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Navy rising to meet new challenges

Rear Admirals Schoultz and Mhlana.The South Africa Navy (SAN) is facing ever increasing demands to perform with little in the way of extra resources, but is rising to meet the challenge.

So says the new Flag Office Fleet, Rear Admiral (Junior Grade) Bravo Mhlana. Speaking to defenceWeb minutes after the Change of Command Parade at Naval Base Simon’s Town on Friday, Mhlana said that the challenge for the SAN is based on the country’s commitment to the African continent.

“There is a lot expected from us as the Navy, in fact the Department of Defence at large, to perform responsibilities in our region, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and the African Union,” Mhlana explained.

Whilst often out of sight, the role that the SAN plays in the county’s security and diplomatic initiatives was clarified by outgoing Flag Office Fleet, Rear Admiral Philip Schoultz.

“The world we find ourselves in today is much changed from that which existed when I first joined the Navy in 1972. The Cold War and many other issues which then dominated the political landscape are today but distant memories,” Schoultz said.

“As the South African Navy moves into the future, it must continue to discharge its mandate in a manner whereby it nurtures and grows…, not only for itself, but for the benefit of all South Africans and even further afield to the application of the military component of sea power,” he continued.

“Given our country’s geostrategic position and our reliance on the sea for trade,” he noted, “I expect that our country will increasingly remind our Navy to extend its influence and to protect its political and economic interests.”

Schoultz went on to say that he foresees that it will be expected of the Navy to increase the operational availability of their ships, submarines and maritime forces.

“You will have to do this without any expectation of an increase in resources given to you. Furthermore,” Schoultz said, “you will have to do it in the eye of a very watchful public.”

These sentiments were echoed by Mhlana, who told defenceWeb that the Navy had to meet these challenges without any additional resources.

“With the little that we have we have to prioritise to make sure the priorities that are set out by our Principals are actually well taken care of, [and] complied with. But it’s been done, we can improvise and still achieve what needs to be achieved.”

The Navy has spent considerable resources in ensuring that it stays relevant in the current economic and political environment. At one stage in the previous three years, the fleet replenishment ship SAS Drakensberg spent 230 days away with only three weeks break in between. Offshore patrol vessels such as SAS Isaac Dyobha and SAS Galeshewe spent up to eight weeks on deployment. This, Schoultz noted, was not something they were designed for, both in terms of the amount of time away and people living on board.

Even the submarine SAS Charlotte Maxeke has spent up to eight weeks on patrol, whilst the frigates SAS Amatola, Isandlwana and Spioenkop have been rotating to the Mozambican Channel on Operation Copper anti-piracy patrols.

However, the sustained deployments have resulted in poor vessel availability and increased maintenance requirements and costs. The technical staff has been working increasingly hard, with limited manpower, to increase vessel availability. So much so that in December the Navy had 50% of all available vessels at sea.

Not only had the Navy managed to maintain its operational capability, but it also re-established Naval Base Durban, brought the old strikecraft back as Offshore Patrol Vessels and improved many of the fleet's onshore facilities. All within the current budget allocation.

Despite these successes, Mhlana is well aware of the responsibility placed upon his shoulders and the pressure for the Navy to spend a lot of time at sea.

In addition to having a permanent presence on Operation Copper, the SAN is expected to also contribute to Operation Corona, the SA National Defence Force's (SANDF) border protection tasking.

Starting from April this year, the Navy will be required to spend an additional ten days each month for patrols at sea under Operation Corona.

With the increased requirement for days at sea, the SAN will not be able to rely on new Offshore and Inshore Patrol Vessels any time soon. The plan to purchase the new vessels under Project Biro has already been finalised by the Navy and is thought to have been escalated to Cabinet level. However, the timeline is not very clear. Complicating matters is that very little is expected to be done in the run up to national elections this year.

“I don’t see us having the first platform in the next three years,” Mhlana explained. “It’s part of the challenges the country is also facing in terms of other priorities. It will also affect national security.”

Mhlana is a former Umkhonto Wesizwe (MK) operative who joined the SAN in 1994. After completing basic training, he attended a Mine Countermeasures (MCM) course and served on various MCM vessels. After various other courses and certificates, he was appointed Navigation Officer aboard SAS Umhloti. He was also attached to the French surveillance frigate FNS Floreal in the Indian Ocean for three months.

After further courses, Mhlana took over command of the minesweeper SAS Kapa in July 2003 to March 2005, becoming the first African to command a SAN warship.

In January 2007 he was promoted to the rank of Captain (SAN) and appointed Officer Commanding of the frigate SAS Isandlwana. He also tasked as Task Force commander for various international naval exercises.

Mhlana graduated from the US Naval War College in June 2009 and was appointed as Officer Commanding of the frigate SAS Mendi in January 2010.

He was later promoted to Rear Admiral (Junior Grade) and served as Director Fleet Force Preparation prior to his recent promotion to Flag Officer Fleet.
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