Navy in deep water as operational crisis bites
Bulk of budget goes on salaries, leaving little to maintain fleet
● The cash-strapped South African Navy is literally falling apart and has run out of money to keep its vessels at sea.
Procurement problems meant none of the three arms-deal submarines could dive or be deployed on missions in the 2017/2018 financial year. Nor could any of the four frigates be used on anti-piracy duty, resulting in reliance on three 40-year-old vessels.
That is the navy’s own bleak assessment, in a written reply from secretary of defence Lieutenant-General Vusumuzi Masondo to parliament’s defence portfolio committee. The document confirms an operational crisis despite the R12bn arms-deal naval procurement package, which was supposed to improve SA’s offshore capability.
Instead, a crippling maintenance and repair bill and dwindling budget largely spent on salaries mean the fleet is unable to effectively patrol the country’s offshore territory.
At the time of the arms deal, critics warned that maintenance would chew up money better invested in social development, particularly given the fact that SA faced no imminent military threat.
In its replies to Kobus Marais, the DA defence spokesperson, the defence department revealed:
● In 2017/2018, the navy managed only 6,046 hours at sea, just over half its 12,000-hour target;
● It received only R393m for maintenance and repairs, 11.9% of the R3.295bn needed;
● It had to rely on three obsolete ships to fulfil international patrol obligations, resulting in “constant operational defects”; and
● Its main synchrolift — required to lift submarines and smaller warships out of the water for maintenance — required repair, adding to serious capacity problems at its main dockyard in Simon’s Town.
The defence department expressed frustration and said the past year was particularly challenging due to delays in crucial refits and repairs.
“Due to the specialised nature of the requirements and long lead times for manufacture and delivery, and with the engines and many other spares having to be ordered from abroad, the spares could not be delivered as well as installed and tested during financial year 2017/18,” it said.
“The operational defects therefore persisted and led to the non-availability of most vessels to proceed to sea.
“The South African Navy did not have any submarine operationally available for deployment whilst it awaited the procurement of spare parts [new ball valves] required for diving operations.”
Navy spokesperson Commander Greyling van den Berg told the Sunday Times that repairs to one submarine had since been completed. “The safety of our personnel at sea is non-negotiable and there are minimum seagoing standards which the navy will not compromise on,” he said.
Budget and maintenance issues have also affected deployment of new boarding vessels, delivered three years ago for R23m. They are still being “integrated” into the new frigates due to complications with davits — mobile cranes — used to lift them on board.
The shortage of naval patrols has prompted concern at the South African Maritime Safety Authority (Samsa), which is concerned about its far-flung Prince Edward Islands in the South Atlantic.
“Samsa may be able to detect or identify ‘problem vessels’ but we do not have assets [vessels or aircraft] to investigate,” said spokesperson Karl Otto. “This is where the [defence force, navy], department of agriculture, forestry & fisheries, department of environment affairs and [the police] are expected to rise to the occasion. But alas, our assets are extremely limited.”
Defence consultant Helmoed Heitman said SA had a commitment to patrol its exclusive economic zone. “We should be patrolling the islands and I believe the French have complained that we do not, with the result that some vessels skulk in our waters while their patrol vessel is nearby and then zip into [French] waters to fish,” he said.
The French consulate did not respond to the Sunday Times’s questions, and Van den Berg denied there was a rift with Paris. The navy was still patrolling the Prince Edward Islands, he said, though infrequently due to the cost.
A maritime expert said it took a vessel about a week to travel the 2,200km from Simon’s Town to the islands, at an estimated R200,000 a day.
The DA’s Marais said the navy’s capability crisis was a national embarrassment and a breach of the constitutional requirement to protect SA’s borders. “It is a shocking state of affairs,” he said.
Up to 75% of the military budget was spent on human resources in the first quarter of this financial year. “The priority of spending is absolutely wrong,” Marais said.
Van den Berg said navy staffing had remained at about 7,000 for close on 20 years due to financial constraints. “We are not writing our own cheques,” he said.
Shaded red area shows SA’s search and rescue region responsibility.