Retiring Navy Chief sounds alarm

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After eight long and challenging years, outgoing Chief of the South African Navy, Vice Admiral Mosiwa Hlongwane, sounded a warning to politicians to ensure that the Navy is adequately funded to enable it to continue securing the waters around South Africa.

It was an emotional day for now retired Hlongwane when he officially handed over the reins of the South African National Defence Force’s maritime arm to Vice Admiral Monde Lobese at a Change of Command Parade held at Naval Base Simon’s Town on Tuesday 6 December (Lobese was officially appointed Chief of the SA Navy on 1 November).

Hlongwane, appointed as Chief of the SA Navy on 1 April 2014, commenced the day with a Fleet Review of the Navy vessels moored alongside in the Naval Base before the commencement of the Parade.

In his address to the dignitaries present, Hlongwane noted that the rejuvenation and strengthening of the SA Navy requires “that change becomes a constant” and that every new set of challenges requires a different leader.

He emphasised that the “maritime domain draws attention to a broad array of real and potential threats that could result in mass casualties and inflict catastrophic economic harm to South Africa and the region. In addition to loss of revenue, these threats could fuel violence and insecurity.”

Continuing, Hlongwane stated that 96% of South Africa’s imports and exports in terms of tonnage moves by sea, with 95% of South Africa’s crude oil imports arriving via the sea.

“Over 55% of South Africa’s GDP is generated by maritime trade,” Hlongwane said. “Without a doubt, this country, this region and our beloved continent rely heavily on the sea.”

He emphasised that as the actors threatening the South African maritime domain continue to grow in numbers and capability, there must be a corresponding effort to address these at national and regional level.

In this regard, said Hlongwane: “Realistically, the less capacitated and struggling SA Navy is unable to respond effectively to these aforesaid threats. The force design of the SA Navy has proven inadequate and that is attributed to the decommissioning of obsolete vessels, declining maintenance capabilities, the lack of acquisition of other strategic vessels and the constant deferral of vessel maintenance and mid-life refits. All these issues have a common denominator, namely constant budget cuts.”

Hlongwane repeated the statement made by former Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula during her budget vote speech in Parliament in 2018, when she said: “The persistent and continued dramatic downward trend in real terms of the funding allocation to defence has reached a point where the Department of Defence runs the risk of losing more of its essential capabilities in addition to those already lost. South Africa has now reached the point where it must make a decision on the kind of Defence Force it wants and what it can afford.”

Hlongwane confirmed that the SA Navy was “no longer a mission-driven force” and that the Navy had “lost our initiative, our agility and as a result we are losing freedom of action in our operations. If the status is to remain unchanged, in a few years to come the South African Navy will be harbour bound,” he said. “If nothing is done now, whatever is in future might be done too late. Good timing in a dynamic maritime environment is everything. As the Chinese proverb cautions, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now.”

Hlongwane pointed out, however, that “these ills and threats are not utterly beyond our control – we can mitigate the situation. Let me state it simply, if our country can spend one billion Rands on the SA Navy, it will save many billions of Rands in preventing lost revenue, stopping crime and feeding our people.”

Despite the critical funding shortfall, Hlongwane reiterated that the Navy has enhanced its strategic influence through “the execution of a strengthened defence diplomacy strategy which empowers the SA Navy to pursue critical multilateral security objectives, capacitate multilateral institutions, and develop regional and continental partnership and direct participation in bilateral mechanisms.”

Hlongwane mentioned some of the highlights during his term as Chief Navy, including the adoption of the Naval Hydrographic Plan, the approval of an SADC Integrated Maritime Security Strategy, participating in Exercise Mosi, the SA Navy’s first joint multinational exercise with the People’s Republic of China and Russia (the second iteration of which is due to take place in February next year) and most significantly, the realization of Project Biro (the acquisition of three Multi-Mission Inshore Patrol Vessels to replace the elderly Warrior class strike craft) and Project Hotel (the capacitation of the SA Navy Hydrographic capability by replacing the ageing SAS Protea with a Hydrographic Survey Vessel and three Survey Motor boats as well as upgrading the South African Naval Hydrographic Office).

Speaking to defenceWeb after the Parade, Hlongwane reiterated that “it’s high time that the leadership realizes that South Africa needs a Navy and they must look after the Navy.”

He also noted that the new inshore patrol vessels, the first of which was delivered in May this year, were eagerly awaited as they will assist the Navy in terms of patrolling South Africa’s waters and were a legacy that he is leaving for the Navy. Nevertheless, the Navy actually requires six offshore patrol vessels and six inshore patrol vessels.

As for the task of the new naval Chief, Hlongwane said: “If we didn’t have budget constraints, we would have achieved much.” If the politicians took security seriously, “surely they’ll see the reality of funding the Navy and that is what will assist us but without them giving the Navy money, unfortunately, there’s not much that he can do,” Hlongwane said.

Hlongwane had some words for his successor, Vice Admiral Monde Lobese: “With political will, support by all stakeholders including the defence industry and more importantly, with the SA Navy members, you will take the SA Navy where it belongs – to sea. I wish you all the best and may God bestow on you a strength to navigate the SA Navy to the journey of greatness.”

“Without getting the support that he wants,” Hlongwane told defenceWeb, “it will be impossible for him to fulfil his mandate.”

As is custom, Hlongwane was then pulled by ceremonial gun carriage by his senior Officers from Martello Gate to Admiralty House, with the road lined by the Navy Battalion, flags and members of the public.