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Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

A previous article in this series set out eight defence “levels of ambition”, perhaps better termed “mission sets”: secure land borders, monitor airspace and maritime zones; protect external vital infrastructure and interests; constabulary missions (antipiracy, smuggling interdiction) in the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) region; support or intervention if instability in a neighbour threatens SA; maintain conventional defence capability at core level; constabulary missions in Sub-Saharan Africa; support other Sadc countries; and participate in Sub-Saharan peace support missions.

The first and second sets are unavoidable, the third and fourth should not be avoided, as failure would have serious implications and a core conventional capability needs to be retained. The others are “missions of choice”, though they can make strategic and economic sense, as Sub-Saharan Africa is a potentially profitable market for SA’s manufacturing economy. 

SA has maritime borders with Namibia and Mozambique, both vulnerable to smuggling and potentially trafficking in people. The 2,798km coastline gives an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of about 1.07-million square kilometre, with valuable fish stocks, diamonds and potential for gas and oil, while the almost 470,000km² exclusive economic zone around Prince Edward and Marion Islands 1,740km to the southeast has valuable fish stocks.

One cannot control what one does not patrol. There is also the extended continental shelf claim that would give the sole right to resources on or under the sea floor over an additional area of about 1.87-million square kilometres. SA is also responsible for search and rescue in its waters. 

Monitoring the maritime borders should preferably be a separate task to ensure presence, and the three new inshore patrol vessels could be ideal for that role. Effective patrols of the EEZ will require three ships operational at any time. A typical 240 sea days per year per ship to allow time for maintenance and refits, suggests six offshore patrol vessels to ensure presence and a buffer for unforeseen events.

Maritime attacks

Those should be at least 90m long to allow helicopter operations for boarding and rescue, and should have unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for surveillance. Patrols of the Marion/Prince Edward EEZ could be handled by similar vessels, but a larger ship might be preferable, perhaps about 110m. As patrols would not have to be constant, two ships should suffice, again with a helicopter and UAVs. The patrol vessels will need to be supported by maritime surveillance aircraft to provide effective coverage.

The Mozambique Channel is a key route carrying the major portion of SA’s imported oil and most of the trade with East Africa, the Mediterranean, Persian Gulf and western India. It is potentially vulnerable to piracy and maritime guerrilla attacks or terrorism, particularly should the insurgency in Cabo Delgado turn to piracy as a source of funds.

That argues for a standing patrol to deter such threats and counter narcotics smuggling, which has a direct effect on SA as those narcotics move through the country. A forward base at Pemba would reduce transit times and enable offshore patrol vessels to handle the mission, with two sufficient to allow rotation for maintenance. A larger type might again be better. Ideally, the patrols would be supported by a tender operating out of Pemba for replenishment, extending patrol times.

Apart from the importance of the Mozambique Channel as a trade route, it is in SA’s interest to help Mozambique protect its fisheries, and to co-ordinate patrols with the Comoros, Tanzania and Madagascar, and with Namibia on the west coast. After all, prosperous countries are better neighbours. Such patrols could be handled by offshore patrol vessels or frigates, which would be better suited to long patrols. 

The Sadc mission in Mozambique was intended to include maritime interdiction of supplies to the guerrillas. The original plan included a submarine for surveillance, two frigates with embarked helicopters and a maritime patrol aircraft, provided by SA. Due to the underfunding of the SA Navy and Air Force none of those assets was provided. SA has also hurt its image in the past by declining to provide escorts for World Food Programme ships travelling to Mogadishu, which faced pirate attacks. Any pretensions to being a leading nation in Africa will require some rethinking of this aspect.

Sustained speed

The discussion has not mentioned the submarines and frigates, the conventional arm of the navy, which also provide contingency capability. While coastal submarines are essentially a deterrent, they also provide low-profile reconnaissance and surveillance capability that is valuable in peacetime. The SA Navy has deployed submarines in the Mozambique Channel and off Marion Island to monitor activity there unnoticed. The Royal Canadian Navy employs submarines to gather evidence of illegal fishing, and in the Caribbean submarines track “go fast” boats moving narcotics, enabling surface vessels to intercept them.

The frigates can take over from offshore patrol vessels off Marion or in the channel when necessary, and will be required when contested areas must be patrolled, for instance in the event of maritime guerrilla attacks or terrorism in the Mozambique Channel. Irregular forces are making greater use of guided weapons, remotely piloted boat bombs and UAVs, and a frigate is better able to counter these and protect itself. The sustained speed of the frigates is also invaluable in the event of disasters outside the range of shore-based helicopters. For instance, a frigate collected survivors of a trawler fire from Tristan da Cunha, getting there quickly, using boats and its helicopter to embark them, and having medical facilities aboard.

The frigates — and for that matter the offshore patrol vessels — will also be more effective if supported by at least one replenishment ship that will allow extended patrols. 

Other required tasks are hydrographic survey, mine countermeasures and port protection. The latter should include patrols of port environs and approaches, bottom surveys to enable a prompt response to a terrorist mining threat, and the ability to deal with mines in port approaches. This will fall to the Maritime Reaction Squadron with marines, divers and small craft.

A good case can be made for inshore patrol vessels of perhaps 35m to extend those patrols along the coast to complement the offshore patrol vessels and employ offboard mine detection and neutralisation equipment in port approaches. The same systems could be deployed by offshore patrol vessels further offshore and to assist neighbours. 

Considering the missions likely to fall to the navy, a minimum fleet would suggest having the present three submarines and four frigates, plus 10 offshore patrol vessels, the three new inshore patrol vessels and two support ships, perhaps as well as a tender to operate out of Pemba. To that would be added the survey ship and the small craft and vessels used for protection of port environs and approaches. 

A decision to become seriously involved in continental maritime security or interventions would require expanding the frigate force and adding landing platforms and additional support vessels. 

• Heitman is an independent security and defence analyst. This is the third article in a series of four.

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