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South Africa’s official arms procurement agency, was once again in the news for the wrong reason as a court reinstated the fired chairman retired General ‘Mojo’ Motau - for the second time - along with deputy chairman Refiloe Mokoena. But military expert Helmoed Römer Heitman argues that Armscor’s crisis goes much deeper.
Most defence forces are to some extent under-funded and over-committed but South Africa is one of the worst culprits in this regard, with results quite obvious to any educated observer. It is true that there have also been some very dubious personnel decisions and that discipline is not what it should be, but the greatest damage is being done by the combination of operational overstretch and underfunding. We may not have invented the funding/mission mismatch, but are close to perfecting it.
That is bad enough, but the defence force also has to struggle against being undermined by its own acquisition agency, Armscor.
That has become clear over several years, and was only highlighted by the affidavit by the Chief of Acquisition, Antonie Visser, during the most recent attempt by the Ministry of Defence to dismiss the chairman of Armscor. The action – or rather inaction – of Armscor on so many projects has affected operational readiness and capability, and its effects will be felt for many years to come.
Visser listed several projects delayed by Armscor, ranging from equipment to enable troops to live reasonably comfortably while deployed, to projects that affect their ability to perform their missions and their safety.
For some he gave details:
* Project Swatch for new field camping equipment, held up since November 2011 for no reasons clear to the defence force. Linked to it are projects Teamster (field kitchens), Blesbok (water purification equipment). We deploy troops for six months at a time, and we owe it to them that they have reasonable field accommodation, food and safe water.
* Project Vagrant for air base security systems, including forward airbases the air force might have to establish in the course of peace support operations, held up since October 2011. Do we really need to lose aircraft to sabotage to get movement here?
* Project Porthole for high-altitude parachute equipment for Special Forces (SF) and probably also the Pathfinders of the Parachute Regiment, held up since February last year, because the preferred bidder did not meet Armscor’s BBBEE criteria. The SF must, therefore, continue to use old equipment or simply do without equipment that could be critical to, for instance, a hostage rescue operation.
Among the other projects mentioned by Visser were Protector (upgrading the 35mm anti-aircraft guns and acquiring fire-direction systems), Bandsman (new airbase crash tenders, for which a contract should have been awarded in November 2012, and relevant to civil aviation as some air bases are diversion airports in bad weather or if a civilian airport has problems), Package (generators for deployed forces, essential for communications and providing simple things like light in operational bases), and Pantile (new earth-moving equipment for the army engineers).
That is bad enough, but we also need to ask why it took from February, when the minister of defence signed the acquisition plan for the new infantry combat vehicle until September – after General “Mojo” Motau’s dismissal as Armscor chairman – for the contract to be signed?
We also need to ask about why nothing has been done about Project Vistula (to replace the more than 30-year-old Samil trucks) after the never coherently explained previous round, and the failure to place regular orders to replenish ammunition stocks.
The former makes it difficult to support troops in the field; the latter will place deployed troops in danger.
There is also the question of exactly who advised the previous minister to cancel the A400M acquisition. This will now leave the air force with the choice of acquiring those aircraft at a higher price, or acquiring the even more costly C-17 that cannot fly into airfields close to the likely areas of operations, or the C-130 that lacks the payload and range for the regional work the government seems set on assigning to the defence force. They will cost only little less than the much more capable A400M did at the time the contract was cancelled.
Perhaps even more importantly, we need to ask why Armscor has driven out or forced out so many of its most experienced people?
And why its board developed a future strategy without, apparently, bothering to involve senior management; and why, when some of them pointed to flaws in that strategy, it chose to dismiss them instead of considering their experience-based views?
We need to ask those questions not only because of irreplaceable experience lost both to Armscor and the defence force, but also because it would seem that all of those dismissals that have gone to court have been reversed, with Armscor wasting state money to defend its indefensible decisions.
We also need to ask why, when the entire Department of Defence was overhauled after 1994, no one asked why it needed a Defence Acquisition and Procurement Directorate and Armscor.
Anyone involved at the time will remember how vigorously, even viciously, some senior Armscor officials fought to preserve their “rice bowl” in the face of all logic that argued for a single body answerable in the first instance to the user of the equipment – the defence force.
To be fair, it must also be said that there are still many outstanding people in the organisation, although it is not clear how much attention is paid to them. It must also be said that not a few of the problems faced by the defence force result from its own inability to take a decision or to persuade government of what it needs.
The delay in getting Project Biro (patrol vessels) in gear has already lost South Africa many opportunities to build similar vessels for other navies – not to mention forcing the navy to spend money on refitting barely useable old strike craft for a role entirely unsuited to them. Similarly the air force has managed to avoid acquiring a maritime patrol capability since 1984, despite South Africa’s economy depending to upwards of 90 percent (if one includes oil imports) on maritime trade.
It must also be said that the root of the problem lie far back in Armscor’s history, when it was decided that the head of Armscor would rank equal to the chief of the defence force. That planted a seed that has grown into delusions of grandeur that long precede the present board: By the latter 1970s some senior Armscor officials already had the notion that it was for them to decide what the defence force needed, not for the soldiers who had to use the equipment.
It is now well past time to reconsider how South Africa acquires defence equipment, and the Defence Review did exactly that, recommending a single Defence Material Organisation (DMO) with an independent Defence Tender Board. But that concept was held up because, it would seem, Armscor objected – the very Armscor that is quite patently not delivering on its mandate.
We need to nail down precisely what Armscor – or the proposed DMO – is supposed to do for the defence force, and who it must answer to, so that there can be no confusion in the future. Confusion such as was so visible in the version of Armscor’s future strategy that made it into the public domain (why it wasn’t a public document is a mystery).
That document made it quite apparent that there is a gap between Armscor’s actual primary mandate – to cost-effectively acquire equipment for the defence force – and what the Armscor board envisaged. That, essentially, was to recreate the Armscor of the war and arms embargo era, an all-capable defence research, development and manufacturing group.
That vision overlooked the existence of Denel, which comprises the former manufacturing divisions of Armscor, and the simple fact that South Africa only developed the breadth and depth of capabilities it had by the end of the 1980s because of the arms embargo, not because it made any military, strategic or economic sense.
To recreate that full range of capabilities in today’s situation would demand vast investment and serve only to guarantee that the industry and defence force inevitably and quickly fall fatally behind in defence technology. Not even the US develops everything itself.
What South Africa and its defence force need, is a defence acquisition organisation that has its focus firmly on meeting the needs of the user, the soldier in the field; that is supported by a defence science, research and development body; and, that is overseen by a tender board that comprises people who add value by contributing experience in defence, electronics, engineering, system integration, project management and international contract management.
We certainly do not need an organisation that prevaricates for nebulous reasons and fosters an entirely unrealistic and unachievable dream of growing into a business empire.
* Helmoed Römer Heitman is a military and defence analyst and senior correspondent for Jane's Defence Weekly.
** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers.