Lobese grateful for efficient new inshore patrol vessels, but says more are needed

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Chief of the South African Navy, Vice Admiral Monde Lobese, has expressed gratitude that the Navy is receiving new inshore patrol vessels, which are far more efficient to operate than the four frigates, but has cautioned that three are not enough to secure South Africa’s waters.

Speaking during the naming and handing over ceremony of the second multi-mission inshore patrol vessel (MMIPV) SAS King Shaka Zulu in Durban on Friday, Lobese said “today is a good day for not only the South African Navy, but also the South African National Defence Force and the country as a whole,” especially as Damen Shipyards Cape Town is building the three vessels on time, in budget and to specification.

“As you can imagine, the SA Navy is very excited to have these MMIPVs, because they will greatly enhance our capabilities, due to their versatility,” his prepared remarks read. “As you can imagine, once all three ships are fully commissioned and operational, they will be very busy. I must however make the following position very clear. If you only have three vessels of the same class, the best you can do is to have one at a high level of capability, one at a lower level of capability and one in a maintenance cycle. If you do not do this, and try to operate these ships permanently, at some stage you will have none operationally available, because they will be all in maintenance at the same time.”

Lobese categorically stated that although the Navy is “very glad to have these ships,” it “will need money to operate them effectively. How much money, you ask. Well, my answer to that is, it depends. It depends on the sea conditions, it depends on how fast they sail and it depends on how many people they have onboard,” he explained: sailing at an economical speed of 12 knots, the MMIPVs use seven tons of diesel. At today’s diesel price that is approximately R200 000 per day. This is coupled with a full complement of 60 people, which means allowances, salaries and rations. But, when compared with a frigate of 180 people sailing at an economical speed of 18 knots, that uses 25 tons of diesel at this speed. “This costs about R730 000 per day in fuel alone,” Lobese pointed out, meaning that the MMIPVs cost only a third as much to operate. This is well and good for fishing patrols, but “if you want to send a naval warship into a hostile situation like we currently have in the north of Mozambique, then you send a frigate and not a MMIPV.”

Lobese told guests at Naval Base Durban that as the Navy, “we are very grateful to the Government for procuring these ships. However, we cannot do our work effectively with three of these ships. Like I explained to you, we will only ever have two of these ships at some level of operational capability at the same time, provided we get sufficient money. Our land area is 1.2 million square kilometres. However, our Exclusive Economic Zone is 1.5 million square kilometres, of which 466 000 square kilometres surround the Prince Edward Islands in the southern Atlantic Ocean.

“If we take our maritime security seriously, and if we want to protect our maritime economy, we need at least another 12 ships, of which six must be the larger offshore patrol vessels. I am absolutely convinced of the fact that over a 30 year period, the investment in these ships, and the overall benefit to our economy in preventing theft of our marine resources, as well as criminality on our oceans, makes the procurement of an additional 12 vessels, a very logical and rational choice.”

Lobese’s comments tie in with what Defence Minister Thandi Modise said in Parliament in May this year during the defence budget vote debate. She said the Department of Defence will lobby for the acquisition of larger warships once the three multi-mission inshore patrol vessels are delivered under Project Biro.

The SA Navy originally called for three multi mission offshore patrol vessels (MMOPVs) and three multi mission inshore patrol vessels to fulfil certain roles in ensuring the maritime security of the country. “Unfortunately, due to a shortage of funds, the original request of three MMOPVs was removed from the project and only the three MMIPVs were funded,” Lobese explained.

Multiple vessels are required to ensure maritime security and meet South Africa’s three international obligations pertaining to ships that sail in South African waters. “Firstly, as a country we must ensure that the waters are safe from criminal elements who can attack these vessels, like the scourge of piracy we have seen recently off the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Guinea,” Lobese explained. “Secondly, should these ships occur in distress, our country has the obligation to conduct search and rescue missions from our coastline all the way to the coast of Antarctica. Thirdly, our country has the obligation to conduct professional hydrographic services to these ships, by accurately charting the depth of our waters so that these vessels know where to sail safely.”

Constabulary roles

There are other roles the SA Navy must conduct, and these include constabulary roles such as inspecting fishing vessels to determine whether they have the required permits, inspecting vessels who may be suspected of smuggling illegal goods and people etc. Other roles such as defence diplomacy, exercises with other navies, and specific roles for the Navy itself are also conducted, Lobese explained.

“These multi mission inshore patrol vessels will largely focus on the constabulary roles, defence diplomacy and roles for the Navy itself,” according to Lobese, with the MMIPVs also taking on mine hunting, deep diving support and torpedo recovery duties (the deep diving support and torpedo recovery capabilities used to be conducted by the SAS Fleur, which was decommissioned in 2003).

The new 62 metre long vessels are too small to carry out offshore patrol duties, however, as the South African coastline is notorious for some of the roughest seas in the world. The seas hundreds of kilometres out at the edge of South Africa’s exclusive economic zone “are very rough, and although these MMIPVs may look very impressive, they are simply not large enough to effectively patrol our waters in these conditions. Thus, we simply must have larger multi mission offshore patrol vessels to work in these conditions,” Lobese maintains.

The first Project Biro vessel, SAS King Sekhukhune I (P1571), was handed over to the SA Navy in May last year, while SAS Chief Adam Kok (P1573) will be delivered in the third quarter of 2024. It is 55% complete, with crew training in progress.

Since SAS King Sekhukune I was commissioned last year, it has been busy with operational test and evaluation, testing functions like deep diving support, torpedo recovery, boarding operations etc. Some testing, such as towing another vessel of the same class, could not be completed, but now the SAS King Shaka Zulu has been received, these types of exercises can be completed.

“I must congratulate Damen Shipyards Cape Town, Armscor, the Defence Materiel Division and the SA Navy who all formed part of the Integrated Project Team for their absolutely sterling work of building these ships on time, in budget and to specification,” Lobese told those gathered at Naval Base Durban on 27 October. “This was indeed a monumental task, and serves as a testament to the willingness of various companies and organisations to come together to produce something that will benefit the people of South African for many years.”