Revisiting South African Airpower Thought: Considering Some Challenges and Tensions in Southern Africa

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Editorial Abstract:

Known for its low-tech forces and unconventional wars, Africa lacks the financial flexibility to employ costly, information-based airpower assets. The authors contend that the supporting roles of airpower are most compatible with the evolving strategic landscape of Southern Africa. Within that region, the fundamental challenge involves keeping airpower in step with defense arrangements and establishing stepping-stones for an airpower culture amidst ongoing integration.

TRADITIONALLY, TWO CLEARLY identifiable precepts shape the use of airpower-technology and conventional war. Without technology, there is no such thing as airpower. Technology was instrumental in the creation and development of airpower and to this day remains one of the primary drivers in its use-to the extent that small, incremental advances in technology can still decisively influence the balance between offence and defence in aerial warfare.1 The love affair between technology and airpower also gives rise to airpower's being a costly instrument of military power. In the post-modern war-fighting environment, leading-edge airpower technology lies beyond the reach of the second- or third-rated powers of the African continent, given the extreme rise in its cost. Even if they are able to purchase these air assets, these lesser powers are not always willing to risk using them.2

Technology shapes the organisational as well as command and control (C2) ethos of air forces in general. High technology requires highly skilled, intelligent, and individually minded personnel for aerial war fighting. The need for highly skilled personnel not only adds to airpower's cost but also gives rise to a very elitist, discriminatory organisational ethos rooted in the ultimate idea of an air ace. In addition, the need for such personnel underpins the intricate relationship between officers responsible for fighting and other ranks who serve as members of the ground crew. In most cases, officers have minimal command authority over other ranks until they reach the level of squadron commander.3 This stands in stark contrast, for example, to the C2 arrangement of armies that are personnel-driven instruments of power and, subsequently, C2 intensive.

The centrality of conventional warfare in airpower comes to the fore when one considers airpower's counterproductivity in unconventional wars.4 Stated differently, the contribution of airpower in unconventional wars is primarily concerned with sustaining and supporting terrestrial operations through strategic and tactical transport capabilities. The use of airpower in "nasty little wars of the weak," typical of African conflicts, is a matter of debate. The counterproductivity of conventional airpower in unconventional operations underpins all the different kinds of air campaigns, including counterair and strategic bombing. The unconventional soldier either does not have any airpower or simply has no interest in getting involved in symmetrical fights for air superiority. Lengthy, low-intensity wars are normally fought in terrain that does not present strategic targets with the enemy's centre of gravity, located in the hearts and minds of the people.

Known for its low-tech forces, Africa lacks the financial flexibility to buy and employ costly, information-based airpower assets and is characterised by unconventional wars. How then should one understand the use of airpower by Southern Africa in general and South Africa in particular?5

South Africa, Africa, and the Utility of Military Force

As long as no vital interests are compromised, preventing wars-rather than fighting them-appeals to most societies the world over. Conflict prevention also came to dominate the South African political agenda towards Africa as its main area of interest and influence. This is a reflection of the extreme political nature of armed conflict as underpinned by the Clausewitzian notion that conflict has its own grammar but not its own logic. …