South Africa is a country with extensive maritime interests and responsibilities. The country has a coastline of about 3 924 km, including Prince Edward Island and Marion Island, which form a little group lying some 540 nautical miles (nm) or about 1 000 km south east of Port Elizabeth. The seas around South Africa are famously rough. All along this coast, and around the two islands, South Africa has territorial waters that extend 12 nm out to sea, contiguous zones that extend 24 nm, and exclusive economic zones (EEZs) that reach 200 nm out to sea. (These three categories overlap.)
A country has full sovereignty over its territorial waters; in the contiguous zone, its sovereignty is much reduced but it can enforce customs, emigration/immigration, fiscal and sanitary laws and regulations, and protect archaeological and historical sites (such as shipwrecks). Regarding the EEZ, a country has sovereignty only over natural resources, whether living or mineral, in the sea, on the seabed or under the seabed. These range from fish to diamonds to oil and gasfields.
In total, South Africa has greater or lesser authority over around 1 553 000 km2 of sea. In addition, the country is in the process of claiming between 300 000 km2 and 1 400 000 km2 as part of its extended con- tinental shelf claim under the United Nations Law of the Sea convention. South Africa’s land area is less than this, at 1 219 090 km2. (In addition, the country has a search and rescue area of responsibility of 17 200 000 km2.)
The country is heavily dependent on seaborne trade – it accounts for more than 50% of the country’s gross domestic product, 98% of trade by volume and 80% of trade by value (according to 2011 Department of Transport figures). For 2011/12, according to the Government Communication and Information System, the South African fishing industry was valued at some R2-billion a year and employed around 27 000 people. Little wonder that the South African Navy (SA Navy or SAN) sometimes refers to the country’s territorial, contiguous and EEZ waters as amounting to a tenth province.
These waters need to be monitored, patrolled and, if necessary, defended. To do this, the SAN currently has a fleet of three submarines and four frigates, one fleet replenish- ment vessel, one hydrographic survey ship, four minehunters, four offshore patrol vessels (OPVs), three inshore patrol vessels (IPVs) and 26 harbour patrol boats. These are supported by three tugs and various small boats and assault craft. The personnel strength of the navy is 7 646.
Ashore, the Service possesses Naval Base Simon’s Town, the much smaller Naval Station Durban, and the very small Naval Station Port Elizabeth, plus a number of training and other support facilities in Simon’s Town and elsewhere in the Western Cape. These include the South African Naval Armament Depot, in Simon’s Town, and the South African Naval College, in Gordon’s Bay. (The Simon’s Town Dockyard, co-located with the Naval Base, currently falls under the country’s defence acquisitions and research and development agency Armscor.)
The SAN was a major beneficiary of the large defence acquisition programme started some 13 years ago, getting four new frigates (contract signature in 1999) and three new submarines (contract signature in 2000). The submarines were designed and built in Germany and are named the SAS Manthatisi (which entered service in November 2005), SAS Charlotte Maxeke (entered service in March 2007) and the SAS Queen Modjadji I (May 2008). A few of their systems – most notably, their periscopes – were made in South Africa.
The frigates are also German in origin but they include South African components and systems and are known in the SAN as the Valour class. These local systems include their optronic trackers, Umkhonto surface-to-air missiles and twin 35 mm automatic guns. They are named the SAS Amatola (entered service in September 2005), SAS Isandlwana (December 2004), SAS Spioenkop (March 2004) and SAS Mendi (June 2004). The frigates are fitted with air/surface search radar, fire control radar, navigation/helicopter control radar and a hull-mounted active search sonar, as well as the South African optronic trackers. They also have various counter- measures systems, including jammers and decoys. Each frigate can carry one Super Lynx helicopter. The combination of frigate and Super Lynx has proved very effective in anti-piracy operations.
