Military on Parade in Parliament, with All its Strengths and Weaknesses
The role of the South African Defence Force (SANDF) is to be reviewed in Parliament over the next few weeks as politicians debate the armed forces' responsibility for peacekeeping and the defence of the nation.
Parliament's defence committee will review two documents underpinning SA's defence policy: the 1996 white paper and the 1998 government review that defined SA's defence posture and equipment needs.
Because these guiding documents failed to anticipate the scale of SA's involvement in peacekeeping operations, and stipulated the core responsibility of the SANDF as defence against external attack, many observers see inconsistencies.
And since these documents were written, health and age problems have become an increasing burden for the national defence force.
Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota steers clear of anticipating the outcome of the review, but speaks of "policy adjustments" rather than a wholesale changes .
The "review of the review" comes amid growing opposition criticism of the state of readiness of SA's armed forces, questions about how HIV/AIDS affects the SANDF and continuing criticism of the value of the arms package.
Lekota says there has been no change in the key priority of the defence force. But, he says, "there is nothing to suggest that in the foreseeable future we will be attacked by any country and, for the major part, our energy will be in peace support operations".
The core business of the SANDF will remain that of defending SA against external aggression, says Lekota .
The minister says he believes this is no impediment to the SANDF's ability to participate in peacekeeping operations, which contributes to building SA's security and strengthens its core role.
Improved training and technology allows today's soldiers to take on multiple roles, he says.
Lekota has no ready solutions for the SANDF's health and ageing problems . The average age of an SANDF private is in the early thirties, compared with the early twenties for most armed forces.
This contributes to health problems and reduces the number of troops that can be deployed. The United Nations stipulates that no HIV-positive troops can be sent on its peace missions.
Lekota says that if the defence force continues with its policy to reject applicants with serious health conditions, including HIV/AIDS, it can ultimately achieve a force where only 10% is HIV-positive.
Currently, he says, the figure is between 20% and 22%, but this is not the prime health problem in the force.
Solving the ageing problem will require a political decision on making retirement packages available, and has to be balanced against other budget needs.
Before that happens, he wants the issue of racial transformation and the reduction of the defence force to between 65000 and 70000 members to be addressed.
Lekota says over the medium term SA can easily meet its peacekeeping obligations, particularly as other African countries continue to share SA's burden.
The defence ministry is drafting a document to kick off discussions in Parliament. It is likely to deal with the changed international security environment since the September 11 attacks in the US, the role of technology in warfare, and plans for an African standby force.
The defence ministry would like the review process to provide consensus on policy, greater budget certainty and a basis for new acquisitions.
"Having ordered for the navy, the major issue for me is landward defence the army," says Lekota. The army has already begun the tender process for a new infantry fighting vehicle to replace the Ratel. Lekota says there is also a need for more tanks, and equipment for SA's special forces.
SA also requires new military airlift capacity, but Lekota says spending Euros800m on eight new aircraft may not be realistic in terms of SA's budget priorities.
Lekota also says SA requires new military airlift capacity, and favours the acquisition of the A400M, the new aircraft that Airbus will start building next year. But he says spending Euros800m on eight new aircraft may not be realistic in terms of SA's budget priorities. Because of a shortage of airlift capacity SA currently charters planes from the Ukraine to transport troops and equipment to Burundi and the Conto, but Lekota says the cost is prohibitive.
With acknowledgements to Jonathan Katzenellenbogen and the Business Day.