Project on Defense Alternatives

On the Threshold of Change:

South African Defence Review reflects the continuing struggle
to define a military policy for the new era

Project on Defense Alternatives
Carl Conetta, Charles Knight and Lutz Unterseher
October 1996

A. Introduction

The submission in October 1996 to the Joint Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence of the draft Defence Review: Report on Posture is a major milestone in the establishment of a democratic security policy for the Republic of South Africa. Especially important in this document is the recognition that the greatest threats to the South African people are social and economic in character. In line with this the Review also annunciates the need to channel the state's financial resources to the alleviation of poverty and unemployment. Equally significant is the Review's commitment to a "war prevention" approach to military security challenges and its commensurate emphasis on regional common security arrangements, defense cooperation, peace support operations, and arms control.

With regard to more traditional military defense measures, the Review's preclusion of preemptive strike options merits special note. This bold declaration is an important step toward reducing security tensions and fears in the region by limiting the exercise of South African military power in accord with international law -- although its concrete impact on regional crisis stability depends on the reduction of South Africa's present capacities for pre-emption. Regrettably, the Council on Defence, which includes the Minister of Defence and the Chief of the National Defence Force, decided in late October to strike the language in the Review that prohibits pre-emption. However, Parliament will revisit this issue when it reconvenes in 1997.

The Defence Review also affirms that the SANDF will have a "primarily defensive orientation and posture." (Chap 1, Sect 30.) More important it recognizes that defensiveness is not only a matter of intent, but also "has implications for doctrine, training, and force design." (Chap 1, Sect 30.)

The Defence Review goes much further than the preceding Defence White Paper in specifying the elements of a new defense posture. Still, a number of problems remain. Many stated policy objectives and design directives are open to multiple and conflicting interpretations, and some vital information is missing. Occasionally, the Review seems to be at war with itself: the guidance and concepts laid out in some chapters find only a distorted reflection in others.

The most serious problems regard force requirements and design. This is unfortunate because the determination of force requirements and design constitutes the critical step in translating political guidance into a material product. Problems are also evident in the discussions of peace support operations and military industrial capabilities. Because the resolution of the issues in these areas will determine the ultimate effect of the review process the remainder of this commentary examines them closely.

B. Essential Details are Missing

Although exhaustive in many respects, the Defence Review fails to provide the type of information necessary to gauge how well it reflects the government's guidance. Indeed, even information of the most fundamental sort is missing. How large will the SANDF be in total? How many people of what status will it employ? How many weapons systems of what type will it possess? How much money will it require? Although the review presents four force options and clearly favors one of these, none are associated with tables of equipment and none include "bottom line" personnel numbers or budget figures. (The personnel and budget figures that the Review presents are for combat units only, and this constitutes only an unspecified fraction of the total SANDF requirement for people and funds.)

In order to make an informed judgement Parliament needs to know the total projected equipment, personnel, and budget associated with each of the options presented in the Review. Such information would allow valid comparisons of the different SANDF options with previous force configurations -- for instance the SADF of 1970, 1980, and 1990 -- and with the other armed forces of southern Africa. Such comparisons are key in accessing the appropriateness of a proposed force to the needs and character of the present period.

The Defence Review assesses each of the options in light of various possible threats and missions. The potential threats range from a major invasion to punitive raids to internal disorder. With regard to threats, the Review also makes assumptions about the "warning time" or "lead time" during which the SANDF can make preparations: the shorter the warning time for a particular threat, the larger the defense force that South Africa must keep ready.

However the Review gives decision-makers little clue about the character or magnitude of the threats that it is planning against; nor does it reveal the "warning times" that its planning assumes. Lacking this information it is impossible to judge the plausibility of the Review's conclusions regarding the adequacy of each of its force options. Indeed, the Review provides little basis for determining whether or not the range of options presented is skewed. Although the Review adopts a so-called "threat independent" approach to planning -- meaning that it does not attempt to identify threat states -- it bases its calculations on "nominal threats" or hypothetical aggressor forces. These and other important inputs to defense planning should be open to discussion because taken together they determine the Review's conclusions about sufficiency.

C. How Much is Enough?

The South African military today is among the top 20 in the world, considering both quality and quantity of troops and arms. It is more powerful than all of its neighbors combined. But what about threats from outside the region? Since WWII only a few of the world's nations have shown the capacity and willingness to project and sustain significant amounts of combat power over intercontinental distances: the United States, France, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union (together with Cuba). Today, the French and British could each probably manage an intercontinental intervention force of no more than 30,000 troops (all services). During the last decade of the Cold War the Soviet-Cuban team could manage no more than 100,000 troops. Of course, today the Russian capacity to project and sustain significant combat power over intercontinental distances is virtually non-existent.

