South Africa’s small but modern fleet attracts global interest

4th December 2009 By: Keith Campbell - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

With the arrival in South Africa, in May 2008, of the submarine SAS Queen Modjadji I, the South African Navy (SAN) completed the re-equipment of its seagoing fleet. This marked the end of a process that started with a project in 1993 to acquire new seagoing surface combatants for the Navy, and the first of these new vessels, the SAS Amatola, arrived in South Africa in November 2003.

Today, the SAN has a fleet of four Valour-class frigates (the SAS Amatola, SAS Isandlwana, SAS Spioenkop and SAS Mendi) and three Heroine-class (also known as the Type 209) submarines (the SAS Manthatisi, SAS Charlotte Maxeke and SAS Queen Modjadji I). Although this is a small force, it is very modern. Further, it is complemented by specialist and auxiliary vessels, comprising three offshore patrol vessels (converted from strike craft), four minehunters, a replenishment vessel (designated combat support ship by the SAN), the SAS Drakensberg, a hydrographic survey ship (SAS Protea), three inshore patrol craft, and about 26 harbour patrol craft.

All these vessels are supported by a compre-hensive shore-based infrastructure, notably Naval Base Simon’s Town (and its subordinate units), Naval Station Durban, Naval Station Port Elizabeth, the Simon’s Town dockyard, as well as the Navy’s various training units. (Naval Base Simon’s Town and the Simon’s Town dockyard are separate entities, although they are colocated; the former is part of the SAN and the latter part of Armscor.)

The operational units of the fleet are under the command of the Flag Officer: Fleet (FOF), who is based at fleet headquarters in Simon’s Town. The naval base and its subordinate and associated units fall under the Flag Officer: Simon’s Town. Both report to the Chief of the Navy, at naval headquarters in Pretoria. (This distinction between fleet headquarters and naval headquarters is common among the navies of the world). When required, ships can be placed under the command of the Chief of Joint Operations at defence headquarters.

“I think it was a very wise decision to go for a combination of a modest number of both frigates and submarines rather than a larger number of just frigates or just submarines,” asserts FOF Rear Admiral Rusty Higgs. “It gives us a more balanced fleet; it gives the SAN a good defence capability, which is widely recognised.”


Flying the Flag

“What these new frigates and submarines have done is make the SAN a credible naval force,” enthuses Higgs. “The SAN is very highly” regarded internationally and is now playing a significant role in placing South Africa on the map, worldwide. We sent the SAS Spioenkop to Shanghai late last year, and she had a big impact in China, as a modern ship with a full rainbow nation crew, receiving national TV coverage. Senior Chinese military and naval commanders confessed that they had not believed that an African country could operate such a ship. Leaders from African navies are coming to us for advice. Leaders from Asian navies are asking our advice on how to acquire submarines and integrate them into their fleets.” The Far East deployment of the SAS Spioenkop lasted three months, covered some 16 000 nautical miles, and saw the ship exercise with the navies of India, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam, as well as China.

The SAN’s new frigates and submarines have also, over the past couple of years, undertaken exercises with the American, Argentinian, Brazilian, British, French, German, Russian and Uruguayan navies. These have included exercises with nuclear-powered vessels – the American aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (in October 2008), the attack submarine USS San Juan (last month) and the Russian battle cruiser Pyotr Velikiy (January 2009).

After exercising with the SAS Queen Modjadji I, the captain of the USS San Juan, Commander Ollie Lewis, told Engineering News that the South African submarine and its crew were “very capable – proficient, quiet, professional”. “I was very impressed that, not having exercised with nuclear submarines for 12 years, they knew how to do it, and safely, and got training value out of it.”

Submarine Service

Each Heroine or Type 209 submarine is 62 m long, with a beam of 7,6 and a submerged displacement of about 1 600 t. With a diesel-electric propulsion system, maximum speed submerged is 22 knots (kt) and surfaced, 11 kt. Each is armed with 8 × 533-mm (21") torpedo tubes and 14 torpedoes can be carried. They form the Submarine Service, which is headed by the Senior Officer Submarines and includes a Senior Submarine Engineering Officer.

“The Type 209s are are generally a lot more advanced than their predecessors, the Daphne class,” reports Commander Andrew Souma, captain of the SAS Queen Modjadji I. “The equipment and systems on the new boats are automated, controlled by programmable logic controllers and not by people. The result is a greatly reduced crew – the Daphnes had an average crew of 51, while the average crew for a 209 is 36, despite the fact that the latter is 10 m longer than the former. However, while the crews of the Daphnes had to be skilled, the crews of the 209s have to be highly skilled. Automation means fewer people, but it also requires better people, because they have to be vigilant; they have to know how the machines are thinking.”

The new submarines have technologies the old ones did not have. The 209s have infrared sensors on the periscopes, flank array sonars, and are armed with wire-guided torpedoes.
The Daphnes had none of these. The 209s have much superior batteries (the submarine’s energy source when dived), giving much greater submerged endurance, much higher submerged top speed and the ability to maintain top speed significantly longer. While the engine rooms on the Daphnes were always manned, those on the 209s are usually unmanned. The 209s have a single large screw (propellor) whereas the Daphnes had two smaller ones – the 209 screw generates a lot more power, and is a lot quieter, than the pair on a Daphne.

Quiteness is essential for submarine operations. “The 209 is three times quieter than the Daphne and almost three times faster when submerged,” points out Commander Darren White, captain of the SAS Charlotte Maxeke. “With the sensors on a Daphne, you could generate a limited amount of information from the environment around you. On a 209, you have many more sensors and an upgraded combat suite. So you now have a lot of information. Our sensors now cover three times the radius that the Daphne sensors could, and with greater accuracy. Now, the issue is deciding what information is the important information.”

