For want of a better expression, the “radio silence” around last year’s first ever naval exercise involving China, Russia and South Africa has seen questions posed as to its worth from a maritime and national point of view.
It was first dubbed Exercise Mosi by the SA Navy with a subsequent request from the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) Directorate: Corporate Communications not to use it. It was to be called a joint naval exercise between the SA Navy and the navies of China (PLAN, the People’s Liberation Army Navy) and the Russian Federation.
The exercise was billed as a tri-nation exercise in safe navigation and maritime economic security which would involve an alongside phase in Simon’s Town and an at sea phase starting late in November. Both phases went off as planned and when the at sea phase was completed it appears participants steamed off to next destination/mission or port of call.
None of the vessels involved, with the exception of SAS Amatola (F145) and SAS Protea (A324), returned to the SA Navy home port Simon’s Town for any sort of debrief or media conference. Given it was the first time South Africa had exercised with two of the five BRICS (Brazil, Russian, India, China, South Africa) partners, military watchers including retired senior SA Navy officers, felt it “strange”.
Defence analyst Helmoed Heitman went further saying the exercise was “a superficial passex”.
“I do not think either country takes us or the national defence force seriously. For China we are a business opportunity, much like the rest of Africa. Russia is largely limited to a spoiling role against both the US and China; their economy is too small for what they are trying to do and their thinking officers must know that.
“I suspect the exercise, like the Russian bomber visit, was about trying to create the impression in impressionable minds that South Africa is now one of their allies and perhaps hoping our own inability to be intelligent in foreign policy will help establish that view and weaken our ties with western countries.”
A pair of Russian Tu-160 bombers visited South Africa, landing at Air Force Base Waterkloof, a month before the naval exercise. It was, as the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS) noted, the first touchdown in Africa of the aircraft, which is capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
Retired SA Navy admirals and captains spoken to by defenceWeb were unanimous in criticising the lack of communication (apart from certain areas of visiting ships being open to the public while berthed in Cape Town) and the absence of an ashore debrief at the end of the exercise.
“Given it was the first time South Africa worked with elements of the Chinese and Russian navies, one would have thought a debrief was essential,” said one with another saying: “If this was followed by a comprehensive press briefing it would have been even better. South Africans would have known what the Navy is doing and also benefitted the BRICS partnership”.
Another pointed to the lack of information for public consumption coming from the at sea sector of the exercise. “We’ll never know whether it was just a ships passing exercise or whether work was done on aspects such as anti-submarine warfare,” a no longer serving two star admiral told defenceWeb.
Heitman was also critical of “scarce sea days” used during the exercise.