South Africa’s army is in a ‘critical state of decline’ – here’s how bad things are right now

 ·28 May 2020

Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans has raised alarms about the deteriorating abilities of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF).

In a presentation on Wednesday (27 May), the committee said that it is concerned that the defence force is fast losing its capabilities, owing to successive budget cuts.

The committee said that this has had a resultant knock-on effect on the entire defence industry.

“With the defence force in a state of decline, the country is losing its sovereign capability, something that will take many years to rebuild,” said chairperson of the committee Cyril Xaba.

Xaba said that the committee will, in the next few weeks, have in-depth discussions with the department on these challenges to save the defence force from collapse.

Declining force

The Department of Defence’s presentation to parliament states that the defence force is in a ‘critical state of decline’ which is characterised by force imbalance, unaffordability of its main operating systems, and an inability to meet current standing defence commitments.

Left unchecked and at present funding levels, this decline will severely compromise and further fragment South Africa’s defence capability, it said.

Chief among these concerns are consistent budget cuts as well as the capping of the compensation of employees (CoE) ceiling below the force’s existing strength. This has led to a direct decline in historic actual strength, it said.

The Department of Defence’s presentation also indicated that the country’s defence industry has suffered in recent years.

The major defence contractor at this stage is Denel with almost 80% of orders coming from the SANDF, it said.

It cited specific problems with the closure of the Special Defence Account which it said will have a serious impact on the local defence industry including the available skill set.

“In situations of war or external aggression, South Africa will not have a defence-related industry of its own for arms manufacturing and modernisation,” it said.

“Partly our sovereignty is at risk of being eroded due to future reliance on foreign defence industries.”

Very few bright spots 

When looking at areas such as training, technology and equipment, the Department of Defence indicated that there were very few bright spots.

Some of the biggest challenges highlighted include:


The department said that there has been a decline in the ability to maintain and sustain military processes and activities especially pertaining to military-specific commodities and equipment. Notably, stock levels are inadequate to support current defence commitments.


The decline in budget significantly inhibits the ability of the SANDF to provide effective training for individuals, single service and joint domains. As a result, training has been significantly reduced.

The department said that military capabilities are not prepared at the required level of combat readiness leading to the inability to execute the expected range of operations.

Equipment and vehicles

The SANDF faces equipment obsolescence and most of the army’s vehicles and other so-called prime mission equipment (PME) are ageing with very slim prospects for modernisation.

The department said that maintenance backlog will continue with consequent loss of industry expertise and PME unless funding is made available. It warned that a lack of maintenance may also lead to a collapse in PME.


The underfunding of facilities has resulted in the degradation of the department’s property portfolio. This has had an extreme impact on combat readiness.


The Department of Defence said that its current enterprise architecture is ‘not coherent, fit for purpose and compatible with modern information systems’.

It, therefore, does not provide sufficient real-time management information for decision making and compliance to governance requirements.

“Defence ICT systems are largely legacy systems becoming increasingly unstable and vulnerable to cyber threats.

“Essential components of the enterprise system suffer down-time resulting in non-compliance with a number of audit and accounting requirements.”

The department also cited concerns with technology, including concerns around a lack of modernity, the loss of intellectual property and the fact that sovereign technology can no longer be guaranteed.

Read: South Africa faces ‘historic’ Covid-19 economic shock

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