Financial Mail - - FEATURE -

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 Co­or­di­na­tion 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-an­dres­cue] 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.

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”.

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