Proof positive the necessary skills are still available in and to the SA Navy (SAN) comes from its official quarterly publication which reports SAS Mendi (F148) is on her way back to full operational capability after “suffering catastrophic damage to her propulsion engines”.
The “damage” included total seizure of the Valour Class frigate’s starboard propulsion engine while on duty in the Mozambique Channel. “This defect was beyond repair and would eventually require both propulsion diesel engines be replaced,” the publication reported.
The will to make the ship fully seaworthy using the skills of SAN artisans and technicians in concert with their colleagues at the Armscor dockyard was available and saw work start on what Navy News termed “a difficult and highly technical process”. This involved, among others, cutting through deck plating to install special rigging equipment to move the engines.
“In addition to mechanical challenges posed by replacing engines, financial limitation also contributed to the vessel’s extended hiatus. Replacing main propulsion engines is expensive and with SAS Amatola (F145) undergoing a refit around the same time, resources had to be prioritised. This involved utilising working systems from Mendi on other operational vessels, further diminishing her capabilities. With the frigate slipping further from operational capability, many feared she might never return. It was not until December 2019 that Mendi’s second engine was installed,” Navy News reported.
Included in the lengthy list of challenges to be met and overcome en route to restoring all ship systems, were assembling and training a capable crew (initially under the command of Acting Officer Commanding Captain [SAN] S Ngidi, named Officer Commanding in December 2019) through to undertaking and passing sea acceptance and readiness checks (SARC).
“Completing the first two steps was a major undertaking lasting the best part of three years. Completing the third was Mendi’s target for 2021 and the most challenging to date. The short trip out of Simon’s Town harbour in April was part of the process and another step on the road to former glory. During that short journey, the crew proved the new engines are in good working condition and they have what it takes to tackle the rest of the process.
“While Mendi’s return to sea was important, there is still much work ahead. As long dormant systems are used again, small kinks and issues will show and must be ironed out. In addition, there is more training in the pipeline to complete the rigorous SARC process under the watchful eye of the operational sea training team (OSTT) – all part of the process to safely rotate a vessel back into the operational cycle.”
Mendi was the first SAN platform deployed in the Mozambique Channel on the Southern African Development Community (SADC) anti-piracy tasking Operation Copper in January 10 years ago. Subsequent deployments saw other Valour Class frigates, at least two of the current offshore patrol vessels as well as the SAN replenishment vessel SAS Drakensberg (A301) and SAS Protea (A324), the hydrographic platform due for replacement in the next three years, on station in the busy shipping lane.
The Department of Defence earlier this month said due to historic and current funding shortages, only one of the four Valour Class frigates, SAS Amatola (F145) was partially refitted in 2014/15 and one of the three submarines, SAS Manthatisi (S101) was refitted in 2013/14. Funding for the refit of the remaining frigates (SAS Isandlwana [F146], SAS Spioenkop [F147] and Mendi) and for the Type 209 submarine SAS Queen Modjadji 1 (S103) was not available since they became due for refits.
Pending the outstanding refits, the SAN current focus is to prioritise essential maintenance and repair of Spioenkop and Mendi, combat support ship SAS Drakensberg (A301) and submarine Manthatisi to ensure expedited operational availability.