Why a joint air defence capability is the answer for SADC

By Cobus Valentine, senior domain specialist at Saab Grintek Defence

Should small nations be able to defend themselves from air threats -or should they rather seek to jointly establish co-operative solutions? For many Southern African Development (SADC) countries acquiring the required Joint Air Defence (JAD) capability can be difficult, especially when politicians struggle to balance national budgets.

This is nothing new and is a natural part of the democratic process where the defence sector competes with the other segments of the society for necessary funding. This is why entering into an inter-operable and integrated JAD capability program for the enhancement of joint air defence in SADC is more suitable than pursuing this as a national effort.

The ability to control national airspace is a critical element for national defence. Air defence, against hostile military air action, or to neutralise potential terrorist use of civil aircrafts, provides an essential capability in guaranteeing national sovereignty.

In this context two factors are important: the ongoing improvement of air defence capabilities, and secondly, sustainability in terms of procurement of the necessary upgrade programs to maintain this improvement.

This improvement covers all areas and ranges from hardware and the assets that conduct information gathering, computer technology to integrate the assets and support decision making, and equipment to communicate the decisions, all of which are all elements of air command and control.

Why is integration important? JAD integration with a command and control system that includes a surveillance capability is important in order to ensure that the necessary degree of situational awareness is shared and understood between the command and control centre and the tactical decision maker in the air defence unit. Failing to do so could lead to fratricide.

An integrated air defence system allows timely and accurate dissemination of intelligence information, early warning of emerging threats, target tracking and classification or re-classification of targets and, ultimately, target allocation. Because threats can be multi-directional, and aimed at several defended assets at the same time, layered air defence systems should be able to engage multiple targets simultaneously.

Full integration can be costly – but not unattainable when pursued as a joint venture.

A joint venture in the realm of JAD will provide certain capabilities to numerous SADC states they otherwise would not have been able to acquire alone neither have the funds to afford such a capability.

In this manner respective states will be able to share in the technology required to create such a capability, a proficiency that can be ploughed back into said state to the advantage of its own economy.

One of the biggest challenges that will face SADC countries is to find a model to work together in a coordinated fashion to jointly provide support across the whole life-cycle of the capability.  Ideally the requirement for a JAD capability for SADC should be driven by fiscal and strategic necessity coupled with confidence in the rapid development of information technology – much of which is being advanced on local soil.

It is a misconception to think that locally developed technology is inferior to that acquired on the international market. South Africa has produced technology comparable to, and sometimes exceeding that produced internationally.

The challenge with international technology is that it never conforms to the African requirement as it was built for other end users. To adapt such systems to facilitate own user requirements incurs a huge cost, placing it beyond our reach.

The emergence of new threats and measures taken by the SA National Defence Force to adapt its capabilities accordingly has led to changes in operational requirements for the SA National Defence Force.  These changes have significantly enhanced the importance of inter-operability with respect to materiel, doctrine, tactics, training, communication, and many other areas in which inter-operability is a major factor for military forces and the systems that support them.

Given that the capability of any single role player to commit to one degree or the other is dependent on several factors, I believe that with the current defence industry prevalent in SADC and specifically South Africa it will be possible and beneficial to develop an integrated inter-operable JAD capability for SADC.