Political will, innovation needed for SADC air defence

A major message coming through on day one (this past week) of the SA Joint Air Defence Symposium (SAJADS) is that without political will across the region the implementation of a Southern African Development Community-wide air defence network will not become reality.

This was illustrated by defence analyst Helmoed Heitman who told the 350-plus delegates that few understood the potential of air power in peacekeeping, stabilisation and constabulary operations in Africa.

This because air defence was regarded by many of no real relevance in Africa, mainly because it is considered in conventional warfare terms and “the conventional wars there have been in Africa have not been studied”.

He said air power “in one or more forms will always be an element – usually a critical element – of any military operation” on the continent citing its sheer size, the generally large theatres and areas of operation as well as the poor condition of overland transport infrastructure and the small size of the majority of African militaries as reasons for this.

“In most cases air transport will be the only practical means of moving and supplying forces and combat attack and transport helicopters will be the only practical means of focussing and re-focussing combat power as situations develop,” Heitman said.

The relevance of a regional air defence system to South Africa and the wider region, he said, was based on “simple, self-interest”.

“South Africa needs a peaceful and prosperous neighbourhood within which to develop its economy, both to attract vital foreign fixed capital investment and because, as Sergio Vieira, a one-time senior Mozambican intelligence official put it ‘paupers make bad neighbours’ – not that our immediate neighbours are necessarily paupers but their economies are too small to provide the markets we need. 

“SADC as such also needs a peaceful and prosperous neighbourhood, for much the same reasons, and also because as former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa said ‘if your neighbour is not stable, you cannot be stable for too long. If your neighbour collapses, the fallout will not respect the boundary between you’.

“The bottom line is South Africa and SADC need the peace, security and stability without which it will be impossible to undertake any meaningful economic activity.”

In this regard he quoted Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula who said: “There is no possibility of development and economic success for a South Africa surrounded by a pool of instability, war and hunger”.

He also warned that it was not only the “good guys” who made use of air power pointing out there were dedicated air routes used for smuggling, among others, valuable mineral ore as well as drugs and weapons.

“Air power in its widest sense will form a key element in many of the security challenges that will face Africa over the next few decades – from the occasional conventional or semi-conventional inter-state war through to insurgency and terrorism to organised crime.  The trend is clearly visible and there are good examples to be found in Latin America and Southeast Asia.

“The air defence community will need to accept, understand and digest that reality, and then develop a set of doctrines to deal with it.

“And they will have to persuade their colleagues in the other services of the need to think unconventionally in respect of air defence, not least in how one conducts offensive counter-air operations: Not many would see an infantry platoon placed at an air field or a long-range sniper team covering one from a hill two kilometres distant in that role, but that will in some cases be the only or at least the optimal solution. Imagination is required, not just professional competence.”

In terms of imagination going into air defence systems Lieutenant-Commander Ben Wahl, anti-air officer on the SAS Spioenkop, came up with one in his presentation on netcentric integration of air defence systems in SADC.

He said the continuing presence of budget constraints had, in Ghana, been overcome by issuing fishermen with camera capable mobile phones.

“The country knows it cannot properly patrol its fishing waters and bringing fisherman who are on the water into the equation helped enormously. They are taught how to use the phones and once pictures of suspected fish poachers are taken they are sent to a control room from where scarce assets can be deployed without the need for continuous patrolling.” His innovative approach sees off-the-shelf commercial portable computers, laptops, tablets and mobile phones working together to provide short, sharp burst of information on to commanders to enable fast decision-making when it comes to airspace violations.

He envisages the Internet browser as an example of a simple, cost efficient system to carry this information with the added bonus of information carried being outdated less than a minute after transmission and so obviating the need to make it “hacker-proof”.

Rear Admiral Rusty Higgs, SA Navy Chief Naval Staff officially opened the 2013 iteration of SAJADs in the absence of Navy Chief, Vice Admiral Johannes Mudimu, at the CSIR Conference Centre in Pretoria. – Defence Web

September 2013
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