The South African armed forces have spent billions in the last decade to buy modern equipment. This includes 26 Gripen jet fighters, three U209 submarines, four MEKO A200 light frigates, and 30 AW109 helicopters. The problem is that as more of these new systems entered service, the amount of time South African warships spent at sea and the hours warplanes spent in the air has declined. It was a matter of cost. The new Gripen fighters cost $13,400 an hour to operate, which is 62 percent more than the older Hawk aircraft. Likewise the new submarines and frigates are more expensive to operate than the older ships. This meant that during the year ending March 31, 2012 navy ships were only able to go to sea for 21 percent of the 35,000 hours they were supposed to be out there for.
South African politicians believe that having a lot of ships and aircraft in service, even if they don't fly or go to sea much, provides the potential for putting a lot of ships and aircraft out there if the need arises. Left unsaid is the fact that sending a lot of inexperienced crews to sea or into the air increases the risk of accidents and failure in combat. Ships and military aircraft are complex beasts and the seas, especially around South Africa, tend to be rough, often extremely rough for ships and aircraft. This can be a fatal for inexperienced crews.
In an effort to deal with these high operating expenses, and a shrinking defense budget, ships are being kept in port more often. Thus the navy budget only allows ships to spend 5-10 percent of their time at sea. The U.S. Navy has its ships at sea about 50 percent of the time. This is the main reason the American fleet is the most effective in the world. Being the largest fleet on the planet helps, but having a qualitative and quantitative edge creates an unbeatable combination.
Many nations with large numbers of warships, staffed by inexperienced crews, believe that they will never have to use these ships a lot, in wartime or otherwise. That's a reasonable assumption for South Africa, which is surrounded by nations with even more decrepit armed forces. So the politicians are playing a cynical game, funding relatively large armed forces, which they cannot afford to adequately train, safe in the knowledge that they are unlikely to be found out.
The South African politicians are also living in the past with regards to the armed forces. Back in 1989, 4.5 percent of GDP was spent on defense and the armed forces were large and well trained. Now, defense gets 1.2 percent of GDP and the armed forces have not shrunk 73 percent to adjust for the smaller budget. Unwilling to cut the force in line with the smaller budget, the politicians prefer to run a scam. The sailors complain but at least they still have jobs. To South African politicians that's a reasonable outcome. To make matters worse, there is more corruption. A German investigation in 2008 revealed that some $40 million in bribes was demanded by South African politicians, and paid, to ensure that a German firm got the contract to build the three new subs. No bribery prosecutions of South African politicians resulted from the German investigation (which the German government tried to keep secret). The three German subs cost South Africa nearly one billion dollars. Because of the lack of qualified crew and training accidents none of these three subs are in service. One of these new Type 209 submarines has been out of service for five years, ostensibly for maintenance. But it turned out that the main reason was that there were not enough qualified sailors available to operate the boat. Further investigation revealed that this was not just a problem with the three new submarines but with combat aircraft as well.