With the exception of the chef and the telegraphist, every member of the crew of a 209 is both an operator and maintainer of the onboard equipment, and all are skilled artisans or technicians. The navy divides maintenance into four ‘Lines’ and the submarine crews do Line 1 maintenance on their boats, with Line 2 being the responsibility of shore-based naval personnel, Line 3 being done by the dockyard and Line 4 by the original-equipment manufacturers.

“We are installing new technologies at the base to support the 209s,” highlights Souma. “We’ve started to build maintenance test- beds to train people who will specialise in submarine maintenance. We are installing specialist support workshops. We already have a dedicated and good submarine battery workshop, which is located on a quay, so a sub- marine can come alongside the workshop. And we have a diesel test-bed.”

The Submarine Service is also supported by the Submarine Training School (STS).
This has been completely modernised to meet the training needs created by the new submarines. It provides theoretical training, tactical training and dive safety training.

The STS has a 1:1 scale three-axis motion 209 control room simulator and a one-eighth scale transparent model of a Type 209, showing all the systems and components in great detail, as well as a recently completed periscope trainer. There is also a containerised combat suite simulator, which can be placed on the dockside and from which a fibre-optic cable can be run into a submarine, allowing the crew to realistically exercise while in harbour. This simulator can even generate realistic noises and has a playback facility, allowing errors to be identified and addressed. The diesel test-bed can also be used to train diesel watchkeepers.

“We have a world-class commanding officers course,” affirms Souma.

Surface Fleet

A Valour-class frigate displaces 3 600 t, is 121 m long and has a beam of 16,3 m. It is armed with one 76-mm automatic gun, one South African-designed and -made automatic twin 35-mm gun system, two 20-mm manually operated guns, Exocet MM40 antiship missiles (each ship has a capacity of eight of these missiles), and South African-designed and -manufactured Umkhonto surface-to-air missiles (capacity: 32), and can carry one Oryx or Rooivalk or one or two Lynx helicopters.

The Valour-class are the SAN’s first frigates since the retirement of the last of its Type 12 or President-class ships 24 years ago. The Type 12s were a 1950s design while the strike craft which replaced them, and which were designed for coastal warfare, were an early 1970s design.

“The technological advances in the Valour class are significant,” states Captain Chris Manig, captain of the SAS Spioenkop. “For example, they operate with new technology, in the form of automated systems, including the auxiliary and ancillary equipment, as well as the weapons and warfare systems.” With a displacement more than 50% greater than that of a Type 12, a Valour-class needs only about 66% of the crew of the older design.

“The new ships have brought about a transformation of fleet capabilities that has been greater than expected,” reveals frigate squadron commander and captain of the SAS Mendi, Captain Jimmy Schutte. “Whereas the Type 12s were focused on antisubmarine warfare, the Valours are multidimensional and have a lot of potential for upgrading in future. These new frigates were designed for the SAN, for our geostrategic position, and we got what we needed and what we wanted. They are very stable at sea. They have good seakeeping, which reduces crew fatigue. This is also good for helicopter operations. We can launch helicopters, and boats, in very rough seas. And we can deploy from home for much longer without support and rest.”

Each frigate now has a crew of 152, although they can accommodate more – for training, for example. Originally, the idea was to have a complement of only about 110, but this proved too small. The larger complement allows greater operational sustainability, including more comprehensive on-board maintenance. “The sea is a very hostile environment and, although the ships are highly automated, these systems need maintenance,” he points out.

The ships all have comprehensive electronic, optronic and sonar sensor systems, including radars, electronic and signals intelligence systems, and infrared and thermal imaging. Many of these systems are new to the Navy. And they have a technology that is new to the entire South African National Defence Force – datalink.

“The frigates have the Link ZA datalink, which they can use to communicate among each other,” highlights Schutte. “This is now being integrated onto the Lynx helicopters. Later, it will be fitted to other South African Air Force aircraft, and then it will be adopted by the Army.” It is intended to integrate Link ZA with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s Link 11 and Link 16 systems, to allow for multilateral operations.

“The entire frigate combat suite, the radios, and both the Link ZA hardware and software are all designed and produced in South Africa,” stresses Manig.

Each frigate has a main propulsion system, two MTU diesel engines and one General Electric gas turbine. The two diesels drive two shafts each with one controllable pitch screw; each diesel can drive either one or both shafts. “These ships are economical,” says Schutte. “We’re very conscious of the need for fuel economy.” The gas turbine powers a water jet system, which provides maximum speed when required. Each main diesel delivers 6 000 kW of power, while the gas turbine delivers 20 000 kW, for a total power capacity of 32 000 kW (or 32 MW).

In addition, each frigate has four V-12 MTU diesel generators, in two auxiliary compartments, and each generator has a capacity of 500 kW. These generators supply electricity to the entire ship, through two switchboards, one forward, the other aft, which provide the ships with redundancy.

The engine and auxiliary rooms are usually unmanned. Instead, they are all controlled from the machinery control room (MCR). “The MCR is where all the watchkeepers sit in front of computer screens and control the engines and other machinery, check the limitations and thresholds (the temperature and pressure parameters) which must always be within limits – otherwise an alarm will sound which will then be followed by an emergency stop of that particular piece of machinery,” explains SAS Spioenkop Deputy Marine Engineering Officer, Warrant Office I Roy Marks. “We also control ship service systems – for example, we can start and stop the pumps that transfer fuel from one tank to another, or to the engines. Further, from the MCR we also manage the damage control systems, meaning we can start fire pumps, salvage pumps and other systems.”

• Keith Campbell visited Simon’s Town and the fleet as a guest of the SAN.