Largely unnoticed by the country’s people, the South African Navy (SAN) has moved from a largely peacetime routine to a predominantly operational profile. This change has been caused by two developments – one domestic, one foreign. The domestic development has been the adoption of the ‘back to the borders’ policy by government, under which the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has been reassuming responsibility for the protection and patrolling of the country’s borders from the South African Police Service. As the country has a maritime frontier as well as a terrestrial one, this has affected the SAN as well as the army.
South Africa has territorial waters, in which the country has full, sovereign control, which extend 12 nautical miles (nm), or just over 22.22 km, from the shore. It also has an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which extends for 200 nm (370.4 km) from the coastline and in which the country has control over all natural resources, in and under the sea. It is often forgotten that South African territorial and EEZ waters include those around the islands of the Prince Edward group (Prince Edward and Marion), which lie some 1 769 km south-east of the Eastern Cape. The new border policy has increased the number of patrols the fleet has to conduct.
The foreign development was the spread of Somali piracy to the northern Mozambique Channel, resulting in Mozambique, which was unable to meet the threat on its own, requesting naval and air support from South Africa to secure these waters. South Africa’s frigates are now, on a rotation basis, maintaining a permanent presence in the northern Mozambique Channel. This deployment also involves the South African Air Force (SAAF), with a Lynx maritime helicopter detachment on the frigate and a shore-based C-47TP maritime patrol aircraft and support detachment in northern Mozambique, as well as members of the South African Special Forces and South African Military Health Service. Members of the Mozambican Navy are also embarked on the patrolling frigate.
“Fighting maritime crime and piracy is not just a naval task,” points out SAN chief director: maritime strategy Rear Admiral Bernhard Teuteberg. “It needs surveillance from the air, from the land – it needs intel- ligence. We’ve got very good cooperation with Mozambique. It’s a joint patrol . . . a joint operation, fully in line with the Joint SADC (Southern African Development Community) Maritime Strategy. Mozambique is also providing facilities ashore.”
Today, the SAN’s fleet comprises three diesel-electric-powered submarines, four frigates, three offshore patrol vessels (OPVs), four mine countermeasures vessels (MCMVs), one fleet replenishment ship (called a combat support ship by the SAN), one hydrographic survey ship and a number of minor units, including three inshore patrol vessels (IPVs) and 26 harbour patrol boats (HPBs), as well as five tugs. The submarines are 1 400 t surfaced displacement German-designed and -built Type 209/1400SAN vessels, armed with eight 533 mm (21") torpedo tubes, for which they can carry up to 14 torpedoes.
The frigates are also German-designed and -built, being 3 600 t Meko A-200SAN units, each armed with two fully automatic gun turrets, one mounting an Italian-designed 76 mm gun and the other a South African-designed twin 35 mm weapon, as well as 20 mm cannons and 12.7 mm machine guns; South African-designed and -built Umkhonto surface to air missiles and French Exocet surface to surface missiles. Each frigate can also carry and operate up to two Lynx helicopters.
The OPVs are converted 450 t strike craft, now armed with two 76 mm and two 20 mm guns. The MCMVs are also of German provenance – 380 t vessels with a light armament of one 20 mm gun and some machine guns.
The combat support ship is the South African-designed and -built SAS Drakensberg, which displaces 12 500 t full load, can carry 5 500 t of fuel and 750 t of dry stores and ammunition for transfer to other ships at sea, and has an armament of four 20 mm guns and six 12.7 mm machine guns. It can carry and operate up to two Oryx helicopters. The hydrographic ship is the 40-year old, 2 700 t SAS Protea, which is by far the oldest major unit in the fleet. It is unarmed, and could carry a light helicopter.
The IPVs and HPBs are also locally designed and built, the former being the T class of 36 t and armed with one 12.7 mm gun, and the latter being the 5 t Namacurra class, armed with one 12.7 mm and two 7.62 mm machine guns (although some are now unarmed). There are normally three frigates, two submarines and three minehunters available for operational service at any time.
“Our frigates are now spending more time at sea that we ever expected,” reports Teuteberg. “We expected that all four would total 200 days at sea a year, with one frigate always in maintenance. We’ve exceeded the 200 days quite significantly. I believe this joint patrol in the northern Mozambique Channel has been very successful. Our presence has been a deterrent. There have been no further pirate attacks there. The indications were that piracy would migrate south, but we’ve ensured that the sea lanes are kept open. The local fishing fleets are back at sea, and tourism is flourishing. Our intent is very clear – as a region, we will ensure good governance in the region we’re responsible for.”
