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SA Navy crippled by lack of qualified personnel

altThe South African Navy is being crippled by a lack of qualified personnel, which means that only half its frigates and one of its three submarines can be manned at any one time.

According to a well-placed source in the South African defence environment, only one of the three submarines can go to sea as the South African Navy (SAN) has enough personnel to man one at a time. Further compounding this is the fact that the Navy’s submarine fleet spends two thirds of its time in the dockyard.

The submarine SAS Manthatisi is still in the dock as she undergoes maintenance related to electrical systems – the batteries were damaged in 2007 when a sailor plugged in an incorrect electrical system. According to the source, the entire electronics of the submarine were damaged when this occurred. A new battery was ordered but Manthatisi’s refit will only be completed in July next year, leaving SAS Queen Modjaji and SAS Charlotte Maxeke operationally available.

However, top South African defence analyst Helmoed Romer Heitman told defenceWeb that the Manthatisi’s batteries were not destroyed and they are being replaced because they are at the end of their lives. “The one mistake there was was saving money by buying batteries from a company outside Germany, which did cause some problems,” he said. Experiences with gas buildup in the batteries has caused some issues.

“The Navy had planned to run the three 209s the way they had run the three Daphnes: one fully operational; one in commission and operational but used mainly for training and alternating with the operational boat for minor maintenance; and the third in reserve pending refit timed to bring it back into service as another approaches its refit date,” Heitman said.

“On that basis they trained up two crews and drove 101 [SAS Manthatisi] and 102 [SAS Charlotte Maxeke] hard during their warranty periods – to make sure that any faults surfaced while the Germans would still have to pay for them; then when 103 [SAS Queen Modjadji] was available, they docked 101 and used the crew to fetch 103 and drive that hard during the warranty period. The Navy then went over to rotating 102 and 103 as the two operational boats, and 101 is now in refit and will take the place of the one of the other two with the most sea time, which will then go into refit.

“Meanwhile the Navy has found that the new technologies in these boats make it possible to keep two fully operational at all times, not rotating as planned, and intend to move to that. But that will require two crews plus about half a crew to allow for training, work on the third boat, etc. That is one part of the problem. The other is…the drain of qualified people – operational and technical – and a reluctance of many people…to serve in boats.”

On the frigate side, there are only enough personnel to operate two of the four frigates at a time, the source told defenceWeb. Having been in service for eight years, they are due for a mid-life upgrade. The frigates have suffered engine problems due to a design shortcoming of the engines, which are not suited to local sea conditions.

However, Heitman said the engine problems are not a result of the engine’s design but the result of having too few technical staff and, more importantly, too few with experience. “So procedures were not always followed and warning alarms not always heeded; add the lack of time for maintenance and the lack of funds for spares and you are on the slippery slope to nowhere…”

A tender was issued earlier this month for the refit and engine change of the frigate SAS Amatola - on its last deployment to the Mozambique Channel as part of the Operation Copper anti-piracy mission, it sailed with only one engine operable. The second engine will be in service in the first quarter of next year, the reputable source told defenceWeb.

The SAS Isandlwana and SAS Mendi are safe to operate but are not fully capable – Mendi has only one functioning diesel engine, but the maintenance and repair of the second engine will be done in a couple of months’ time.

The source said that one of the biggest problems in the Navy is the inability to properly maintain its ships. SAN personnel are unable to do first or second line maintenance on their vessels, with private sector companies like MTU carrying out such basic maintenance procedures. A major brain drain in the Navy is affecting all aspects of readiness, as it is affecting the Air Force as well.

Heitman said the main problem with the frigates was that the Mozambique Channel patrol used up something like four years’ worth of sea days in the first eighteen months, but with no additional funds from treasury to pay for the require spares and, with the 2010 Soccer World Cup and other commitments, the ships also all slipped behind schedule for minor maintenance, DEDs and refits.

“This year the Navy was given additional funding and is now playing catch-up. It is possible that the crew numbers fell during the period, with the ships over-worked and some effectively out of service as a result. And again, yes there was a drain of combat and technical staff that has not been made up and some strange appointments that did not help,” Heitman said.

The lack of trained personnel is indicative of the Navy’s manpower shortage – something the source said was the maritime arm’s biggest problem. For instance only around 85% of positions aboard the frigates are filled, and of those, only two thirds are by qualified personnel.

Training is another major issue, as only a third of training posts are filled and of that third, trainers are only in their posts for one and a half years, resulting in trainers will little experience.

The source added that the Navy was trying so hard to meet its empowerment quotas that black personnel were being put in most top positions even though the majority are insufficiently trained.

Some of the South African National Defence Force’s other problems that were identified included a sense of entitlement and self-enrichment amongst members, bloated personnel costs and the SANDF being forced to take orders from a political party rather than the government.

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