The United States alone could and can manage intercontinental interventions involving 500,000 troops or more -- and this only given an extended deployment period and uncontested access to a developed base infrastructure. A more rapid deployment over intercontinental distances is an entirely different matter. Without prepositioned troops and equipment, even the United States would be hard pressed to deploy a mixed heavy-light force of 100,000 troops in less than a month. The French and British might each manage 15 percent of that and the Russians even less. Long-range power projection and force sustainment are the most demanding, dangerous, and expensive missions that a military can undertake. Although the number of nations capable of such operations could increase in the coming years, the likelihood of a regional intervention by a force of 50,000 troops must be judged as quite low for the next 10 or 15 years. Significantly, even the smallest of the force options presented in the Review should be able to achieve, on full mobilization, some critical defense objectives with regard to such an intervention force. It could ensure, for instance, that any attempt to occupy or compromise South African territory would incur a very high cost for the aggressor, if not catastrophic failure.

It is surprising, therefore, that the Review regards even the most robust of its force options, which would involve more than 100,000 troops after mobilization, as flatly failing to provide for the contingency of major invasion -- except as a reconstitution base. How large of an outside intervention are the Review's authors planning against? What probability of occurrence do they assign this contingency? How much deterrence or defense capability do they see as necessary with regard to low probability threats? These questions underscore Parliament's need to know the specific assumptions that drive defense planning.

D. Planning Under Conditions of Uncertainty

Any calculation of requirements is complicated by the fact that, while South Africa today faces no clear and present military threat of substantial size, the future is uncertain. But "uncertainty" is a slippery concept; it can be misused to make good news appear bad, or to rivet our attention on issues of secondary concern. The good news is that South Africa is today certainly and substantially more secure from military threats than it has been at any time in the past 25 years. Moreover, the future regarding military threats is certainly brighter today than it has been in many decades. Unfortunately, we can say with equal assurance that the situation regarding nonmilitary threats to stability is not so good: a variety of social, economic, and environmental crises beset the region. If left to fester these crises will someday find a military expression -- but they need not. This is the paradox that weighs on security policy makers: buying too much insurance against low probability military threats will beggar South Africa's ability to address the types of clear and present regional problems that generate military threats over time.

The most improbable of military threats -- that of a large-scale invasion or incursion by a big power -- plays a major role in the Defence Review's conceptualization of a "core force." This core force supposedly constitutes a minimum necessary foundation for reconstituting the type of military that could deter or counter a big power threat. The emphasis on maintaining an expansion core rather than a huge standing military is meant to balance two things: the low probability that an invasion threat will arise and the dire consequences to South Africa if it does. Maintaining a reconstitution base is an economical way of hedging against the emergence of future threats. Nonetheless, the prospect for economy will be lost if planners construe a potential future threat of extreme proportions -- for instance: a regional intervention by a hostile force comprising 100,000 troops. This could lead South Africa to maintain a too large reconstitution core.

The imagination is always richer than the treasury, and there are competing uses for every available rand. Nonetheless, if policy- makers feel that they cannot discount highly unlikely scenarios, they will need more than the concept of "force reconstitution" to make defense preparations affordable. Two adjustments in planning may prove helpful. First, with regard to potential future threats of very large scale but very low probability the nation could settle for a modest level of "military insurance." Planners could aim for something less -- after reconstitution -- than the capability needed for a decisive defensive victory. They might, for instance, seek the capability to slow and limit any very large-scale aggression, extracting a high price from the aggressor and buying time for international support to take form. This capability would become the goal of reconstitution.

A second and complementary way of dealing with extreme scenarios is to adopt a competitive strategy. Should South Africa find itself confronted by a nation or alliance possessing greatly superior military resources, it could choose to compete in a different sphere. It could adopt a political-military or political-diplomatic defense. In the final analysis South Africa's most valuable security asset is its currently excellent regional and international standing. The combination of a competitive political-diplomatic strategy and modest defensive military objectives offers an affordable and sensible way to hedge against the remote possibility of a large-scale invasion of the region. This would permit South Africa to maintain a smaller reconstitution base today and devote more of its resources to the solution of clear and present problems.