The rest of the fleet is much older. The fleet replenishment vessel, the SAS Drakensberg, designed and built in South Africa, originally entered service in November 1987. It can accommodate two Oryx helicopters. The SAS Protea, the hydrographic survey ship, was designed and built in the UK, originally entered service in May 1972, and is the last surviving member of the British Hecla class in naval service.
The minehunters are the River class, and date from the 1980s – the SAS Umkomaas (entered service in January 1981), SAS Umgeni (March 1981), SAS Umzimkulu (October 1981) and SAS Umhloti (November 1981). Minehunters use active sonar to search for and locate sea mines, and then destroy them using either remotely-operated vehicles or divers.
The OPVs are former strike craft (large missile boats) that have been converted to the patrol role (most obviously, by the removal of their missiles). Three have been converted so far, by Southern African Shipyards in Durban. These are the SAS Isaac Dyobha (originally entered service as a strike craft in July 1979), SAS Galeshewe (February 1983) and the SAS Makhanda (July 1986). A fourth, the SAS Adam Kok (originally entered service in April 1978), is awaiting conversion. These conversions have been kept to the bare minimum, due to the advanced age of the ships. They have been fitted with new navigation radars and have been refitted to maintain their seaworthiness and ensure their mechanical reliability. They will also receive minor modifications to make boarding boat operations safer.
The IPVs are small craft. Designed and built in Cape Town, they are the SAS Tobie (first entered service in June 1992), SAS Tern (June 1996) and the SAS Tekwane (December 1996). The Harbour Patrol Boats are just that – armed boats; also locally designed, they have numbers, not names, and entered service during 1980/81.
(To digress briefly: maritime aviation in South Africa is the responsibility of the South African Air Force – SAAF – with one helicopter and one fixed wing squadron at Air Force Base Ysterplaat, in Cape Town. Between them they operate Super Lynx shipboard and Oryx transport helicopters and C-47TP Dakota maritime surveillance and transport aircraft.)
Sea Force and Biro
The new submarines and frigates have completely renovated the country’s seagoing battle force and restored its frigate (that is, ocean-going warship) capability, originally acquired in 1944 and then lost in 1985. These vessels give the SAN a relatively high-end naval capability – while the new frigates are the biggest warships ever operated by South Africa, they are not the largest or most sophisticated frigates in the world.
Although these seven vessels (the frigates and submarines) are designed to fight, it is often forgotten that their combat capabilities also make them superb peacetime surveillance platforms, because of their comprehensive and sophisticated sensor systems. And while they have never – and hopefully never will – fire their weapons in anger, they use these sensor systems continuously while at sea, providing excellent maritime domain awareness within the range of these sensors.
But, obviously, seven units is not enough to cover more than a fraction of the country’s waters. And no mention has yet been made of Operation Copper, the anti-piracy patrol being carried out by the SAN, with the support of the SAAF and other elements of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), since early 2011 (with an intermission in late 2012) in the northern Mozambique Channel. Hence the SAN’s need for patrol vessels, a role currently fulfilled by the OPVs, minehunters and IPVs. With the submarines and frigates providing the battle force, these vessels can be lightly armed. But all of them are ageing.
Which is why the navy has Project Biro, to acquire new OPVs and IPVs, which will also serve in the mine countermeasures role when required. “The current strike craft [converted into OPVs] will be able to cover the gap for borderline security for approximately five years, after which it will be critical to replace the vessels,” reports SAN chief director maritime strategy Rear Admiral Hans Teuteberg.
The navy knows the capabilities it needs from future patrol vessels, and Armscor has issued a request for information (RfI). “The RfI specified three OPVs and three IPVs,” he states. “The exact numbers of vessels required will be determined – and amended if so required – once the draft Defence Review has been approved. The vision remains that of a locally produced common platform (OPV and IPV) for the SA Navy and its SADC [Southern African Development Community] neighbours.” It is likely that, for reasons of sea-worthiness and endurance (and, in the case of the OPVs, to be able to effectively operate a helicopter), the new vessels would be significantly larger than the ones they would replace, with the IPVs likely to be in the 300 t to 500 t range and the OPVs around 2 000 t, perhaps even more. The next step is likely to be the release of requests for proposals.
