SA Navy looking to replace SAS Drakensberg

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The South African Navy will soon start a project to replace its combat support vessel SAS Drakensberg, which is nearly 40 years old and which has not been to sea for quite some time.

This is according to SA Navy Chief, Vice Admiral Monde Lobese, who was speaking during the naming and acceptance ceremony of the second new multi-purpose inshore patrol vessel (MMIPV) SAS King Shaka Zulu at Naval Base Durban last month.

Lobese mentioned that the SA Navy used to operate a number of different vessel types, namely submarines, offshore patrol vessels, frigates, a combat support vessel, a hydrographic survey vessel, anti-mine warfare vessels (mine hunters), deep diving support and torpedo recovery vessels. The submarines and frigates were replaced during the Arms Deal about 20 years ago, whilst a new Hydrographic Survey Vessel is currently being built by Sandock Austral Shipyards in Durban. The three new MMIPVs will take over the mine hunting, deep diving support and torpedo recovery roles of previous vessels, and some patrol duties.

“The SA Navy is currently in the process to containerise the anti-mine warfare capability through Project Motso, so that it can be placed on these vessels,” Lobese explained. “This capability is absolutely vital, because even a threat of a seamine can close a port like Durban for weeks on end. This will have devastating consequences for our economy. It requires specialised equipment and highly trained personnel and is a vital capability for any Navy to have.”

According to Lobese, the SAS Drakensberg will be replaced with a new vessel, and this project will start soon. It is not clear how this will be funded, as the Navy already had to cut its patrol vessel numbers under Project Biro from six to three – Lobese has called for an additional 12 inshore and offshore patrol vessels to adequately project South Africa’s maritime domain.

“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 prepared remarks for the naming ceremony of the SAS King Shaka Zulu on 27 October read.

The SA Navy has been exploring a Drakensberg replacement for quite some time. In 2015, Flag Officer Fleet, Rear Admiral Bubele Bravo Mhlana, currently Deputy Navy Chief, said “We are presently taking serious strain as the Drakensberg, for the last one and a half years, has been going through major maintenance. When it is not there, you are very limited in terms of reach, in terms of sustainment of the operations in distant areas.”

Mhlana said at the time that Drakensberg is a useful ship and a major force multiplier and consequently studies had commenced into a potential replacement. “The replacement class may end up being more than one vessel as we really feel Drakensberg’s absence when she goes into an extended maintenance period,” he added.

In addition to being used as a replenishment ship, SAS Drakensberg has also been used to patrol for pirates in the Mozambique Channel as part of Operation Copper. In April 2012 she helped European warships catch seven Somali pirates in the Channel.

SAS Drakensberg was launched in April 1986 by Sandock Austral and commissioned into service in November the following year. She has a full load displacement of 12 500 tons and a length of 147 metres. She can carry 5 500 tons of fuel, 750 tons of ammunition and dry stores and 210 tons of fresh water. In addition, 50 000 litres of fresh water can be made every day. Two Oryx helicopters, two landing craft and two RHIBs can be accommodated on board as well.

The Drakensberg is the largest ship built in South Africa to date and is reportedly the first naval vessel to be completely designed in the country. In addition to her replenishment role she is employed on search and rescue duties, patrol and surveillance duties and has considerable potential for use in disaster relief.

The SAS Drakensberg has not been to sea for the last four years. The Navy originally hoped to have a replacement around 2021.