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Technology a force multiplier for African maritime security

Maritime surveillance and patrol aircraft.Growing maritime threats off Africa’s coastline and new offshore oil and gas finds are driving the need for better maritime security while the drop in the oil price means securing oil and gas supplies is more important than ever as there is less margin for loss.

This is according to Hein van den Ende, Marketing Executive Sub-Saharan Africa at Saab, who told defenceWeb that West Africa’s oil and gas industry is facing a variety of threats, from piracy to sabotage and kidnapping for ransom, especially by militants looking for a share of oil revenues.

Van den Ende said threats are definitely growing in Africa, with more kidnappings in the early 2000s than now, but more attacks on infrastructure currently. Oil and gas facilities have been hit hard by the Niger Delta Avengers in recent time, for example. He said attackers are becoming more sophisticated and realise that sabotaging infrastructure makes a bigger difference than kidnapping. Attacks not only damage Nigeria’s economy through lost production but also cause pollution, which in turn affects fishermen.

According to Oceans Beyond Piracy, there were 95 attacks in West Africa's Gulf of Guinea in 2016, up from 54 the previous year. Cargo theft, once the main focus of piracy in the region, has given way to an increase in kidnappings, with 96 crew members taken hostage in 2016 compared to 44 in 2015. Oceans Beyond Piracy estimated the total economic cost of maritime crime in West Africa at nearly $794 million.

Apart from militants and pirates, fishermen also interfere with the oil and gas industry by illegally fishing around platforms and getting their nets caught in them – fish are attracted to the platforms’ lights. Van den Ende said such facilities need to be monitored to prevent vessels sailing around them.

West Africa has a relatively shallow coastline, making oil and gas extraction relatively easy, but East African fields are deeper and farther out to sea – as a result the East coast oil and gas industry is far safer. However, off East Africa the biggest maritime threat is from pirates, which have become resurgent of late and launched a string of attacks against vessels off the Horn of Africa. In the first three months of 2017 armed pirates hijacked two vessels, both off the coast of Somalia, where no merchant ship had been hijacked since May 2012. Twenty-eight crew were taken hostage and released within a relatively short time.

The situation in South Africa is much better, with no great threat to the oil and gas industry, but the big challenge is securing the country’s ports. This is especially important in light of the blue economy component of Government’s Operation Phakisa, which is trying to leverage South Africa’s geographic position to become a vessel and oil and as maintenance and repair hub for Africa. Money has been invested in South Africa’s ports, including Saldanha, which requires harbour security and the tracking of vessel movement along the coast.

In April last year President Jacob Zuma said more than R17 billion had been unlocked in the national economy since the launch of the blue economy sector of Operation Phakisa in 2014 and 4 500 jobs created. R7 billion has been allocated to Transnet National Ports Authority to improve ports.

Unlocking the economic potential of South Africa’s ocean focuses on six priority potential growth areas. They are marine transport and manufacturing, offshore oil and gas exploration, aquaculture, marine protection services and ocean governance, small harbours development and coastal and marine tourism.

Unlocking such potential also requires security. According to defence analyst Helmoed Romer Heitman, the whole region, and not just South Africa, needs to be secure from a maritime perspective. “We need the region around us to be stable, secure and prosperous. The better off they are, the more they can buy from us and the fewer illegal immigrants we will have.”

Saab is offering technology to counter threats before they arrive at oil and gas facilities and equip African countries with technology to monitor their assets – both offshore and on land. One of the company’s most successful products is its TactiCall tactical communications solution that is being used in the North Sea. TactiCall is also used by the South African Navy. The system integrates a multitude of different frequency bands, networks and radio equipment into one central user interface solution that makes communication easy, secure and seamless.

Saab also has coastal monitoring solutions in China and India to monitor vessel movement around platforms. Such vessel traffic management systems (VTMS), like its MaritimeInsight, can include a command and control room on land, AIS beacons on platforms and radar and elctro-optical surveillance systems. Standalone detection systems like Saab’s R5 Supreme AIS Transponder System can detect vessels of all sizes from up to 30 km away, give crew sufficient time to identify any vessel approaching, and to call for assistance should they interpret an incoming vessel to be a threat.

“Our biggest strength as Saab is the fact that we can provide a complete solution,” van den Ende said, in a scalable package, including vessel tracking, communications, coastal radar, subsea remotely operated vehicles and other solutions like maritime surveillance aircraft (MSAs). Van den Ende said a maritime surveillance aircraft is the “holy grail” of solutions as it can monitor an entire coastline at a lower cost than ships.

Van den Ende pointed out that because the price of oil has dropped, any losses are more severe and security is actually becoming more of a focus since the oil price drop. He said Saab attended an oil and gas assembly in France and was approached by a number of companies looking for security solutions.

The oil and gas/energy sector is one of Saab’s focus areas as there is a lot of growth in this market, van den Ende said, noting that more sophisticated threats need more sophisticated solutions. “We want to be seen as your security partner in the oil and gas industry. I don’t think there’s any better partner than any partner who can manufacture Gripen fighter jets to submarines.”

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