New Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu says she is "really satisfied" with the state of combat readiness of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), but the Democratic Alliance (DA) warns it is in "deep trouble".
Briefing the media at Parliament on Friday, following debate in the National Assembly on her department's R32-billion 2009/10 budget vote, Sisulu qualified her satisfaction by noting such readiness required more spending on military hardware.
"I'm personally really satisfied with the state of readiness, but... this requires continued renewal.
"This is why we are urging that there should not be any more erosion. We need to recapitalise on our infrastructure... [including] equipment as well. This is something we really must attend to," she told journalists.
Sisulu declined to give more details of the SANDF's combat readiness, saying this was a matter of state security and for closed-door discussion.
Earlier, opening debate in the House, she said the first challenge confronting the defence establishment was a declining budget.
"With a declining budget our competence is severely hampered, with dire consequences," she told Members of Parliament (MPs).
While the defence department was acutely aware South Africa was in a recession, "we request you to assist us to stem the decline, because it is eroding our capacity".
Speaking during the debate, DA defence spokesperson David Maynier was sharply critical of the political management of the SANDF over the past decade, saying the defence department would have people believe the problem was routine under-funding.
"But the real problem with the defence force is not that it is under-funded. The real problem... is that it is under-led," he said.
Further, the SANDF was in deep trouble when it came to combat readiness.
"We may not know all the details about the state of combat readiness of the defence force. What we do know, however, is that the defence force is in deep trouble.
"We have soldiers in barracks, not in the field; we have ships alongside, not at sea; and we have aircraft in hangars, not in the air.
"We have an army that is overstretched; a navy which is understretched; and an airforce with nothing to stretch."
Maynier, a Harvard graduate and former South African Navy submarine officer, said the question had to be asked: "Is the defence force in fact able to fulfil its constitutional mandate and defend and protect the Republic of South Africa?"
The last defence review, carried out more than ten years ago, had been deeply flawed.
"It was corrupted by vested interests in the defence force, defence industry and the ruling party, resulting in a force design that was simply not affordable.
"And so, hard decisions had to be made. But that is precisely what did not happen.
"Instead, the defence force was let down by politicians - most importantly a string of caretaker defence ministers - who for years dodged making the hard decisions about the future of the
The result was strategic drift and confusion, Maynier said.
Speaking later in the House, Sisulu appeared stung by what she called "ridiculous assertions" by Maynier.
"The rhetoric of the honourable member is completely misplaced... In the defence budget vote we have no place for theatrics. We have serious issues to deal with here. We have the security of the country to deal with.
"I'm very glad, extremely glad, you left the defence force. Quite clearly, you have given more to drama than to service.
"Mr Maynier, the term 'Chihuahua' comes to mind. Does it come to your mind?" Sisulu asked.
The term "Chihuahua", a small but noisy dog, was last used by ANC MPs to label former DA leader Tony Leon when he attacked the ruling party's policies.
Speaking during the debate, Inkatha Freedom Party Chief Whip Koos van der Merwe warned the defence force had been hard hit by the brain drain.
"[It is] losing large numbers of skilled personnel to other defence forces, notably to the UK and Australia.
"The major drain on skilled resources also has severe financial implications because large amounts of money are spent each year on training personnel, which are then lost.
"We... urge the minister to look at strategies to retain our skilled personnel," he said.