The navy has also deployed submarines in the area, using them to gather intelligence as well as to reinforce the deterrent effect of the surface and air patrols. “It’s been very successful,” he affirms. “We’re very pleased to give our submariners that experience.” (This is not unique to the SAN – the Royal Netherlands Navy last year deployed a submarine in antipiracy operations off the coast of Somalia and is going to deploy another one during this northern spring.)
The demands posed by the antipiracy patrol are having their effect. Thus, to deal more cost effectively with the small, fast and manoeu- vrable boats used by the pirates, all four frigates have now been fitted with South African-designed and -built remotely operated mounts for 12.7 mm machine guns. Known as Rogue mounts, each ship has four of them, and they have been fitted sequentially over the past 30 or so months.
There is also increased wear and tear on the frigates. “A vessel is a very complicated and integrated system and we are operating them more than our original logistics support plan indicated,” highlighted Teuteberg. “This will have very little impact on the hulls. With regard to the engines, we’re running up the hours more quickly, meaning that the overhauls of the engines may have to be sooner. And we may require more spare parts. These things are being analysed at the moment. We have certain answers. These will have a financial impact and we have given an additional funding option to the National Treasury. In the end, there will be a requirement to replenish those spare parts we’re using to meet the normal wear and tear of any system.”
Regarding the submarines, “we’re meeting our operational requirements quite com- fortably”, he assures. “They are not being used more than expected.” In fact, the operational deployments have brought greater efficiencies to the force.
The requirements for protecting the country’s maritime frontiers and maintaining an antipiracy patrol in the northern Mozambique Channel are also having an impact on the Navy’s ageing secondary warships. The SAN’s three OPVs are now more than 25 years old, and were never designed to operate in the open and rough oceans that surround this country. They need replacing. The four MCMVs are also about 25 years old and will soon also have to be replaced.
The Defence Review of 1998 (which will finally be replaced by the 2012 Defence Review, to be completed later this year), under its Option 1, affirmed that the SAN should have six strike craft and eight MCMVs in addition to the four frigates. That force design was never implemented. Instead, the navy developed a single programme for multirole vessels that would replace the MCMVs and partly replace the strike craft. This is Project Biro.
The original concept for Biro was the acquisition of eight OPVs outfitted to accom- modate different containerised systems, allowing the ships to fulfil different operational roles, as required. (The Royal Danish Navy has successfully employed this concept in its ‘Stan Flex’ family of warships.) So, in parallel with Biro, a programme to develop and/or acquire modular containerised MCM systems and equipment was launched (and is under way). These could be fitted to the new OPVs or to ‘vessels of opportunity’ (usually fishing vessels) as required.
“All navies go through processes of redefin- ing needs,” points out Teuteberg. And that has happened with Biro. The original plan evolved, becoming three multirole OPVs and five multirole IPVs (much bigger than the current IPVs), with the latter fulfilling the MCMV role. And it has evolved again. “We have made several submissions over a period to different committees and [now] to the  Defence Review Committee. The numbers [of ships] have changed, owing to the greater responsibility to the region as a whole and the potential of prepositioning the IPVs – owing to their MCM tasking – in our major ports. We cannot reveal the proposed new numbers yet. We await the recommendations of the Defence Review Committee. We understand these recom- mendations need to be debated and approved in Parliament.”
The latest Biro concept retains both OPVs and IPVs, with the later deployed around the country’s coast at all the main ports, where they could participate in border security missions and be ready to undertake MCM and related tasks (such as seabed search and location) if required. For both the OPVs and IPVs, the SAN is looking at a military-off-the-shelf/commercial-off-the-shelf acquisition approach to reduce costs and development time.
“They would be very much less military and more commercial with regard to hull design, but would be built according to the standards of a [shipping] classification society. As much as possible, systems of the OPVs and IPVs will be standardised,” he explains. “The OPV must be able to support a Lynx-size helicopter. It must have a hangar, to protect the helicopter, although it could be a telescopic hangar.”
A request for information for Biro-category vessels was issued last year and the navy hopes to be able to issue a request for quotations before the end of this year. Acquisition of the OPVs will also have consequences for the SAAF, as more maritime (not necessarily Lynx) helicopters will be required to operate off them.
“We have accelerated the Biro process to the fullest extent, whilst keeping to all the approved processes and the prescripts of our government. We don’t want to get into a situation in which the process can be questioned afterwards. We must follow due process. We will not cut corners,” says Teuteberg. “I’ve always been adamant that these vessels must be built in South Africa, and we are planning a build programme to make this achievable. Economies of scale make this difficult, but I believe there is the potential to do so. We are proposing that SADC navies become part of such a project. If the SADC wants to minimise drugs, arms and other smuggling, then it must have patrol vessels.”
