Picture: 123RF/Wojciech Wrzesień
Picture: 123RF/Wojciech Wrzesień

Only an international-scale disaster that exposes SA’s compromised ability to mount search-and-rescue operations will force the country to rebuild the high-seas lifesaving capacity it has lost, experts say. The situation is said to be so dire that a repeat of the 1991 rescue by the SA navy and air force, of 225 people from the sinking Oceanos off the Eastern Cape coast, would be impossible today.

But the chiefs of the responsible agencies — Jared Blows of the Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Cape Town and Santjie White of the Aeronautical Rescue Co-ordination Centre at OR Tambo — tell the FM "there are very few, if any, countries that could manage an operation of that [Oceanos] type on their own". However, Blows and White say "a multi-agency approach" gives SA "the ability to source a wide range of both air and surface assets when necessary and no one agency is left to always provide". This means "many government, private and voluntary organisations participate in executing the [search-and-rescue] service within our region".

They say this is in line with decisions taken at the 2000 International Maritime Organisation conference, including that SA, Namibia, Mozambique, Madagascar and the Comoros would "assist each other [at sea] when requested as best possible".

But that best is in doubt, as most other SA "agencies," including the volunteer National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI), don’t have long-range capacity — and our neighbours are less well equipped. (NSRI spokesperson Craig Lambinon says his craft have a responsibility stretching 260km offshore and always respond.)

When it comes to search and rescue, SA’s maritime (MSAR) and aeronautical (ASAR) zone of responsibility is among the world’s largest — about 28.5-million square kilometres. And the duty to save lives off SA’s coast has become more important due to an increase in traffic around the Cape in recent years — a gain of about $30bn a year in cargo. Also, at least 17 commercial airlines fly in SA’s ocean search area.

Aeronautical search and rescue was most dramatically highlighted by the hunt for the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines MH370. Australia played a prominent role, as the aircraft was presumed to have gone down in its ASAR zone — but because this borders on SA’s zone, local authorities sweated in silence, an aviation expert claims, hoping they would not be called on to assist.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

In June this year, a Philippine ship sent out a distress call far off the east coast, asking for the emergency airlift of a badly injured crewman. According to veteran defence journalist Erika Gibson, the only available maritime Oryx helicopter had reached its operational flight limit. It was, Gibson said, the sixth time this year that an emergency MSAR request had been denied. (The injured man was rescued by a Transnet chopper once the ship came closer inshore.)

Blows and White counter that evacuation decisions are based on a range of factors — type of injury, distance from medical facility, weather and oceanographic conditions, the availability of resources. "It is not a simple matter and just saying we cannot respond is not correct."

Yet the navy’s offshore patrol vessel project was shelved in August 2017 and construction will only begin next year on the first of three 7,400km-range inshore patrol vessels. The range of the Oryx helicopter is just 500km. And the maritime SuperLynx 300 helicopters can extend their 685km range when stationed aboard the navy’s four frigates, which have a 14,800km range — but these have an operating cost of R410,000 a day, and need to already be at sea for a rapid response to be executed.

The air force’s three operational old Hercules C-130 transports are stationed at Waterkloof — far from the coast.

Part of the problem, says an aviation expert, is that SA’s military aviation maintenance is suspended: the SA Revenue Service has been unable to issue tax-clearance certificates to Denel because of the chaotic state of its finances. As a result, state arms procurer Armscor has been forced to freeze Denel’s status as contracted supplier of aircraft maintenance.

DefenceWeb editor Guy Martin says: "It’s a bit of a sensitive topic … there is a major shortage of operational assets, and with Denel’s situation, we are struggling to maintain the air force’s aircraft", while the fisheries department’s patrol fleet and the navy are "thinly stretched".

Attempts by maritime aircraft suppliers to pitch their products have hit a brick wall. At this year’s Africa Aerospace & Defence show, representatives of the Ukraine’s Ukrinmash, Brazil’s Embraer and the US’s Lockheed Martin told the FM they were engaged in discussions with the air force, but a lack of budget was preventing SA from reacquiring its search-and-rescue capability.

Two years ago, Australian consortium AeroRescue came up with an attractive solution: leasing its Dornier 328-100s to SA.

DefenceWeb correspondent Dean Wingrin says the deal was "very competitive". But with no budget, "a valuable opportunity was lost".

He warns that the crisis at Denel, the lack of funds for dedicated MSAR and ASAR aircraft and spares, and layoffs of maintenance technicians are all contributing to a possible "perfect storm".