E. Military Industrial Capabilities and Weapon Modernization

The Defence Review states that "certain military industrial capabilities must be maintained to support defense requirements," (Chap 3, Sect 9.9.) but what these are in particular is never stated. Presumably the requirement for military industrial capabilities will be addressed in the forthcoming section of the Defence Review on the Defence Industry and Procurement. However, the shape and size of the core force promulgated in the Report on Posture is clearly related to the industrial efficiency requirements of maintaining substantial portions of the relatively large South African defense industry built up under the old government. The Review recognizes that South Africa has regained its status as a member in good standing of the international community, which should give the nation increased access to global arms markets -- especially in the event that it is challenged by an aggressor. But, so far, the Review fails to explore how or in what areas South Africa might rely on arms transfers for future procurement.

The Defence Review also says that "major weapon systems may take up to 15 years to develop and commission..." (Chap 3, Sect 8.5.) This is true enough as an outside limit, but weapon systems are frequently developed in half this time and often can be acquired from other nations and adapted or improved in a few years. Facing emergencies, nations have been known to acquire and integrate new weapons in six months. There are many ways to plan for the modernization and reconstitution of an arsenal. It would be a mistake to assume that 15 years is required absolutely for the introduction of new systems. If policy makers accept this assumption they could commit South Africa to an unnecessarily high pace of continuous military modernization. This would be a very expensive proposition -- and one that could prompt concern among neighboring states.

The Defence Review asserts that planning must also assume that "any future enemy will have sophisticated weapons and systems." (Chap 3, Sect 40.1.) But it offers no standard of "sophistication." Should South Africa prepare to match the most technically advanced of the world's armed forces? This would require SANDF research, development, and procurement efforts to pursue the limits of technical feasibility. Clearly, economy and proportion demand a more modest goal. A selective modernization is in order -- one that corresponds to an assessment of South Africa's special competencies and vulnerabilities. In this, special attention must be paid to regional potentials and trends. Although neighboring states may acquire some items of advanced design, the average technical level of regional armed forces will remain modest by the standards of rich and middle-income countries. Planners should also keep in mind that what counts in assessing a potential threat is not the mere presence of a technology but its presence in militarily significant quantity and the capacity of its possessor to support it.

In order to hedge against the low-probability threat of a major power intervention sometime in the future, South Africa should maintain a skill base capable of improvisation and integration of higher technology enhancements to the force. Technical improvisation is already a special competency of the South African defense establishment, but it need not be supported at the high level typical of recent crisis periods.

F. Confusion on the Issue of "Defensive Posture"

As a concrete expression of its commitment to develop a security partnership with its neighbors South Africa should adopt a clearly nonprovocative, defensively-oriented military posture. This has been accepted by the Defence White Paper, but interpreted restrictively by the Defence Review. The Review asserts that "the doctrine of the SANDF will be based on a strategic defensive posture." (Chap 2, Sect 16.) However, it also asserts that, in order to repel aggression, "appropriate offensive capabilities will be required at the operational level." (Chap 2, Sect 17.) Although the extent of these capabilities is nowhere spelled out, the Review elsewhere describes the SANDF as "primarily defensive" in orientation and posture. (Chap 1, Sect 30.) These various formulations and omissions are confusing. A closer look is warranted.

Generally speaking, the "operational level" of war refers to that level at which a military's various services and branches join to fight as a team. It is the level at which a military's overall method of war is manifest. The Review tells us that the SANDF's method of war will combine offensive and defensive action of rather large scale in "appropriate" proportion. The statement of defensive orientation at the strategic level means that South Africa does not intend or plan to use its military to serve aggressive goals. Thus, the offensive potential of the SANDF would be used only in a counter-offensive fashion. This provision has the nature of a "political promise" to one's neighbors -- a pledge of self-restraint. However, it does not imply structural limitations on the capacity for cross-border offensives, and the Defence Review suggests few such restrictions. The crux of the issue from the perspective of crisis stability is this: will South Africa structure its armed forces to defend the nation from within its own borders?

In several places and ways the Defence Review answers this question in the negative. With regard to South Africa's use of offensive power against an adversary it notes that in times of crisis the government may declare appropriate exclusion zones -- presumably located on the territory of a neighboring state. (Chap 2, Sect 18.) A more explicit clarification occurs in Chapter 8, which addresses force design. Here the Review examines as one of four options (Option 4) a force design that it characterizes as "purely defensive." Distinguishing this option is the assumption that "the SANDF fights only on South African territory." Significantly, the Review's assessment of this option is overwhelmingly negative. It derides it as involving strategic gaps that "pose serious risks to [the] government regarding its ability to ensure the security of its people." (Chap 8, Sect 64.) It also concludes that the option is among the most expensive available. These conclusions about Option 4 are difficult to corroborate: as noted above the Review fails to provide sufficient information for an independent assessment. The Review leaves no doubt, however, that the authors of the Force Design chapter are presently ill-disposed toward the idea that South Africa can do without a "forward defense."

