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SA Navy needs more than three offshore and three inshore patrol vessels - expert

The ESPS Relampagois. The design is competing for Project Biro.Although a welcome boost to the South African Navy and local shipbuilding industry, the six new inshore and offshore patrol vessels being acquired under project Biro have been criticised as being too few, with an expert suggesting at least eight offshore patrol vessels are needed to adequately patrol South Africa’s waters.

Defence analyst and former Defence Review committee member Helmoed Romer Heitman has suggested that three offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) are too few. “They are relatively small ships and will be limited in their ability to conduct patrols far from home without either a base or a local support arrangement, or a support ship in company. But they will be a very useful complement to the frigates,” he stated.

However, when it comes to the inshore patrol vessels (IPVs), Heitman is of the opinion that “the three 60 m IPVs now envisaged as part of Biro are an embarrassing misstep by the Navy and will be an entirely pointless expenditure,” because, “at 60 m they will be too large and complex to be the 'cheap and cheerful' equivalent to the old SDPs, to be used for close inshore work and more importantly to train and develop officers and ratings…At 60 m they will be too small to be really useful (the strike craft were good special operations platforms, but had the speed and the self-defence capability these vessels will lack.

“The Navy's experience with the strike craft demonstrated that 60 m is precisely the wrong hull length for SA waters: Shorter and the ride is lively but dry; longer and the ride is more comfortable and dry. At 60 m it is uncomfortable and wet, with real risk of damage in rough seas. Remember how many of the strike craft found themselves inadvertently doing a submarine crash dive imitation in rough seas.

“What we should be doing is increasing the OPV buy to at least four now, with a target - as per all of the previous studies - of twelve. Study of the DR [2014 Defence Review] will show that the absolute minimum number will be eight, accepting some gaps and some tasks falling to the frigates,” Heitman stated.

He suggests that the South African Navy should re-role the three refitted strike craft (and possibly a fourth) for the fast inshore patrol role as they will be able to do what the new IPVs will be able to do and will cost much less to bring to a standard for that role.

Heitman goes on to suggest that the IPV requirement should be revisited to develop a vessel of somewhere around 30 to 40 m, “which will be cheap and simple and good enough for patrolling port environs - and ideal for training.”

The acquisition of the six IPVs/OPVs will be a major boost to the local shipbuilding industry as 60% local content is required. All the major shipyards in South Africa are bidding for Project Biro, as well as Project Hotel, for a new hydrographic survey ship.

However, Heitman believes that “kick-starting a proper ship-building industry should be done with a substantial buy of a single class,” ideally OPVs and not IPVs to complement the four Meko class frigates.

Prasheen Maharaj, CEO of Southern African Shipyards (SAS), told defenceWeb that in terms of economies of scale, it would be better to have six of one type rather than three of each. He said from a selfish point of view, it would be better to have larger and bigger vessels. Such an expanded project would have a greater economic impact on the local economy.

Southern African Shipyards (SAS), as the largest shipyard in South Africa, is bidding for Project Biro and is offering Vard (formerly STX) designs to meet the requirements. SAS plans to function as a prime contractor, bringing in different subcontractors and suppliers, such as Denel Integrated Systems and Maritime. If it gets the contract, it would then be able to offer the design to other customers, particularly in Africa.

Another shipyard that is bidding for Biro is Paramount Naval Systems (incorporating the military side of Nautic Africa), which is partnering with Navantia for the OPVs and with Austal for the three IPVs. Eddie Noble, Project Director: Vessel Operations for Nautic South Africa, told defenceWeb that Austal is offering its Cape Class patrol vessels for Biro – these are currently in service with the Australian Customs and Border Protection service.

For the OPV component, Noble said that Paramount and Navantia are offering the Avante class vessel. Between 19 and 22 December 2012 the Spanish Navy’s Avante 3000 class OPV ESPS Relámpagois paid an informal visit to Cape Town.

Noble said that it was likely the IPV and OPV tenders would be awarded to different local shipyards. In addition to Paramount Naval Systems/Nautic Africa and Southern African Shipyards, the other main Biro competitor is Damen Shipyards Cape Town. Other companies interested in Biro include Germany’s Abeking & Rasmussen and China’s Poly Technologies.

Noble said that although Biro’s split orders were relatively small, they would still be a very welcome boost for the South African shipbuilding industry and would allow local companies to market the designs elsewhere in Africa. “There is a lot of opportunity elsewhere,” he said. Vessel designs for Biro could be sold across the continent and built as well as maintained in South Africa.

