically overstretched and underfunded.
The new year has already seen both the FDLR and ADF-Nalu (allegedly) making waves in Central Africa. With FDLR largely ignoring a deadline for disarming itself and the ADF possibly mounting attacks in Burundi, the SANDF – via its participation in the UN’s Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) – will be called to action. Whether it will be able to respond, however, is doubtful. The FIB’s mandate expires in March, leaving very little time for planning any large scale operation, while doubts about the willingness of the FIB’s Tanzanian component to engage the FDLR – an organisation the country has not particularly considered a rebel group in the past.
Piled on top of this is the ambitious “ACIRC” program, or African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises. Conceived by South Africa, the ACIRC imagines a brigade or larger force, potentially reaching up to 8,000 troops. The ACIRC will temporarily fill the gap left in the failing AU Standby Force, which has yet to become operationally ready. Progress on the implementation of the ACIRC reported on by the AU in late January, but the lead role taken by South Africa implies that SANDF troops are meant to be the tip of the metaphorical spear. This will require a pledge of at least equivalent size to that of the contingent currently deployed to the FIB.
At present an ACIRC commitment is impossible to achieve without first leaving the DRC. Although the defence review, if passed in parliament, could make the finances available for an ACIRC commitment while still pretending to fight rebels in the DRC, it would take a fairly long time – beyond 2015 – to translate any such financial boost into combat ability.
Beyond this, the SANDF must maintain a counter-piracy patrol that neither counters piracy (it has become a non-event in the regions being patrolled) nor maintains the vessels with which the mission is being carried out. Add in border patrol, internal defence commitments, and the ongoing training and modernisation that is part and parcel of any respectable defence force, and the SANDF has a hard year ahead.
More concerning is that if the defence review is not passed, the SANDF has no plan B for restructuring. Maintaining the current trajectory, the force will simply slide into obsolescence, which would be an utterly unhelpful strategy. Instead, 2015 might be a good time to begin drafting contingency plans for the force’s external and internal responsibilities, as well making tough decisions about what capabilities the SANDF would wish to retain if the time finally comes to choose.