Regardless of political constraints applied at the strategic level, a failure to constrain structurally the capacity for cross-border offensives would render moot several important precepts set out in the Defence Review. First, a capacity for rapid, large cross-border offensives certainly also entails a considerable capacity for pre-emption, which the draft Review elsewhere disavows. Second, the Review states that any deterrence capability "should not be counter-productive in that it triggers an arms race." (Chap 2, Sect 12.5.) However, if South Africa retains and modernizes a relatively large military possessing a considerable capacity for large-scale offensive action, other nations may be inspired to follow suit -- as best they can. If they are unable to keep pace based solely on indigenous potentials, they could seek defense cooperation arrangements with outside powers. They also could opt to acquire weaponry of little military value but high political impact such as Scud missiles and chemical weapons. It does not take a fortune teller to see where this road leads. A historian will do. Contemplation of common action-reaction cycles clarifies how, despite a nation's good intentions, its defense preparations have often contributed to the instabilities they are meant to alleviate. In the end, military structure and arsenals speak with greater effect than words.

G. Is a Defensive Option Feasible?

As noted above, the Review's chapter on force design examines and, essentially, rejects a defensive option. It offers no reason to believe, however, that the sole defensive option it presents is the best one available. Notably, the Review describes its example as deficient in operational mobility and lacking the wherewithal to eject an invader. But neither these characteristics, nor the high cost of the model, are typical of all such models -- for instance, those employed by Finland, Sweden, and Austria. A defensively-oriented military should and can have the capacity to eject an invader, although it would go about the task in its own way. First it would seek to impede, halt, and contain the incursion. Next it would aim to unbalance and weaken an intruder through relatively small-scale, local counterattacks. Finally, after the intruding force has been substantially weakened, it would seek to expel it from the country.

By contrast a military that defends in a more offensively- oriented way might seek to launch a large-scale counter-offensive very early in the war. Such a counter attack might go after a piece of the adversary's territory to use as a bargaining chip or it might seek to "hit the intruding force deep in its rear area," regardless of whether this involves large-scale cross-border operations. From one perspective such actions might seem only fair; after all, the defender is responding to a presumably unprovoked act of aggression. However, there is a problem in that a capability for cross-border counter-offensives is indistinguishable from a capability for cross-border aggression. Typically such a capacity derives from having a large proportion of units that combine long-range mobility and logistics, high firepower, and a degree of mobile protection sufficient to permit long stays in hostile territory.

What would a structurally defensive military look like? Without doubt different circumstances would produce different models. And, for any particular set of circumstances, there would be multiple ways of achieving defensiveness -- some better than others in terms of stability effects and cost. Contrary to what the authors of the force design chapter imply, offensive capabilities would not be entirely lacking in a defensive military. However, the offensive components would be smaller and fewer in number than in an offensively-oriented model. This is possible because the counter-attack units would work closely with defensive units and would seek to exploit "home court" advantages that convey a competitive edge. (These include local popular support, familiarity with the terrain, prior preparation of the defense zone, and relatively shorter supply lines.) Moreover, as stated earlier, the defensively-oriented force would not attempt a "clean sweep" counter-offensive until an intruder had been depleted substantially. Also characteristically, the offensive element would be "tethered" in some way to home territory -- for instance, by its dependence on other, lower-mobility units, field preparations, or semi-static communication and logistics networks. The most unique trait of defensively-oriented military units is this: whatever their degree of offensive power, it declines rapidly should they leave their national context and attempt to drive deep into hostile territory.

Significantly, a defensively-oriented military may have some units with longer-range or "operational" mobility. This is especially important for nations such as South Africa that have a relatively long border to defend and cannot bear the cost of maintaining a thick defensive belt all along their frontier. Within a defensive concept, however, longer-range "rapid deployment" units would not have a high offensive potential when they arrived at a trouble spot. Instead, they would be equipped to assume defensive roles with the immediate objective of halting an aggressor or reinforcing local defenses. Typically, such forces consist of easy-marching (motorized/light mechanized) infantry and engineer units with good defensive firepower, immediate artillery support and no -- or only minimal -- counterattack elements (such as armor and attack helicopters).

