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Botswana Defence Force (BDF)

The Botswana Defense Force (BDF) traditionally has been dominated by the army; however, the air wing has undergone considerable expansion since 1996. Botswana is landlocked; there is no navy. The Minister of Defense reports directly to the Commander in Chief, who is the president. The Commander, BDF, reports to the Minister of Defense. The Commanders of the Ground Forces and air wing report to the Commander, BDF. Although focused on defense of the country, the BDF recently has taken an interest in participating in peacekeeping missions abroad, as exemplified by the deployment of an infantry battalion to Lesotho in 1998 (Operation BOLELAS).

The president is commander in chief of the Botswana Defense Force (BDF). A defense council is appointed by the president. The BDF was formed in 1977 and had approximately 15,000 members as of 2016. The Ground Forces had a strength of approximately 8,500 as of 2005. Most units were at reduced strength, and at that time it was planned that the Ground Forces would grow to 10,000.

The BDF is a capable and well-disciplined military force. They are competent and disciplined. The Gemsbok National park is used for infantry training and the Ntwetwe salt pans are used for tank training.

Following positive political changes in South Africa and the region, the BDF's missions have increasingly focused on border control and anti-poaching activities. The BDF is considered an apolitical and professional institution. As both its Deputy Commander and Commander, from 1989 and 1998, Ian Khama played a central role in forging the BDF into a modern professional fighting force, which has won widespread respect for its record in such areas as international peacekeeping, disaster relief and anti-poaching activities, as well as defensive capabilities.

The Commander-in-Chief determines the duties of the Defence Force as from time to time, and may at any time order that the whole or any part of the Defence Force shall be deployed out of or beyond Botswana. The Defence Council is responsible for the control, direction and general superintendence of the Defence Force. Members of the Defence Council are appointed by the President and the Commander is and ex-officio member. Currently it consists of Members of Parliament and Cabinet Members.

A US military partnership initiative, the Africa Contingency Operations Training Assistance (ACOTA) program, which Botswana may join, could strengthen relations between the two democracies by providing invaluable training for the Botswana Defense Forces (BDF) in peacekeeping/peace-enforcement skills. ACRI was a US military program that helped train close to 10,000 troops from seven African nations from 1997 to 2002 to respond to crisis situations. Although ACRI did not provide weapons training, which ACOTA would do, it did train African troops directly. ACOTA would train military instructors who would return to their own defense units in Africa and pass on their newly acquired skills. The BDF is one of the most professional military forces in Africa and has participated successfully in peacekeeping operations on the continent. Some two-thirds of BDF general officers have been trained in the United States.

The Botswana Defence Force was raised in April 1977 by an Act of Parliament called the 'BDF Act No. 13 of 1977”. The BDF was formed from the remnants of the Botswana Police Mobile Unit (PMU). Uniquely, it did not inherit at its inception, a colonial military structure, facilities and expertise. The Force therefore, prides itself that the BDF stands among a handful of militaries in the continent that were truly home grown. It is important to note that the political turmoil in the region at that time, especially the liberation struggle in the then Rhodesia and the political tension in South Africa posed major security challenges for Botswana and its young force.

The BDF, at its inception, had very limited amounts of military equipment. Vehicles, weapons and personnel were scarce at best. In 1977, the BDF was comprised of only two companies: A Company, based in Francistown, and B Company, based in Gaborone. Increased recruitment and military training both locally and abroad steadily resourced these companies over the years. By the end of 1977 the new Botswana Defence Force numbered some 600 men. It contained five light infantry companies, a reconnaissance company, an air arm and a variety of small support units. It was headquartered at a military installation just north of Botswana’s capital city with the Air Arm stationed at a base within Gaborone itself.

At its formation, Lieutenant General Mompati Merafhe (later retired and Vice President of the Republic of Botswana) became its first Commander. His Excellency, the President of the Republic of Botswana, Lieutenant General Seretse Khama Ian Khama, then Brigadier, was the Deputy Commander. In 1973 Khama joined the paramilitary Police Mobile Unit, which was the forerunner of the Botswana Defence Force (BDF). With the formation of the latter, in April 1977, Khama assumed the responsibility of Deputy Commander. Formed in the face of rising regional tensions, which were then being driven by the racist regimes of Apartheid South Africa and rebel Rhodesia (liberated as Zimbabwe), who then encircled Botswana, at its formation the new army consisted of a mere 132 Police Mobile Unit veterans.

This small force was immediately confronted with the task of countering stepped up cross border aggression by the then Rhodesian Security Forces. The liberation warfare between the white minority regime of Ian Smith and the guerillas in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) negatively affected northeastern Botswana. Nearby in Angola, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) waged a fierce liberation battle against the country’s Portuguese colonial regime. Botswana’s closest and largest neighbor in the south was in turmoil.

Botswana weathered hostilities from its neighbors, South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe. In 1985, South Africa raided Gaborone in search of ANC guerrillas, killing 15 people, including a child. Namibia, Botswana's northern neighbour, was festering a dispute over the tiny Sedudu Island on the Chobe River and threatening to take the matter to the International Court of Justice. As if that was not enough, Zimbabwe on the east was accusing Botswana of harbouring ZAPU guerrillas. Considering that Botswana had little or no military might to speak of, it took Masire and his government all the diplomatic manuvering he could muster to avert an all out war.

It was imperative to have a BDF structure with the capacity to meet the people's expectations of a strong defence force capable of providing safety and security to the nation. The 'Lesoma Ambush' in which fifteen BDF soldiers were ambushed and killed by the Rhodesian rebel forces in 1978 and the 1985 raid in Gaborone by the South African Defence Force commandos in which twelve people perished, served as a gruesome warning of the perils in the region. History attributes the country s survival to the diplomatic genius of the polity - particularly the country's first president Sir Seretse Khama - than to the effectiveness of the military.

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Page last modified: 21-06-2016 14:00:26 ZULU