Project on Defense Alternatives

Key Issues in Current South African Defense Planning

Project on Defense Alternatives, Briefing Memo # 9
Charles Knight and Carl Conetta
July 1996

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The present South African Defense Review process has stimulated a broad and healthy national discussion of "new era" security requirements. Although oriented to the unique conditions of southern Africa, the discussion is also part of a worldwide re-examination of security needs in light of the end of the East-West confrontation. This memo presents a perspective on several central issues in the South African debate that have their analogues worldwide. In successive sections the memo addresses (I) Strategic and Operational Doctrine, (ii) Regional Military Co-operation, (iii) the concept of a "Core Force," and (iv) the effort to determine an appropriate level of military technological investment.

A. Strategic and Operational Doctrine

For many years the military strategy of the South African defense forces has been based on the notion of "forward defense" through which South Africa (SA) has sought the capability to interdict or preempt an adversary before conflict reaches South Africa's borders. This strategy is thought to yield two major benefits: (I) in the event of war, it would allow SA to minimize the damage to home territory, since major battles would be fought on the territory of other countries; and (ii) it would allow SA to limit the options of an opponent through preemptive action -- such as destruction of an airfield or port. In part, it is the logic of this strategy that led to the occupation of Namibia and to major interventions in Angola and Mozambique.

The leadership of the SANDF has agreed to a new defensive strategy as a result of discussions held within the Government of National Unity. However, the SANDF has thus far resisted relinquishing many of the operational capabilities associated with the old forward defense posture. This approach is said to combine a strategically defensive orientation with operationally offensive capabilities. However, citizens of SA must decide whether continued investment in elements of an offensively-oriented forward defense is wise. Posited benefits should be carefully examined and weighed against risks and costs. First, a forward defense posture by a major regional power can have serious negative consequences for interstate relations. Military capabilities that give SA the option to project force far from its own territory can be judged threatening by other countries. This is so despite SA's defensive intentions because "forward defense" capabilities are effectively indistinguishable from those associated with a coercive or offensive posture. Thus, a forward defense posture by SA may have a negative impact on the general level of trust in the region and it may stimulate arms races -- in effect, countervailing SA's positive initiatives on the diplomatic level. Second, a forward defense can be especially risky during periods of interstate tension or political crisis. Because it threatens the territory or vital military assets of neighboring states -- or, at least, seems to so threaten -- it may prompt one's neighbors to also attempt preemptive "defensive" action. Should other nations follow South Africa's example by adopting or seeking their own versions of "forward defense," this would establish the preconditions for severe instability during a crisis.

Recognition of these two problems suggests that the value of "forward defense" as a deterrence and damage limitation strategy is offset by its negative effects on interstate relations and crisis stability. Indeed, forward defense may contribute to the emergence of the very problems it has been designed to manage. For policy-makers the relevant question is whether or not the recent strategic revolution in southern Africa has created a real opportunity to depart from the type of defense postures characteristic of a protracted confrontation between antagonistic blocs.

Forward defense is also a high cost option. Generally the doctrine requires the most costly of military capabilities: the capacity to move forces under heavy protection long distances in hostile environments -- a capacity we might call: long-range protected mobility. This also requires prudent investment in protection against preemptive attack of assembling force concentrations at home. These strategic and operational concerns have numerous implications for required capital investments in armored vehicles, fighter and transport aircraft, mobile air-defense, logistical systems, medical services, and communications.

Should a forward defense posture be adopted in a context of acute domestic competition for limited national resources, the costliness of "long-range protected mobility" may lead to risky trade-offs. Investment in forward defense does not eliminate the need to invest in home defense as a "backstop" and as a hedge against the possibility that preemptive defense efforts fail. However, economic and political realities may preclude maintaining both an effective projection force (for forward defense) and an effective home defense force. Unless the nation maintains a very large and costly strategic reserve force, a forward defense posture will very likely leave insufficient forces for a stalwart home defense.

B. Regional Military Co-operation

The need for conducting regional "peace support operations" has been offered as a rationale for retaining capabilities for cross-border military operations. Certainly, if SA chooses to prepare for participation in regional peace support operations, some amount of long-range capability will be needed. How much remains an open question. To facilitate executive and parliamentary decision-making defense planners must clarify the requirements associated with various types and levels of regional involvement. Four issues in particular need ventilation.

First, the prerequisite for making real and reasoned decisions about South Africa's "cross-border" military requirements is greater clarity about the overlap and distinctions among the various regional missions that South African forces might undertake. The military capabilities required for humanitarian assistance and traditional peacekeeping missions are very different (and generally less demanding) than those required for "conflict limitation" missions. (These latter are sometimes referred to as "peace enforcement" missions; examples include the interventions in Somalia and Bosnia.) The requirements of collective defense are also quite distinct from and more demanding than peace support operations. None of these mission requirements is a simple subset or "lesser included case" of another, although some requirements may cut across several missions. Unless the distinct requirements associated specifically with each of the various "cross-border" missions now under consideration are fully clarified, decision-makers run the risk of buying a "war horse" when what they desire is a "drought animal" (or vice versa).

Second, it is argued that SA must plan defense against preemptive neutralizing raids by outside powers intent on military intervention in a neighboring state. The possibility of neutralizing raids becomes a concern with a collective defense or forward defense strategy; such raids are extremely unlikely in an internationally sanctioned peacekeeping situation.

Third, it is often suggested that the financing of peace support operations will be treated as "subsidiary" to the core defense budget. Although some of the capabilities to be purchased as part of the core force as presently conceived may be relevant to the conduct of peace support operations, the core force concept does not specifically attempt to cover all likely peace support operations requirements. Indeed, advocates of the core force concept emphasize that some of the capabilities needed for missions other than self-defense may not exist within the core force and, thus, require additional funding. Purchasing the core force as currently conceived will not guarantee a capacity to conduct peace operations. This may confront decision-makers with a choice of either spending more than they currently plan in order to cover these operations or, should resources prove scarce, rethinking the purpose and functions of the core force and the allocation of resources within it.

Finally, it has been suggested that a regional "leadership role" requires SA to invest in military technological prowess. This depends very much on what kind of regional missions the SANDF takes on. Although peacekeeping will benefit from investments in communications, there is relatively little benefit to peacekeeping from investment in high-tech weaponry. If SA takes on the responsibilities of conflict limitation missions or collective security commitments the rationale for greater technological investment grows. Clarity as to what sort of regional military role SA is preparing for will help bring clarity as to what kind of military technology SA must invest in.

C. The Core Force

The "core force" has been conceived as a foundation on which a warfighting force could be constructed if needed sometime in the future -- probably more than ten years away. This is a sensible defense planning model, especially suitable to a period of low conventional threat. Its utility to the nation is analogous to an insurance policy in the sense that the cost of the core force is ongoing while its use benefit is episodic. Thus it becomes very important to examine in detail each statement of the type: "the minimum size for a core force is..." Anything in excess of a true minimum will be a waste of state resources that is repeated year after year, compounding the waste.

For defense planning the calculation of minimum size for the foundation force is a function of the assumed lead time (warning time) to a situation of war and of assumptions regarding the nation's capacity to build up force for the war contingency. The core force requirement is highly sensitive to these assumptions; assumptions which must be examined in detail to avoid excess.

Moreover, it is worth reiterating that, according to its advocates, the core force as presently conceived does not promise a full capability to conduct missions other than self-defense -- missions such as peace support operations. Insofar as peace support operations constitute the most likely and popular of potential cross-border missions for the SANDF, this omission may reflect a flaw in the core force concept.

D. Level of Technological Investment

Discussions of investment in military technology have proceeded as though there is a choice between a high-tech and low-tech path. This is a false choice. The real question is, What is an appropriate technological mix given South Africa's unique strategic conditions and situation? It would be better to seek an "appropriate technology" path rather than one defined narrowly as either "high" or "low" technology. In deciding an appropriate defense technology mix for any particular nation planners must consider:

  • the existing capabilities and longer-term economic-technical potential of other states in the region;
  • the investment, resources, technical infrastructure, and labor skills available to a nation's defense establishment;
  • the capacity of the nation's armed forces to employ various technologies in operationally significant magnitude, and to support and sustain these technologies in war; and
  • the various trade-offs that different doctrinal choices may permit or imply.

Several substantive points are worth serious consideration. First, a military posture oriented along the lines of an "offensive-defense" doctrine requires a different technological mix than one that is more purely defensive. As a general rule, a defensively-oriented force can make greater use of simpler technologies because it benefits from the advantages of operating on (or over) familiar and prepared territory. By contrast, the challenge of protecting soldiers and guiding weapons deep in enemy controlled space can compel a reliance on more costly technologies. Second, nations often wrestle with the temptation to seek political status through the procurement of cutting-edge military equipment. The arsenals of the world are filled with operationally-irrelevant status symbols. When resources for vital national reconstruction and development are scarce, political leaders must closely question rationales that emphasize the status or prestige value of procuring particular military items or technologies. Finally, technological development often proceeds in stages or "spurts," with emergent and experimental designs gradually evolving into less costly, more reliable applications. This has been true of electronic data processing during the last twenty years. Looking forward, the next period will likely see rapid developments in the application of digital processing to military technology and systems. In the relatively near future (twenty to thirty years) armed forces may bear little resemblance to those of today. The present moment of low conventional military threat may constitute a safe and profitable opportunity for SA to "skip a generation" of interim equipment purchase. As an alternative to buying into designs of the 1990s in preparation for possible use after 2010, SA should consider opportunities to consolidate inventories and extend the service life of current equipment. During this interim period SA can avail itself of relevant technological advances through very selective upgrade programs. This approach may constitute a cost-effective bridge to that time when 21st Century designs become both more affordable and reliable.

Citation: Charles Knight and Carl Conetta, Key Issues in Current South African Defense Planning Project on Defense Alternatives Briefing Memo #9. Cambridge, MA: Commonwealth Institute, July 1996.

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