Relevant to the future patrol vessels is the SAN’s plan for its future mine warfare capability. “The current mine warfare capability resorts in the shallow water route survey system that was used so successfully during the security operation for the 2010 FIFA World Cup,” explains Teuteberg. “It is planned to expand this capability to a full mine countermeasures capability by means of an acquisition project currently under way. The new system will be a mobile and containerised system that will be deployable onboard the planned IPVs and OPVs. However, the current minehunters will continue to be used.”
Experience has made it clear that the SAN needs a greater support infrastructure on the east coast, which means investing in its Durban facility. “The SA Navy is currently in the process of revitalising the current Naval Station Durban and possibly upgrading its status to that of a naval base,” says Teuteberg. “It is also the intention to homeport the OPVs in Durban and for this reason the current ex-strike craft OPVs are already being shifted to Durban. The revived base/station will provide the SA Navy with the capability of forward deploying its assets in support of anti-piracy operations in the Mozambique Channel. The scope of the project will include the provision of communications, command and control facilities. Most of the workshops are still in use and these will require only minor improvements – some new equipment will have to be purchased to fully capacitate the workshops. Some of the mess [dining] and accommodation facilities have been and still are in use. Others will need refurbishment to bring them to an acceptable level for habitation. Some of the quay and shore support infrastructure that has not been used in a decade will also need to be refurbished.”
The proposal to restore Durban to a full naval base – it had been downgraded from a base to a station in 2002 – is now with Defence Headquarters and the Department of Defence, and their approval is still pending. Because of this, the cost of the upgrade programme cannot yet be meaningfully estimated. However, staffing levels are not expected to increase dramatically over the next few years. In addition to the current complement at Durban, some key support personnel will be transferred from Simon’s Town, as will the crews of the OPVs. The upgrades to, and the basing of the OPVs at, Durban are expected to be completed by 2018.
There have been reports critical of the SAN’s operational readiness levels. Of course, there is no way that all its vessels can be fully operational at the same time – naval vessels, like aircraft, have complex mainte-nance schedules involving a variety of different levels of maintenance. And crews need training – a vessel undertaking training duties is not operationally deployable.
In the past readiness, was, if anything, worse. In the 1970s, the SAN had, on paper, a fleet of three submarines, two destroyers, four frigates and three ocean patrol ships (comprising two obsolete frigates and one obsolete ocean minesweeper). In reality, there were never more than two submarines, one destroyer and three frigates in service (and often there were only two frigates operational). Of the nine strike craft that formed the backbone of the surface force in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, no more than six were ever in service at the same time.
Worldwide, an operational level of 50% – that is, half of the fleet is at sea or can put to sea for operational missions in a matter of days – is regarded as good for navies. Many navies do not achieve this level. Very, very few indeed exceed it.
“The SA Navy currently has two frigates available for operational contingencies,” he reports. “One frigate is deployed as part of the anti-piracy patrols in the Mozambique Channel whilst the other is scheduled to undertake an extensive west coast patrol with visits and exercises scheduled off Namibia, Angola, Nigeria and Senegal (where it will participate in the Sea Power for Africa Symposium [November 5 to 8, 2013]). A third frigate is available for training in Simon’s Town whilst the fourth is undergoing maintenance and repair. The SAS Amatola is due to conduct a refit which should commence early in the new year. The current frigate availability rate is as per the SA Navy ‘business plan’ and exceeds the international norm for operational availability.”
As for the submarines, one is undergoing a major refit which will last until the middle of next year. Another is carrying out routine maintenance and will then undertake patrols in South African waters, particularly in border zones. The third is fully operational and has recently exercised with both US and French forces. Of the minehunters, two are operational, again as specified by the SAN’s business plan. The hydrographic ship SAS Protea is carrying out an assisted maintenance period and will thereafter, and for the rest of the year, conduct survey operations. Three of the planned four ex-strike craft OPVs are operational.
