Only one of SA Navy’s four frigates operational; no submarines serviceable

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The majority of the South African Navy’s primary combat vessels are not operational, with the frigate SAS Mendi’s seaworthiness prioritised for Armed Forces Day and Exercise Mosi II.

This is according to an Armscor presentation to the Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans (PCDMV) on 15 February, which detailed the maintenance status of the SA Navy’s frigates and submarines.

The presentation explained that the frigate SAS Amatola is currently in a Docking and Essential Defect (DED) period, but work was temporarily suspended to prioritise the SAS Mendi, which was required for Armed Forces Day operations. The Mendi took part in AFD and Exercise Mosi II off the coast of Richards Bay along with the hydrographic survey vessel SAS Protea, and the first new inshore patrol vessel, SAS King Sekhukhune I.

Work on the SAS Amatola will resume in March, with a current estimated completion date of three months after receipt of outstanding spares and subject to the completion of repairs on the SAS Spioenkop. The latter is currently undergoing “ad-hoc maintenance and repairs of the hull and structure.” Completion of this work is dependent on the SA Navy providing customer furnished spares (CFS) – maintenance will be completed within one month from the receipt of spares.

The fourth and final frigate, SAS Isandlwana, is currently undergoing ad-hoc maintenance and repairs of the mast and flight decks. Armscor stated that the masts will be completed within six months. “This is part of the continuous refurbishment activities to keep the sub-systems serviceable, as the vessel will be in a perpetual maintenance phase.”

With regard to the submarines, the SAS Mantatisi is currently undergoing Docking and Essential Defect (DED) maintenance, which is due to be completed in March subject to successful approvals of all post-maintenance trials.

The SAS Queen Modjadji is currently undergoing preservation and pre-refit planning activities, in preparation for a refit. The procurement process for services is currently underway, with a requirement received from the Navy on 6 February 2023. Armscor estimates the contracting process will take approximately 140 days.

Funding to complete the refit of the SAS Charlotte Maxeke is available and the submarine is currently “in refit process” with Armscor providing project management. “Armscor Dockyard is currently going through a procurement process to contract a local supplier for support services. Bids are currently being evaluated and contracting will be completed within the next month.”

The latest defence budget vote, released in February, showed that the Maritime Defence component of the SANDF is getting R4.9 billion for the 2023/24 financial year, as well as in 2024/25, and R5.2 billion in 2025/26. Of the R4.9 billion allocated for 2023/24, just R1.45 billion is going towards Maritime Combat Capability, with the remaining on logistics support, human resources, base support etc. but the majority of funds (R2.3 billion) is allocated to salaries.

The defence budget allocation states that the SA Navy will defend and protect South Africa and its maritime zone by providing three frigates, one combat support vessel (the SAS Drakensberg), two offshore patrol vessels, and three inshore patrol vessels per year as well as two submarines a year. The Navy will conduct four coastal patrols and spend 8 000 hours at sea a year.

Budget cuts mean there is no funding for mid-life upgrades/refits of the SA Navy’s three submarines and four frigates. These vessels will have to wait until at least 2033/35 before sufficient funding becomes available for this.

Due to limited funding, only one of four frigates (SAS Amatola) was partially refitted in 2014/15 and one of three submarines (SAS Manthatisi) was refitted in 2013/14. Funding for refitment of the remaining three frigates – SAS Isandlwana, SAS Spioenkop and SAS Mendi and for submarine SAS Queen Modjadji I – has not been available since this work became due, according to the Department of Defence (DoD).

According to the DoD, the average cost estimate for a frigate refit is R687 million with a submarine refit costing R660 million.

Pending the conduct of the outstanding refits, the SA Navy is currently focused on prioritising essential maintenance and repair of the frigates Spioenkop and Mendi, the combat support vessel SAS Drakensberg and submarine Manthatisi to ensure operational availability.

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.

Defence minister Thandi Modise, in response to a question on SANDF maintenance backlogs from the Economic Freedom Fighters, stated in a recent parliamentary reply that, “within the SA Navy environment, the frigates and submarines of the SA Navy are being maintained in accordance with the available budget. Maintenance contracts to enhance maintenance on these vessels are extended as and when funding becomes available. There is currently a delay in availability of the logistic supply vessel of the SA Navy as a result of unavailability of spares and non-performance by the appointed maintenance contractor. These delays have been addressed and mitigating steps have been implemented.”