The six new Biro hulls are expected to be taken into service in three to four years from now and will, at least initially, work alongside the current OPVs. These are the converted Warrior Class strikecraft SAS Isaac Dyobha, SAS Galeshewe and SAS Makhanda.

“Project Biro’s expanded capacity would then enable South Africa to mount cheaper, more focused and more effective missions and operations against the threats and challenges it encounters in its maritime domain, especially illegal fishing and trafficking. This improved capacity will be of immediate and immense national benefit. Of particular interest will be the possible impact on maritime security in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the rest of Africa and beyond,” according to Timothy Walker, Researcher, Conflict Management and Peacebuilding Division, ISS Pretoria.

“The IPVs would patrol South Africa’s coast and territorial waters for criminal activities, while the helicopter-equipped OPVs would have the ability to operate further out into South Africa’s exclusive economic zone and the high seas.

“South Africa needs Project Biro to better police its huge maritime domain, which is 1 553 000 square kilometres in size and often labelled its ‘10th province’. Claiming sovereignty over such a large area also gives South Africa substantial international duties and obligations, as recognised and envisioned in the Defence Review. These include search and rescue, hydrography, disaster response and assistance, peace support operations and naval diplomacy,” Walker pointed out.

Armscor issued the Biro tenders on 3 December last year. The OPV acquisition has been planned for quite a number of years, initially as a concept to acquire 10 multi-mission hulls to replace the remaining Warrior-class and River-class mine hunters. The date tenders close for Project Biro has been extended to 30 September this year while Project Hotel tender bids close on 30 June.

Speaking during her recent budget vote address in the National Assembly, Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said: “Maritime crime and piracy in Southern African Development Community (SADC) waters has necessitated maritime patrols on our east coast, while we remain mindful of similar challenges on the west coast (of Africa)”.

The South African anti-piracy effort – Operation Copper - is a SADC one along with Mozambique and was earlier this year extended until March next year by SA National Defence Force (SANDF) Commander-in-Chief President Jacob Zuma. He indicated the deployment of 220 SANDF members (mostly SA Navy with the SA Air Force and SA Military Health Service also contributing) would cost R127 027 773 until March 31, 2016.

Walker notes that the vessels planned for in Project Biro would free up the navy’s existing small fleet of fatigued frigates from continuous patrol duties for which they were neither designed, nor purchased.

In Moscow the Minister recently gave an insight into South Africa’s maritime security strategy to an international security conference. “Maritime security,” she said, “is a key component of collective security, stability and peace, more so today, in a multi-polar world order. Our oceans encompass almost 70% of the earth's surface and carry more than 80% of global trade.

“All nations, whether coastal or landlocked, are to a greater or lesser extent dependent on the sea for the continued success of their economies and hence the well-being of their peoples. The freedom of nations to use the highways provided by the oceans to ply their trade to all the corners of the earth is the basis for this dependence.

“In the case of Africa, the importance of maritime trade for economic development and regional integration cannot be over-emphasised. About 90% of the total trade of our continent is seaborne. Ships remain the means to trade between continents and islands.

“Closer to home, in SADC, about 30% of the world oil supply passes through the Mozambique Channel annually. Consequently, the ability to trade, as well as the principle of the freedom of the seas, is central to any policy and planning of the security of the region.

“It was for this reason the continent and the SADC region recognised the rise in maritime insecurity around the Horn of Africa as a detriment to security of states as well as to the continent’s economy. In particular, piracy and maritime crime is negatively impacting on the economies of African states connected to the Indian Ocean as well as Indian Ocean Island States whose economies depend to a great extent on tourism.

“These aspects of maritime criminality include illegal fishing, plundering of maritime resources, illegal exploitation of minerals and hydrocarbons and the trafficking/smuggling of illegal goods, weapons, people and drugs. Piracy also targets hydrocarbons and natural gas exploration and drilling at sea. There have been instances where vessels carrying gas to Indian Ocean Island States have been hijacked, significantly impacting on the supply of gas.

“The nature of SADC maritime security and the costs of piracy today call for a comprehensive approach to this global challenge of maritime piracy which entails short and long term initiatives,” she told delegates to the Moscow conference.

In April last year South African Chief of Naval Staff, Rear Admiral Rusty Higgs, said that Biro was important as no country can exercise control over its maritime domain without the ability to deploy naval patrols and that the four frigates are not enough to protect South Africa’s maritime domain.


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