Darren Olivier

The upcoming deployment of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), designated SAMIDRC, is yet another attempt to address the persistent conflict and instability within the region.

At R124m a year for three, the Rooivalk is expensive to operate.

It follows on from the United Nations peacekeeping mission that ran for more than twenty years, MONUSCO, and from an earlier failed intervention by the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF).

Both were asked to depart by the Congolese government, which has been unsatisfied with external involvement, but also unwilling to follow all the recommendations of those partners, especially when it came to the plan of action for targeting and then neutralising some of the more persistent armed groups, such as the FDLR, ADF, and M23.

The latter group, in particular, is resurgent and poses a potent new threat. Long claimed to be backed by elements of the Rwandan security forces, M23 is well-trained and well-equipped, just as it was when it temporarily captured the regional capital of Goma in 2012, before being ejected by a combined MONUSCO Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) and DRC armed forces (FARDC) task force the following year.

However, even though very little information has yet been released on the mission, it’s clear from what has been released, as well as the similar issues that have severely hampered the SADC mission in Mozambique (SAMIM), that funding constraints will cause a significant shortfall in the mission’s preparedness, particularly in terms of air support capabilities.

This not only raises concerns about the mission’s potential operational effectiveness, but also underscores a potentially critical vulnerability in its strategic framework and likelihood for success.

Air support, consisting of surveillance, rapid mobility, and direct support elements, is not merely an optional element of modern military operations but a fundamental pillar of them, especially in complex and varied terrain such as that of the DRC. The region’s dense forests, vast landscapes, and the highly mobile nature of insurgent groups mean that robust air capabilities for effective area surveillance, quick force deployment, and logistical supporter are crucial in order to have any realistic hope of tracking, containing, and neutralising them. The likely allocation of air assets to SAMIDRC, by contrast, is almost certainly insufficient when benchmarked against these operational requirements, and even the limited assets deployed by MONUSCO, itself often struggling under insufficient budgets.

Some support can be provided by the air assets of the Congolese Air Force, which has a handful of Su-25s, Mi-24s, and Mi-8s amongst other types, but serviceability is limited, despite some recent acquisitions. Doctrines are dissimilar from those of most SADC countries, and there has been almost no standardisation and cross-training to allow for unrestricted joint operations.

The operational experiences of MONUSCO and SAMIM clearly highlight the critical role of air support in enhancing mission effectiveness and flexibility, and how forces are hampered with their absence. The shortfall in SAMIDRC’s air support capabilities will not only limit its operational scope, but also increase the risk to both mission personnel and civilian populations.

MONUSCO, for instance, could draw on a relatively substantial aerial force in 2013 during the height of its operations against M23: Approximately four Mi-24Ps & four Mi-8s from Ukraine, three Rooivalks & five Oryxes from South Africa, one Mi-26, and a small fleet of Falco UAVs for surveillance. That was over and above what could be provided by the Congolese Air Force.

In contrast, when SADC launched the SAMIM mission, an insufficient budget meant it could equip it with far fewer air assets than the mission actually required, amounting to, at most, two Oryx helicopters and one or two light utility helicopters, but often even less. This has had a direct impact on the mission’s operational effectiveness, reducing mobility, preventing effective interdiction and follow-ups, leaving troops with insufficient aerial surveillance support, and arguably leading to the death of an SANDF Special Forces soldier.

SADC appears to be repeating that mistake in the DRC, with what may be much more severe consequences, given the much greater level of insecurity and number of sophisticated armed groups in the region.

Unfortunately even if there was enough budget for proper air support, it’s unlikely that any of the contingent countries providing forces for SAMIDRC, being South Africa (which is the lead nation), Malawi, or Tanzania, can provide sufficient aircraft to match.

The South African Air Force, for example, which on paper should easily be able to equip this mission from its own fleet alone, is suffering from a severe availability crisis caused by years of underfunding, mismanagement, and the collapse of state-owned Denel.

Of its 39 Oryx helicopters, on average just between one to four have been operational at any given time with availability numbers worsening. Rooivalk numbers are even more dire, with just a single aircraft available at the last count. Two Rooivalks are still deployed at Goma in the DRC for MONUSCO, but have not flown in over a year and there are reportedly no combat-qualified Rooivalk crews to fly them. Moreover, operating Rooivalks is not cheap: According to the last reported costs released by the South African government, for 2017/2018, the United Nations paid R122 million (+- US$6.4 million) a year to operate the three Rooivalks allocated to the mission. It’s unlikely that SADC could afford that alone, especially as the total initial first year budget for SAMIM was just US$12 million. While there’s no announced budget for SAMIDRC yet it’s unlikely to be any higher.

Tanzania for its part has a solid fleet of around seven Airbus Helicopters H215M and H225M helicopters, which would be exceptionally useful if they can be deployed. However it has no attack helicopters.

Malawi though has only two operational but unarmed SA341B Gazelles, and is unlikely to be able to deploy them.

Hope is not a strategy, and when dealing with tight financial and logistical restrictions on a mission, the appropriate response is not to scale down the supporting equipment of the force. The focus should instead shift towards finding strategies to achieve the intended goals with a mission of reduced scope, or to consider foregoing a military approach altogether.

Countries and regions facing significant defence budget constraints, like South Africa, must necessarily adopt a cautious stance towards the deployment of military forces, ensuring that they are allocated efficiently to only the most strategic missions, that risks are managed as well as possible, and that it does not overstretch already overburdened forces. Given all this, it’s worth asking whether launching SAMIDRC is really a wise move at this stage.

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