South Africa is to lead a new military force in the DRC

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By prof. Thomas Mandrup, Stellenbosch University

The United Nations’ peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Monusco, is ending after 20 years. It will be replaced by troops from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), led by the South African army.

What prompted the deployment?

The security situation in the eastern DRC has deteriorated in recent months, and criticism has been raised against the UN force, Monusco, which was due to begin its withdrawal shortly after the national elections on 20 December.

There was also greater frustration with the East African Community regional force due to its lack of positive impact on the security situation in eastern DRC. In addition, there was competition between the East African Community and SADC member states for future influence in the DRC.

The DRC became a member of the East African Community in 2022 and has historical trade relations with East Africa.

What challenges await the SADC mission?

The SADC mission in the DRC – which bears the acronym (SAMIDRC) – is expected to replace the East African Community regional force and help the national security forces fight in particular the M23 rebels, a group allegedly supported by Rwanda .

The SADC force is expected to work in cooperation with the local security forces to neutralize the main rebel groups operating in the eastern DRC. This is something that Monusco and the East African Community regional force have not been able to do for the past 20 years.

The rebel groups have been operating in that area for many years, know the terrain and are integrated with the local population.

The lessons learned from the SADC/Monusco force intervention brigade show that the new intervention force must be large, and have proper air cover as well as transport and air elements. It must also have special forces capabilities, and mobility in very difficult terrain. Tactical and operational intelligence and sufficient firepower are also required.

Moreover, an internal SADC document is informative: it says the regional force found it difficult to fulfill its mandate to disarm the Al-Sunnah insurgents in Mozambique due to a lack of a clear mandate and the necessary capabilities.

What role will the South African National Defense Force play?

Post-apartheid South Africa played a central role as mediator and peacemaker in Africa. The NGK was at the center of these efforts. The South African National Defense Force will lead the SADC intervention force.

However, the South African National Defense Force is overstretched and underfunded and has been for a long time.

There is a contradiction between what the politicians want it to do and the resources available for this. In addition, the South African government has increasingly used the military for internal security and policing tasks while also deploying soldiers and equipment in complex international peacekeeping missions, including combat missions in the DRC and Mozambique and ad hoc shorter international deployments.

The SANW faces a host of challenges. The politicians seem unwilling to prioritize his tasks. Instead of releasing forces by closing one operation, the force is expected to handle an increasing number of tasks and deployments at the same time. Many of these are of a more civilian nature, such as sending out army engineers to investigate the pollution of the Vaal River or the protection of installations of Eskom, the power supplier, without additional funding.

The military has trouble keeping its equipment operational and, for example, has only one operational C-130 transport aircraft. It has only a few helicopters available for all domestic and international missions – five Oryx, out of an initial 39, and three Rooivalk, out of 11.

It will therefore not be able to provide the much-needed airlift and air cover for offensive operations. The soldiers will have to use road transport in the DRC, but the country has very limited functional roads, making it especially difficult to drive and move around during the rainy season.

The specialized elements and mobile elements, such as the parachute troops, the reconnaissance units and the special forces, which can be effective against groups like the M23, have been stretched to such an extent that it negatively affects their operational readiness.

The reserve force, which in principle numbers 19,000, forms an important reinforcement tool for the permanent force. Due to personnel shortages, the reserve force was increasingly used for both domestic and international deployments.

However, it ages and is only half of its supposed strength. The average age of the staff is 46 years old, which is a major operational challenge. Active duty soldiers must be young and fit. Ideally, the majority of the force (private level) should be 25 or younger. Officers and non-commissioned officers will have a higher average age.

The South African National Defense Force has reached a stage where it can no longer continue to deploy without significant additional funding and intake of recruits. The force will also need to look critically at its institutional structure and set-up. It has too many expensive senior officers, and too few young deployable soldiers.

What are the risks?

The risks are multifaceted. If the necessary funding is not secured, the troop-contributing countries will have to finance the missions from their own budgets. The SADC mission in Mozambique, for example, struggled with funding, hampering its operational capabilities.

The next challenge is whether the SADC member states will make the necessary capabilities and equipment available to the new force, so that it can successfully fulfill its mandate. The difference between what a mission needs and what is provided was seen in Mozambique, which negatively affects the mission’s ability to achieve its operational goals.

In the operational area, the new force will face an adversary allegedly supported by Rwanda. If the SADC force is inadequately or incorrectly equipped, this increases the risk to the soldiers. The lessons learned from the strategic failure of the SANW in 2013 in the Central African Republic are a clear warning. Then a small bilateral South African training mission, augmented by a few hundred lightly armed special operations forces and paratrooper elements, fought for two days against a rebel force of 7,000. A small airborne element was left stranded and faced with an overwhelming enemy without air cover, logistical support, heavy equipment or extraction capabilities.

It was only the bravery and skills of the deployed force that limited the number of casualties to 17. However, the mission was a strategic failure, which illustrated the limitations of the SANS to logistically and practically support a force deployed several thousand kilometers away. The army is especially in a worse condition than in 2013.

  • Prof. Thomas Mandrup is an associate professor at the Security Institute for Management and Leadership in Africa (SIGLA) at Stellenbosch University.

This article was published courtesy of The Conversation. The Conversation