The Navy has been able to meet all its international exercise obligations, participating in activities such as, last year, Exercise Good Hope V with the German Navy, Exercise Atlasur IX with the Argentinian, Brazilian and Uruguayan navies, and Exercise Ibsamar III with the Brazilian and Indian navies. This year, the SAN has participated in Exercise Shared Accord 13 with the US Army (and National Guard), US Marine Corps and Air National Guard (a reserve component for the US Air Force), with the navy involved in supporting an amphibious landing, including deploying its Maritime Reaction Squadron (MRS). Most recently, in September there was Exercise Oxide, with the French and Mozambican navies, which took place off the Mozambican capital of Maputo. For Oxide, the SAN force was a frigate, a submarine, an OPV and a platoon of the MRS. (The MRS is composed of the boat division, the operational diving division and a small reaction force.)
In addition, Operation Copper is being maintained (although there was a break late last year). “The anti-piracy patrols in the Mozambican Channel continue with one OPV having just relieved the other during the past few weeks,” affirmed Teuteberg. “These patrols are conducted in conjunction with the Mozambican Navy. It is planned to expand these patrols in the near future as per the tripartite agreement with Mozambique and Tanzania. The SA Navy OPV has been relieved by a frigate which will also form part of planned exercises in the area of operations. The concept of operations for Operation Copper is changing from a ‘heavy’ piracy reduction operation to a ‘not so heavy‘ maintenance of the status quo operation. This could obviously change as the situation develops and could well be reversed if piracy attacks once again increase.”
Even with the acquisition of new patrol vessels, the SAN will still need to replace the SAS Protea and SAS Drakensberg. And then there is the need to consider rapidly developing new technologies, particularly unmanned air vehicles (UAVs), which are now starting to be used by navies around the world.
Hydrographic survey is a key, and one of the two oldest (the other being mine counter- measures) missions of the SAN – South Africa’s first three naval vessels, acquired in 1922, were a hydrographic survey ship (the SAS Protea) and two trawler-minesweepers. Hydrography is nautical surveying and involves charting the seabed, and producing the charts (nautical maps) that allow safe navigation by all users of the sea. The sea is a dynamic environment and things change over time. Shipwrecks create new perils. And the develop- ment of ever-deeper ocean oil and gas drilling technology means that more precise deep water charts are in ever greater demand.
The current SAS Protea is, however, now 41 years old. The last of the British Hecla-class, HMS Herald, was disposed of 12 years ago, in 2001. Spare parts will become difficult to acquire, more maintenance will be needed and running costs will soar. The SAN has been hoping that the OPV design selected for Project Biro could be used as the basis for a new hydrographic vessel. However, no firm decision has yet been taken.
The SAS Drakensberg is 26 years old, and in much less urgent need of replacement (unless she is a single hull ship; double hulls – that is, inner and outer hulls, considerably reducing the risks of oil spills – are becoming mandatory around the world). This requirement is still fluid and could be incorporated into the proposal (not yet a formal project) known as Millennium, for an amphibious ship to enable the deployment of South African Army and SAAF units on international missions.
Then there is the question of UAVs. “Modern maritime warfare has evolved in intelligence driven operations making use of wide-ranging sensors, military and civilian, including Internet based models, satellites, maritime patrol aircraft, shipborne helicopters, UAVs and shore based radar stations, to name just a few,” explains Teuteberg. “All forward thinking navies are considering a mix of the above and the SA Navy is no exception. Within the SANDF, all airborne asset requirements are driven by the SAAF. However, the joint requirement for maritime domain awareness using assets and sensors such as mentioned above is receiving much attention and consideration.”
Edited by: Martin Zhuwakinyu
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor
EMAIL THIS ARTICLE