Twenty two thousand flying hours. Think for a moment, of how much in terms of training, exercising, and operational flying it would allow for. Now consider this: That’s how many funded hours have been cut from the South African Air Force’s budget compared to a decade ago.

Ten years ago, even though the SAAF was badly underfunded compared to its mandate, it could still count on receiving enough money in the budget for around 40,000 flying hours, of which around 15,000 were for ‘force employment’ (FE) in support of operations. The remaining 25,000 were for ‘force preparation’ (FP) tasks like training, retaining currencies, exercises, and support to other arms of service for the same purpose.

Today the SAAF receives only enough funding from National Treasury for 17,200 flying hours, with 5,000 dedicated to force employment (of which 1,000 is ring-fenced for VVIP flying) and just 12,200 remains for all force preparation flying. Only two years ago that figure was 2,000, of which 20,000 hours were for force preparation flying.

What this means is that within a mere ten years the SAAF has had its flying budget for all training, exercises, and maintaining of currencies cut in half, despite no reduction in its mandated force size, international and domestic commitments, and required capabilities. Worse, a huge chunk of the cut has happened in the past two years alone, making it impossible to conduct any long-term planning.

To put this into normalised Rand terms: At present the SAAF is allocated a budget of R7.3 billion, of which R3.6 billion, or 50%, goes to personnel costs which are dependent on pay scales set by Cabinet and a force structure defined in the Defence Review and thus largely outside of the SAAF’s control. Just R2.5 billion is set aside for all operational funding, and R1.2 billion for capital acquisitions. In inflation-adjusted terms, operational funding has more than halved since FY2012/2013, declining by a whopping R3.5 billion. 

Moreover, next year all capital funding will be taken away, as detailed in the July edition of this magazine, meaning that the SAAF will somehow have to acquire all of its spare parts, specialised maintenance contracts, and new equipment purchases out of the tiny slice of operational funding that remains.

On top of that, input costs have increased dramatically, both because of the unfunded salary increase pushed through under Minister Sisulu and the declining value of the Rand compared to the US Dollar and Euro. Going back to the 2000 flood rescues, Jet A1 cost around R5.50 in inflation-adjusted terms, today it costs more than double that. Spare parts for aircraft, which are usually priced in US Dollars or Euros, have become twice as expensive as the Rand has lost more than half its value since 2000. So the main direct costs in flying hours, being spare parts and fuel, are now twice as expensive in real terms for the SAAF than they were in 2000. Yet the SAAF has less than half as much money with which to buy them.

Some of these figures have been mentioned before in the April edition of this magazine. What makes them newly-relevant is the unprecedented appearance before Parliament of the chiefs of all of the South African National Defence Force’s arms of service, detailing in painstaking detail just how bad the underfunding situation has become and that dire consequences could no longer be avoided. 

The Chief of the Air Force did not hold back in his presentation to Parliament, stating clearly that if the present trend is not reversed then the only outcome would be the SAAF becoming an ‘air wing’ with no assets aside from personnel. He was unambiguous and honest in describing how dangerously urgent and desperate the situation has become.

Indeed, under current and future funding trends, the SAAF may find itself unable to afford operating any kind of air combat capability within the next five years. And with so little money dedicated for force preparation, flying and maintenance, an increase in aircraft accidents is surely inevitable despite the SAAF’s remarkable ‘can do’ attitude and commendable approach to safety.

Something has to change, and quickly, before the SAAF goes beyond the point of meaningful recovery. Either more funding must be supplied, which appears unlikely in the present fiscal climate and national debt crisis, or the SAAF’s mandate and force structure must be shrunk to match its level of funding. Even if that means certain types will have to be retired and some capabilities lost.

We’re also far beyond the point at which the SAAF’s leadership alone can be expected to solve this. Not only is their biggest problem — personnel and base costs — mostly out of their control, but with National Treasury pushing year-on-year and even intra-year cuts, it means that even the detailed planning done inside the SAAF is rendered irrelevant and outdated almost as soon as it’s done.

Military strategic planning takes place on a 30 year time scale in terms of capabilities, 10-15 years in terms of manpower and R&D, 5-10 years in terms of specific near-term technologies, and 3-5 years in terms of budget planning.

In South Africa the Medium Term Expenditure Framework is supposed to be a budget planning instrument to allow departments to plan for the next two to three years with a high level of certainty, but over the past five years the SAAF has been unable to rely on the MTEF for even a single year-on-year transition. Each and every budget cycle the SAAF (and SANDF) MTEF allocation is reworked downward in order to allocate more money to other government departments. 

It would be impossible to run even a small company with this kind of uncertainty along with having no control over fixed costs. Yet we somehow expect the SAAF to run a large and technologically advanced air force, tasked with a huge range of duties and the protection of a massive set of airspace and huge land and sea borders under the same terms.

On that note, something it’s important to explain carefully, because it’s so often misreported, is that the SAAF cannot and does not just ‘run out of money’ from year to year, at least not in the way we understand it as regular civilians. The SAAF certainly does not run out of hours in the middle of the year as has been popularly portrayed.

What happens is that the SAAF knows each year ahead of time exactly how much flying it can do within that funded amount, over and above its fixed costs, and it reduces its planned hours accordingly. Barring an unforeseen event or disaster that forces it to fly a large number of unplanned hours, the SAAF plans in March of one year exactly how many hours it will be reporting as completed in March of the next. 

As with any government department the Department of Defence’s general account is zero-based, which means that at the end of a financial year any money that is left over in the account is returned to the National Revenue Fund to be re-allocated by National Treasury for the next financial year. So there’s no such thing as being able to save up contingency funding from year to year (except for within the highly-limited Special Defence Account for acquisitions) and what you receive at the beginning of the financial year is all you have for that year’s operations.

That’s not the problem. The problem is that as its budget continues to shrink the SAAF will have to keep cutting back on the only variable over which it has real control in order to stay within the allocated budget, namely flying hours, scheduled maintenance, support contracts, highly-skilled contractors, and so forth.

It’s time we as South Africans begin to treat defence as a serious topic of national debate and decide collectively on how much we’re willing to pay for the capabilities we take for granted, or at least expect, from our Air Force.