Civil unrest, COVID-19 and natural disaster delay delivery of new Navy platforms

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Floods, civil unrest and the COVID-19 pandemic have substantially delayed the South African Navy’s Project Biro (for multi-mission inshore patrol vessels) and Project Hotel (for a hydrographic vessel to replace SAS Protea) as well as ancillary equipment such as motorboats and improvements to the Navy’s Hydrographic Office.

This is according to SA Navy (SAN) Deputy Chief, Rear Admiral Bubele Mhlana, who updated Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Defence (JSCD) last week on the Navy’s submarine and frigate refit plans as well as the status of Hotel and Biro.

One of three new multi-mission inshore patrol vessels (MMIPVs) being acquired under Project Biro – SAS King Sekhukhune I (P1571) – has been delivered and is in service. Vessels two and three, under construction at Damen Shipyard Cape Town (DSCT), are 90% and 57% complete with a revised delivery date of February 2026 – force majeure was named the obstructing factor.

DSCT was awarded the Project Biro contract in January 2018, with an initial completion date of February 2025. Biro covers the three MMIPVs, three boarding boats, three sea boats, and two boarding boat trailers as well as associated logistics support.

Project Biro will cost R3.8 billion, and to date R2.9 billion has been spent, with R855 million outstanding. Mhlana’s presentation estimated an escalation cost of R592 million due to inflation.

As far as the SAS Protea’s replacement is concerned, Mhlana told parliamentarians there are three “key outstanding deliverables” on the new hydrographic survey vessel (HSV). They are listed as cable and equipment installation and the vessel’s fit-out inspection. The envisaged handover date is March 2025, although an accelerated handover date of October 2024 is being targeted. The vessel is due to be launched in March next year.

In addition to the HSV being built by Sandock Austral Shipyards (SAS) in Durban, Project Hotel covers the acquisition of three survey motor boats, one sea boat, and the upgrade of the shore-based Hydrographic Office. Sandock was awarded the HSV contract in October 2017.

The HSV is presently 46% completed, with current work focussing on cable laying, placing of equipment etc. The funnels have not been completed as they are being used as access points for outfitting and commissioning. The SA Navy Hydrographic Office upgrades, meanwhile, have been fully completed. The Project Hotel boats have been completed and are currently in storage.

Project Hotel will cost R2.7 billion, and to date R1.9 billion has been spent.

In closing, Mhlana told parliamentarians “operationalising the SAN refit plan and successful delivery” of all Hotel and Biro ships “will enable the SANDF/SAN to ensure South Africa is a true maritime nation”. This includes having access to the sea as well as the country having “a secure and safe maritime domain” and “a vibrant and effective shipbuilding, maintaining and repairing industry”.