Let's just scratch our arsenals

Saturday, 6 December 1997

If a stealth bomber crashes in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

THE world, some of you may have noticed, has gotten to be expensive. I remember when a billion used to be a lot of money. These days, it just isn't enough to get by.

It was the French that put me onto this train of thought. While craftily diverting this continent's attention to the World Cup draw in Paris, they proceeded to sneak into Cape Town.

That's right -- "sneak". They rocked up on a stealth frigate.

What, you may ask, is a stealth frigate? I'd been pondering that question myself.

"Perhaps," I suggested to my colleagues, "they are pocket-sized? One throws them at the enemy?

"Perhaps it's actually a trained whale? Wasn't Jonah French?

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"Perhaps they left the keys in the ignition and someone pinched it and now they're pretending it's invisible?"

(I expect these concepts will spark many a drunken discussion this festive season. But I digress.)

The French were here to help us with our Christmas shopping. On the face of it, this looked like a really good deal.

"Buy four corvettes, six long-range Cougar maritime patrol helicopters, 60 EC635 light utility helicopters, 150 Leclerc main battle tanks and Mirage 2000 light fighter combat jets, and you get a submarine, absolutely free!"

How much?

"For you, M'sieu, a mere R12-billion, financed at a mere 2,4%. And M'sieu will not need to make any payments until the year 2001."

(If you find this uninteresting, try re-reading with a French accent.)

So I found myself confronted with every man's shopping dilemma when he encounters wonderful expensive toys which make noise: (a) how can I afford this and (b) how do I explain this to her?

Twelve billion isn't that much. About as much as Gauteng spends in a year. And that interest rate is tempting, too. Only 2,4%? Let's see, that's only R288-million a year. That's only about 4 000 schoolteachers in the Western Cape . . .

Except I remembered Schroedinger, who had this theory about a cat which . . . Sorry, I digress again.

There's the fine print on the submarine. It's actually an obsolete model, but will be supplied with 15 years' worth of spare parts. What's more, the French will refurbish our other obsolete Daphnes.

I was thinking of former general and US president Dwight Eisenhower, who said a while ago: "The equipment among the most vital to our success in Africa and Europe was the bulldozer, the jeep, the 2-1/2 ton truck and the C-47 airplane. Curiously enough, none of these is designed for combat."

Maybe there's something in Africanising our approach to defence purchases. What if we took Jonathan Hamilton seriously?

The managing director of the Hamilton Airship Company in Gauteng is working on building the world's biggest airship -- twice the size of a 747.

These airships are faster than a corvette, more stable over rough seas, and if we need stealth, we can hide it behind Table Mountain. We can equip these things with enough firepower to protect our coastline from thieves and pirates. (Africa does not have much else by way of maritime threats.)

Price tag: R85-million.

What's that I hear? An airship wouldn't be much help against the USS Nimitz?

There again, neither is a corvette.

Eisenhower actually said a bit more: "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

"This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron."