SA Navy minesweeper. Picture: SUPPLIED
SA Navy minesweeper. Picture: SUPPLIED

The recent defence budget debate again highlighted the parlous state of the SA National Defence Force, again to no effect. Capability gaps remain unaddressed and existing capabilities continue to decline.

SA’s maritime security illustrates the situation particularly well. The country has a coastline of 2,798km and an exclusive economic zone of 1,068,660km², plus 466,879km² around Marion and Prince Edward islands 1,750km to the southeast, and depends on shipping for at least 80% of its trade and all of its imported oil.

The “blue economy” provides about 300,000 jobs and contributes R50bn to GDP. Properly managed, it could add another R120bn and 1-million jobs. Threats and risks include illegal fishing, smuggling, pollution and, outside SA waters, piracy.

In addition, the Mozambique Channel carries 40% of oil imports and most of the exports to the Mediterranean, Persian Gulf, Pakistan and western India, to the value of about R100bn a year. That channel is 1,600km long, covers 700,000km² and is vulnerable to piracy and maritime terrorism.

Clearly, maritime security should be a major concern of the government. Equally clearly, it is not. All the National Treasury and cabinet see fit to fund is 333 sea days per year, not even one ship at sea year-round to cover 2.2-million km² of waters important to SA.

Lest we assume there is aerial coverage of our waters, there are in fact just three serviceable aircraft — Dakotas first acquired in 1943, fitted with new engines but with neither search radar nor optronic systems. Would a cabinet minister or even an MP drive a 78-year-old car? But we expect our aircrew to fly 78-year-old aircraft over the sea.

The navy has:

  • Three submarines to maintain an intelligence picture, but only one has been refitted since commissioning between 2006 and 2008 and none has been modernised.
  • Four frigates that are suited to extended patrols of the economic exclusion zone and Mozambique Channel and crisis response operations, but only one has been refitted since commissioning between 2005 and 2007 (ship only, not the combat system). None has been modernised.
  • Two old (1979 and 1983) strike craft, reclassified as offshore patrol vessels, a role for which they are not suited.
  • Two old (1981) minehunters that can do some short-endurance patrolling.
  • One old (1987) support ship to enable others to extend their patrols.
  • One old (1972) survey ship.
  • Three small (22m) inshore patrol craft dating from 1996.

There are four new ships in build, three inshore patrol vessels that will be little better patrolling our waters than the old strike craft, and a survey ship. The latter has been configured to carry a helicopter and has self-defence armament, so will be useful in other roles. But while that does partly rejuvenate the fleet, it does not give the ship numbers needed, nor does it address inadequate operational funding. And there seems to be no plan to acquire maritime aircraft soon. 

What sort of naval capability should SA have? The 1998 Defence Review, while completely ignoring the likelihood of regional commitments, does provide a good starting point. Its recommended force design provided for four submarines, four frigates (with five helicopters), six strike craft (to be replaced by offshore patrol vessels), eight mine-countermeasures vessels, one support ship, two inshore patrol craft, six long-range maritime patrol aircraft, and 10 short-range maritime patrol aircraft.

The only critical shortfall was the lack of ships to patrol the island waters and Mozambique Channel, the latter not featuring in the rather naive thinking of the time. Six offshore patrol vessels would give adequate coverage of the mainland economic exclusion zone, but four frigates and a single support ship could not cover those more distant patrol stations, particularly at times when the only support ship is in refit. It should have included at least two helicopters per frigate. Of course, that force design has not been implemented.

Adapting it to the present strategic situation would require:

  • Adding two frigates or other large, high-endurance patrol vessels with organic helicopters and a second support ship (and later replacing the existing SAS Drakensberg).
  • Building those six planned offshore patrol vessels (80-90m hull length, flight deck and hangar for an organic helicopter).
  • Replacing the eight mine-countermeasures vessels and two inshore patrol craft with new vessels able to deploy off-board mine-countermeasures systems, which might be the new inshore patrol vessels if that design proves suited to the role.

That force would provide adequate maritime security capability. It would not, however, give SA any regional crisis response or patrol capability beyond the Mozambique Channel, for instance to stop piracy spreading south from the Gulf of Guinea.  

• Heitman is an independent security and defence analyst. This is the first in a series of three articles on the capability of the SA National Defence Force’s three combat services. 

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