Taken purely in terms of manpower and platforms there is no reason why the SA Navy should not be in the Gulf of Guinea, currently the continental piracy hotspot.
This is the view of military analyst Helmoed Heitman. The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) said the Gulf of Guinea experienced “an alarming increase in crew kidnappings” last year. This is in direct contrast with the African east coast where no incidents of piracy or kidnapping were reported off the Horn of Africa in 2019.
“The Valour Class frigates have the range to reach the Gulf of Guinea and patrol for a while before having to put in for fuel,” he said adding “time at sea could be considerably extended by sending SAS Drakensberg to replenish them”.
More value could be added to a SA Navy Gulf of Guinea deployment if Drakensberg was part of it along with a frigate for an extended patrol.
“This would provide a second platform and a second helicopter or even a third, as well as additional boats and personnel for boarding tasks.”
By way of explanation Heitman compared a deployment of this nature to the way the Royal Navy ran its South Atlantic station with a frigate and Rover Class AOR (auxiliary oiler resupply).
“The real issue is the Navy does not have sufficient ships to do the job.
“One distant patrol station such as the Mozambique Channel, let alone the Gulf of Guinea, ties up three or four ships as well as a replenishment platform.
“At present the Navy has only five ships capable of extended patrols – the four frigates and Drakensberg, to which the Protea replacement can be added in future. The planned OPVs (offshore patrol vessels) would have helped, although the actual requirement is for eight to 10, but the IPVs currently in build are irrelevant to this mission – as are the former strike craft now being used as so-called OPVS. They do not have the endurance, range or seakeeping for extended missions far from home; cannot carry a helicopter and are limited in terms of boarding parties.
“The Navy has sufficient ships to patrol South Africa’s home waters – and the islands it seems to forget – assuming it is given the necessary funds to properly maintain and refit its ships.
“It can also – just – maintain occasional patrols of the Mozambique Channel and do some patrolling of home waters – if tied into its sea training programme and assuming it receives the funds to refit and generally maintain its ships. It does not have enough ships to do both jobs properly. It certainly does not have the ships to deploy on regular or even frequent patrols in the Gulf of Guinea,” he said.
As an out-of-the box suggestion Heitman said the Navy “could conceivably deploy a submarine to the Gulf of Guinea to conduct monitoring and surveillance operations, which could prove educational for all concerned”.
He points to the examples of Colombian and Dutch submarines used in the Caribbean as well as Canadian submarines against Spanish cod fishing vessels on the Grand Banks and US shrimp boats “popping across” the maritime border to poach.
In an ideal world Heitman sees the maritime service of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) with sufficient frigates and large patrol vessels plus at least two support ships. This would cover own waters, the Mozambique Channel and help in the Gulf of Guinea as well as joining patrol off Somalia and the Persian Gulf “from whence much of South Africa’s oil comes”.