Oddly the SANDF planners came to precisely the opposite conclusion when choosing attack helicopters over transport versions in the design of their defensive option. Rapid allocation of forces is a key component of a good defense and transport helicopters can have an important role in delivering troops, anti-armor weapons, and other force components to a crisis point. Trading these transport vehicles for attack helicopters would seem to contradict the intent of a defensive posture by extending the reach and fire power of a rapid deployment force that already possesses considerable cross-border offensive potential. Obviously this could cause concern among neighbors and have a potentially negative impact on regional stability. Moreover, reducing the number of transport helicopters in the tradeoff will increase South African force allocation problems in defense operations and likely make South Africa's home defense less resilient.

The Review's chapter on force design seeks to close the door on the defensive option. But the needs of the nation and the region demand a renewed process of innovation and experimentation. Extensive consultation with national militaries experienced in this approach -- Finland, Sweden, and Austria, for example -- would facilitate such a process.

H. Whither Peace Support Operations?

The Defence Review states that South Africa will fulfil its responsibility to participate in international peace support operations authorized by the United Nations and sanctioned by the appropriate regional security organization. The Review lists a variety of peace support operations, and it concludes that these may require a wide range of military instruments. However, it provides no further guidance regarding the types of peace operations that South Africa should actually undertake or regarding the specific capabilities associated with them. This is a serious shortcoming.

The Defence Review wisely advises caution in committing to peace support deployments because such operations are new to the Defense Forces and because the Forces are presently preoccupied with the demands of integration and rationalization. There is an additional reason for caution with regard specifically to Peace Enforcement Operations which are distinguished by the substantial likelihood of combat action. It will be many years before regional security organizations have the political and technical wherewithal to command such complex and risky operations. But, in the absence of an effective multinational command structure, neither the region nor the continent may yet be prepared to see South Africa lead the way in such missions.

Until regional cooperative security arrangements mature, South Africa might best restrict itself to participation in less controversial forms of peace support: traditional peacekeeping, preventive deployment, and humanitarian assistance missions. These are the missions for which there is growing demand and in which South Africa can participate with relatively low risk. Moreover, these missions offer a means for reducing the requirement for peace enforcement operations. For instance, earlier and more substantial missions of this simpler sort could have significantly stabilized conditions in Somalia and the former-Yugoslavia.

Traditional peacekeeping, preventive deployment, and humanitarian assistance missions mostly require inputs of light infantry and air transport. They do not depend on new investments in sophisticated technology or heavy armament. Moreover, if deployments along these lines remain infrequent they will have little impact on the size and shape of the armed forces of South Africa.

It may take a decade or more of regional institution building and experience with the less demanding types of peace support before South Africa feels prepared to attempt peace enforcement missions. These would require a different level and type of long-range military capability. Its character and quantity should be a matter of fully ventilated democratic debate in the meantime. However, a prerequisite to informed debate is a clarification of the distinctions and the overlap among the various regional missions that South African forces might undertake. Until the MOD clearly specifies the distinct requirements associated with each of the possible peace support missions, political authorities run the risk of buying a costly war horse when what they desire is a more modest draught animal.

Finally, it is not clear presently how much peace support capability would exist under the various options examined in the Defence Review. Peace support operations are treated as secondary to the national defense function of the SANDF. Although the Review states that the "SANDF will perform its secondary functions chiefly with its core defense capabilities," it also notes that peace support deployments may require additional structure and funds. (Chap 3, Sect 9.7.) This may confront decision-makers with a choice of either spending more than they currently plan in order to fund peace operations or rethinking the purpose and functions of the core force and the allocation of resources within it.

I. Conclusion

The Defence Review takes an important step toward a new defense policy for a new South Africa. Although the gaps in information are a shortcoming, and the extent of innovation in force design is insufficient, the Review's articulation of cooperative security, arms control, and peace support policies represents a critical break with the past. Perhaps most important, the Review embodies South Africa's commitment to an open and democratic process of policy development and implementation. As always in a democratic process, much remains to consider and debate as South Africa moves forward to build a lasting national consensus on security issues.

Carl Conetta, Charles Knight and Lutz Unterseher, "On the Threshold of Change: A Commentary on the October 1996 Draft of the South African Defence Review." Project on Defense Alternatives, Commonwealth Institute, Cambridge, MA, USA, January 1997.

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