No midlife refits coming anytime soon for SAN frigates and submarines


National Treasury has stated that there is little scope for additional funding for the mid-life refit of the South African Navy’s frigates and submarines, in spite of pleas from Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans and warnings that the non-availability of naval platforms due to a lack of maintenance is affecting the ability of the Navy to fulfil its constitutional mandate.

In its Budgetary Review and Recommendation Report (BRRR) from the end of November 2021, the Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans (PCDMV) said it was aware of the fiscal constraints facing National Treasury and noted its previous response to the BRRR that no funds were available for a ring-fenced allocation to fund the midlife upgrades of SA Navy vessels, but the PCDMV again recommended funds be reprioritised to upgrade the frigate and submarine fleets in the coming years.

“The non-availability of naval platforms due to maintenance requirements results in the SA Navy not achieving its targets for coastal patrols and sea hours, thus affecting its constitutional mandate to ensure the territorial integrity of South Africa. Additional funding over the medium-term for the midlife upgraders are therefore essential,” the BRRR stated.

The mid-life upgrades on both the SA Navy’s frigates and submarines are currently on hold due to a lack of funds. “The fact that these midlife upgrades have been put off for multiple years not only impact the SA Navy’s operational capacity, but may well result in more expensive upgrades being required in the long-term.”

According to a response to the PCDMV by Armscor, there will be no mid-life upgrade of the frigates until at least 2033 while there will be no mid-life upgrades for the submarines until 2035.

The BRRR recommended the minister of finance should consider an additional ring-fenced allocation to fund the midlife upgrades of SA Navy vessels in need of such upgrades, but the minister noted there is little scope for additional funding and instead advised departments to identify areas of reprioritisation, including by improving their internal efficiency.

In August 2021, the Department of Defence told the PCDMV that for the 2021/22 financial year, the SA Navy’s vessel refit as well as maintenance and repair full cost requirement of R1.470 billion was only 53.4% funded, with R786 million allocated.

Due to historic and current funding shortages, only one of the four frigates, SAS Amatola, was partially refitted in 2014/15 and only one of the three submarines, SAS Manthatisi, was refitted in 2013/14. Funding for the refit of the remaining three frigates (SAS Isandlwana, SAS Spioenkop and SAS Mendi) and for the Submarine SAS Queen Modjadji I was not available since they became due for refits, the DoD said. Queen Modjadji I is overdue for a refit.

SAS Manthathisi is currently operational and was scheduled to undergo further scheduled maintenance and repairs in the second half of 2021. Additional funding to complete the refit of the SAS Charlotte Maxeke by the end of 2023 has been made available by the SA Navy.

SAS Spioenkop is operational while the SAS Mendi recently started sea trials after eight years of maintenance.

According to the Department of Defence, the average cost estimate for a frigate refit amounts to R687 million and that of a submarine refit amounts to R660 million.

Pending the conduct of the outstanding refits, the SA Navy’s current focus is to prioritise essential maintenance and repair of the frigates SAS Spioenkop and SAS Mendi, the combat support ship SAS Drakensberg and the Submarine SAS Manthatisi to ensure their expedited operational availability.