Affordable technologies can help with South Africa’s maritime security shortcomings


Affordable technologies are available to assist South Africa regain lost maritime security capabilities, with the creation of a coastal surveillance network one solution.

This is according to Anthony Green, Product Strategy Executive at Reutech Radar Systems. He was speaking at the recent Maritime Security Conference 2021 event earlier this month.

He noted the declining South African defence budget and loss of capabilities. Between 1998 and 2011 there was a gradual increase in the defence budget but after 2011 there was a net progressive decrease. This is against international trends that saw a levelling off since 2011 and then an uptick of international defence spending. “We have a declining budget in monetary terms and in reality it’s likely to continue. We can only hope it stabilises at some point,” he said.

“We need to keep the fleet at sea and on patrol. There is a very nice expression you cannot control what you cannot patrol,” he said, adding that South Africa’s ocean economy deserves protection – Operation Phakisa is a fine example of how this is being quantified. However, challenges include budget constraints, limited human and equipment resources, long irregular coastlines, vast oceans that South Africa is responsible for and the impunity of transgressors of South Africa’s exclusive economic zone. “Illegal fishing in our waters is an often spoken about topic – it’s not just here, it’s everywhere from Argentina to Australia and the European Union,” he told the conference.

“Our maritime protection assets are amongst others the four frigates we have, the three submarines, the three new inshore patrol vessels, the four Forestry and Fisheries vessels and the SA Navy auxiliary vessels that also fulfil a possible patrol role.

“We’ve also had historical losses – the static coastal surveillance radars that lined South Africa’s shores after 1945 are gone; the long range and medium range maritime patrol aircraft are gone; many of the strike craft, of which there was a relatively large flotilla, are mostly gone too (I believe there’s only two of them left). So we’ve gained something and we’ve lost something. So what can be done about it?” Green asked.

“What I’m proposing is, we can’t do it all so we need to follow some kind of 80:20 rule that says spend what we have on that which will make the most difference and focus on the trouble areas – intelligence on where trouble areas is is all important – and lastly, apply technological innovations.”

Green pointed out that South Africa’s maritime economy was protected as of 1945: “there was a war on the go, so it had to be. They had a network of coastal surveillance radars all around the country. These were a combination of South African built and foreign-supplied radar systems. These concrete structures are still in existence in many places around the country.

“There are affordable technologies that can help within budgetary constraints and in this sense I would say we need to revisit the creation of a coastal surveillance network with multi sensor installations.”

A shore-based system could comprise coastal radar, navigation radar direction finding, AIS, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and cameras. Green said many vessels operating illegally turn off their AIS, so they need to be detected via other means like active radar. Another option is using passive sensors to detect a ship’s navigation radar and identify its location. As illegal fishing trawlers often have radar warning receivers, one option is to use low probability of intercept radars.

Active and passive radar could be used in conjunction with daylight, uncooled and cooled thermal imaging cameras as well as unmanned aerial vehicles, Green said, as this would provide a relatively low cost solution to South Africa’s maritime security shortcomings.