Members of the South African Air Force (SAAF) and army take part in a Capability Demonstration at the Roodewal Bombing Range in Makhado, in the northern province of Limpopo, May 9, 2013. South Africa’s air force showed off its military might on Thursday with precision bombing and helicopter gunships firing fusillades of rockets just days ahead of an unprecedented "peace enforcing" deployment to eastern Congo. Two months after 13 troops were killed by rebels in Central African Republic in South Africa’s heaviest military losses since the end of apartheid, Pretoria is gearing up to send 1,000 soldiers to Democratic Republic of Congo's volatile border with Rwanda and Uganda. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko (SOUTH AFRICA - Tags: MILITARY POLITICS)

It is past time for South Africa to decide on its role in Africa; it is also well past time to accept that we are currently overreaching ourselves, and that this will damage the Defence Force. Regardless of what our long-term aim may turn out to be, we need to now focus on what is critical to us.

The Army has two battalions committed to long-term peace support operations in Africa and there is ominous talk of a third. It is also expected to maintain a contingency force to respond to sudden crises, and to patrol our land border of 4 862km, some of it running through very rough terrain.

At the maximum safe rotation rate of 1 in 4 for foreign deployments (to allow proper individual and unit training and family lives for the soldiers), and assuming battalions permanently assigned to border sectors, that requires an Army of about 16 infantry battalions depending on how the border patrol system is designed.

Add at least two battalions as follow-on forces for a crisis intervention, and we need 18 regular Army infantry battalions, not counting the paratroops who are supposed to be the immediate crisis response force.

But the Army only has 13 battalions (not counting the paratroops) and not all of those soldiers are deployable.

We also lack air-transportable armoured cars to provide some punch to deal with the ever better armed “technicals” used by most irregular forces. And we do not have the airlift to reinforce or extract our troops should a sudden escalation occur, or the tanker aircraft to make a quick air strike by our Gripen fighter jets possible – remember Bangui?.

All of these shortcomings – and quite a few others – can be addressed with a defence budget hovering around 2 percent of GDP, with the bulk of the money spent in South Africa on salaries and local products. But while that means a 2 percent budget is a practical target, it will take time to address those shortfalls. For now, there is a clear need to refocus our efforts.

The collapse of the Central African Republic (CAR) and the threatening civil war in South Sudan present a very real and urgent security challenge to the DRC and thus to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and South Africa.

We have invested much political capital in the DRC and not a little in South Sudan, and we have spent some lives in efforts to stabilise the east of the DRC and also in the CAR.

Can we really afford to sit by and let the CAR settle into failed state status or watch South Sudan disintegrate? Consider the security impact on the Equateur province of the DRC.

There are already reports from Uganda of guerrillas of the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) moving and being supplied through Equateur, and of fighters from Libya and from the Somali al-Shabaab jihadist group joining the ADF.

If that continues, Uganda will step up its covert operations in the northeast of the DRC, and that will undo much of the little that has been achieved in the Great Lakes region since 2001.

That is not something South Africa should sit back and contemplate with equanimity: The DRC is important to SADC and to South Africa, both as a market and as a source of natural resources and energy (Grand Inga).

That does not necessarily mean we should deploy troops to join the AU force Misca in the CAR. Misca is a reinforced version of the central African regional force Fomac, which in March simply stepped aside and let our small contingent take the punch of the Seleka attack without even bothering to alert our troops.

Nor would I be keen to trust the AU, given its failure to respond in Mali and the way it rolled over before Seleka like a puppy in March, instead of kicking them back out. After all, then CAR president Francois Bozize had more or less met the terms of the ceasefire that the AU negotiated; it was Seleka that simply broke it from March 12 onwards.

Nor does this necessarily mean deploying South African forces into South Sudan to stand between the warring factions, and probably being attacked and vilified by both.

But perhaps we should think very seriously about deploying a joint task force to the DRC’s Equateur province to at least reduce the flow of bandits, smugglers, guerrillas, terrorists and their supplies into and through the DRC.

That would require at least a battalion group with air support – helicopters, surveillance aircraft or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles – or drones), light transports – and probably elements of the Navy’s small craft unit for river patrols. That might make a major difference to the future of the DRC and of SADC.

Where would we find those troops, given that the Army is already over-stretched?

The only answer to that in the short/medium-term would be to withdraw from the UN peacekeeping mission in Darfur, Unamid.

Not that the efforts to try and bring peace and stability to the people of Darfur are not worthwhile; they most definitely are. But the stability of the DRC is vastly more important to South Africa and to SADC.

Withdrawing from Darfur and expanding the use of reservists for border patrol work would free the troops required for at least a basic stabilisation/border security operation in Equateur, although we would have to deploy helicopters and light aircraft for it to have any chance of success.

Whether we did this as part of the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC, Monusco, is not a thought that fills me with enthusiasm, or in terms of a bilateral agreement, is something to consider.

But stabilising the north of the DRC before it unravels and becomes like the east of the DRC, is imperative. Prevention is better than cure, and even containing and limiting the problem will be better than waiting for things to slide out of control. -The Argus

Helmoed Römer Heitman is an independent defence analyst and is the South African correspondent for Jane’s Defence Weekly and several other periodicals.