Meanwhile, the SAN is looking at how to extend the life of its current OPVs to provide a gap filler until the Biro OPVs enter service.
The navy currently has one naval base – Simon’s Town – and two naval stations (Durban and Port Elizabeth). Naval Base Simon’s Town is the home port and support base for the frigates and submarines, with all the required support infrastructure, including workshops. Simon’s Town also contains the naval dockyard, operated by Armscor.
“With the development of the [SADC] maritime security strategy, it has become apparent that we have to upscale our presence in Durban,” he affirms. “In order not to overload Simon’s Town, consideration is being given to using Durban as the support base for the Biro vessels.”
While most of the IPVs would be scattered around the coast, their support and training infrastructure would be in Durban, while the OPVs would all be based there. As a result, Durban will again have a full naval base, most likely on the same site as the current naval station. Although part of the property will very probably be transferred to Transnet to be used in the Durban port redevelopment and expansion programme, most should remain in the navy’s hands. The former strike craft training centre is likely to be renovated and become the OPV/IPV training centre, while the Durban Navy ordnance depot will also be brought back into use.
In addition, the navy will establish small naval stations in each of the country’s main ports to support the prepositioned IPVs. These naval stations will not be reserve force units.
There is another issue that the navy is pondering. “We cannot ignore the requirement to project forces into Africa – we cannot ignore the requirement for disaster relief from the sea,” cautions Teuteberg.
Such missions are best carried out by dedicated amphibious warfare ships, which come in a (to the uninitiated) bewildering variety of types, best known in the nautical world by their North Atlantic Treaty Organisation abbreviations – LST, LSD, LPD, LHD, LPH and LHA. All can land troops, vehicles, equipment and supplies over beaches, and so do not need functional harbour facilities.
Spurred on by these considerations, some five years ago, the SAN decided to carry out feasibility studies into acquiring an amphibious ship. This undertaking was designated Project Millennium. “These studies were done. Subsequently, the decision was made, on a number of grounds, including financial, to defer this project,” he reports. “It was a purely paper exercise and Millennium is not an active project.”
But the SAN has not forgotten it. “We reserve the right, and have the responsibility, to develop and test scenarios and test different solutions to such scenarios,” he asserts. “These could involve a helicopter carrier, but it could involve smaller alternatives. For the Millennium scenario, development includes the South African Army, the SAAF and South African Military Health Services as well as the SAN.”
Consequently, the navy has resubmitted the Millennium proposal and is awaiting the outcome of the Defence Review. Ideally, the navy would require a ship that could embark and operate both helicopters and landing craft, being fitted with a flight deck and a hangar for the former and a floodable stern (rear) dock for the latter.
This would eliminate the LST (tank landing ship – no dock, no hangar), LSD (dock landing ship – no hangar) and LPH (dedicated helicopter carrier – no dock). Of the rest, the LHA is able to operate vertical/short take-off and landing fighters as well as helicopters, in addition to having a stern dock. In reality, it is a category of aircraft carrier. The SAN has effectively ruled the LHA out, as being too expensive.
This leaves the options of the LPD and LHD. Both have stern docks for landing craft. An LPD tends to have a large superstructure forward, including the hangar (for four to six transport helicopters, like the SAAF’s Oryx) and a large flight deck aft. LHDs can look like aircraft carriers, with “flat tops”, but can only operate helicopters. They are generally bigger than LPDs. “The SAN must look to the future, at potential missions it might become involved in,” he avers. “Any decision will again be subject to Parliamentary review.”
Regarding the navy’s remaining major units, it is hoped that the SAS Protea can be replaced by a modified version of the winning design for the Biro OPV. As for the SAS Drakensberg, she was originally commissioned in 1987 and underwent a midlife refit in 2009. (Some work had to be postponed so she could be operational, for security duties, during the 2010 soccer World Cup; that work is now being done.) Although the ship will still give the navy years of service, the process of replacing her has been started to ensure the new ship enters service as the SAS Drakensberg is withdrawn.
“Priorities and missions will change. We will continue to carry out reappreciations of the force design for the navy, while realising that South Africa needs to alleviate poverty,” sums up Teuteberg. “The frigates and submarines were good buys – I’ve said that before – and they form part of a balanced force. But the Strategic Defence Acquisition programme never addressed the full require- ment. The six strike craft mentioned in the 1998 Defence Review were never built. Any country that spends 1.2% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defence will find its military becoming less effective. We hope that the SANDF will, in future, receive 2% of GDP.”