Insufficient funding for the SA National Defence Force has resulted in doubts being cast on our ability to honour international maritime agreements. explores what can be done
In her budget speech, Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula described her department’s financial woes as a “a serious mismatch between the current funding allocation and the expectations placed on the department of defence”. Budget constraints have crippled the SA National Defence Force, forcing it to refrain from performing its key functions, which are defined by Defence Review 2015 as the strategic need for maritime capability.
The word “maritime” is mentioned 215 times in a 344-page document and alludes to capabilities such as fighting piracy, terrorism, smuggling, human trafficking, poaching and illegal fishing, as well as combating oil pollution.
The review describes maritime insecurity as one of six prominent drivers of African insecurity.
The others are competition over scarce resources, poverty, underdevelopment, poor human security and endemic diseases.
According to the UN, South Africa’s maritime responsibilities include the oversight of a sea surface area. This translates to the sea’s entire volume, from surface to ocean floor, which in some parts is more than 11km deep. This area is more than 12 times the country’s land surface area (see graphic).
It extends beyond the three Economic Exclusion Zones (EEZ) of Durban, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. And a third of the EEZ is located around the Prince Edward Islands, comprising the two small islands of Prince Edward and Marion, in the southern Indian Ocean.
The national defence force is therefore obliged to assist in all search-andrescue and recovery operations from Cape Town to the Antarctica in the south, as well as from Prime Meridian in the west to the Prince Edward Islands.
Its functions include assisting survivors of civil aircraft accidents and helping in the event of forced landings and ditching – a term describing crash-landing into the water by an aircraft not designed for the purpose.
Mapisa-Nqakula bemoaned the fact that the defence force’s commitments, as defined in the Defence Review document, extended to the entire African continent as part of its quest to advance our national interests – yet faced a glaring lack of financial support from the state.
The review also pointed out that to fully meet its mandate, the national defence force would require double the current fiscus allocation over the long term.
“In reality, the defence allocation has been declining by 5% per annum in real terms, over the past 20 years, to a mere 1% of the gross domestic product (GDP),” it noted.
“Meanwhile, the appropriate funding level, as articulated in the Defence Review 2015, would require a steady state increase to at least 2% of GDP over time.
“While there is great appreciation for the competing pressures on the fiscus, the persistent and continued dramatic downward trend in real terms of the funding allocation to defence has reached a point where the department of defence runs the risk of losing more of its essential capabilities, in addition to those already lost.”
What this means is that the national defence force has reached levels where it is failing to protect 90% of South Africa’s imports and exports essential for the economy and dependent on the sea.
Regarding maritime security, Mapisa-Nqakula spoke briefly about the SA Navy, saying it continued to deploy vessels in support of its maritime security strategy over the past year and had conducted three protracted patrols in the Mozambique Channel using a frigate, an offshore patrol vessel and the ship the SAS Drakensberg, respectively.
She added that the defence force had also helped in disaster operations locally and on the continent, including with aircraft accidents and fire disasters.
She made no mention of any effort on the part of the defence force to comply with UN obligations on maritime patrols and related responsibilities.
South Africa is a signatory to the following three international maritime agreements: Annex 12 of the UN’s Convention on International Civil Aviation of 1944; The Safety of Life at Sea Convention of 1974; and The International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue of 1979. This is why the Defence Review advocates for the defence force to be “robust, flexible and able to project and sustain joint landward, air, maritime, Special Forces and military health operations” over extended distances for protracted periods on the continent, the country’s territorial seas and high seas within its search-and-rescue region.
However, South Africa is saddled with aged maritime patrol Dakota aircraft. Some of its search-and-rescue aircraft were decommissioned several years ago.
The SA Air Force used aircraft such as the Avro Shackleton MR.3 (1958) and the Piaggio P166S “Albatross” (1969), but these were retired in the early 1990s.
That was when aircraft such as the C-47TP “TurboDak” (1943) and the C-130BZ “Hercules” (1963) were upgraded. However, these are now also showing signs of corrosion.
Several manufacturers have approached the defence ministry, offering various types of multipurpose military transport and maritime patrol aircraft with proven coast guard missions, law enforcement operations, pollution control and control of the EEZ areas.
They include the multipurpose Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules, used by the US Marine Corps and the Royal Air Force, as well as the Airbus CN-235 and C-295 planes, which are used by several air forces, including the Royal Canadian, Indonesian, Peruvian, Spanish, Mexican, Polish and Egyptian air forces.
The aircraft needed for these operations should have excellent low-level flying qualities for maritime and sea operations. They need endurance capabilities to cover a wide area and must be able to fly in extreme weather conditions, such as the strong winds that often bedevil the Western Cape.
They should also have observer bubble windows with excellent visual coverage, and the rear ramp must be equipped for pararescue team operations. They are also expected to do the following:
Conduct search-and-rescue missions for survivors of any military aircraft or vessel accidents, provided that these built structures are not engaged in acts of war.
Co-ordinate the evacuation of injured or ill people from a vessel at sea, where their condition requires urgent medical treatment – sooner than the vessel would be able to transport them to a suitable medical facility.
South Africa has also signed international treaties with Namibia, Angola, Mozambique, Tanzania, Swaziland and Lesotho. This means it has to offer similar UN operations to these neighbours should the need arise.
With maritime surveillance having become a challenge in the past decade, especially in regions where maritime activities or traffic represent a major economic interest, South Africa is increasingly expected to consider other technologies to monitor its vast sea and land territories in a cost-effective manner.
According to Didier Blet, the senior manager of business development at Airbus Defence and Space, some countries are increasingly dealing with threats such as smuggling, illegal immigration or piracy using satellite technology.
The use of patrol vessels and aircraft has been limited in South Africa, compared with large-scale areas and activities that are monitored through this technology. Satellite systems provide complementary information which optimises the cost of operations at sea.
Experts argue that the benefits of using satellites to support maritime surveillance missions can offset the hopeless situation facing the national defence force.
Satellite costs are fixed, whatever the distance targeted, and this technology can cover or monitor areas of interest regularly. But the country will only be able to pay for satellite types that monitor targeted areas.
“South Africa will be tapping into an existing global resource and signing up to utilise existing satellites that are already flying above our space,” said Blet.
“There will be no geographical limitation as the satellite can acquire images both ashore and offshore, in the national territory and abroad.”
Some countries use the technology to help fisheries management agencies and law enforcement and security authorities optimise their traditional ways of monitoring.
South Africa can start by monitoring limited areas. Over time, it can work with officials in the departments of agriculture and environmental affairs by accepting requests at short notice to support emergency operations.
Detection reports would be compiled to build statistics and identify patterns at sea, such as the concentration of vessels, their activities and main flows.
There will be no real-time constraints to processing such activities. This will enable the navy or air force to react immediately.
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CASH-STRAPPED Minister of Defence Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula has bemoaned the state’s declining funding for her department