Navy playing Op Copper cards close to the chest – military observers not impressed


An SA Navy decision not to comment on an Operation Copper anti-piracy deployment has not improved the public image or perception of the maritime service of the national defence force, with experts cautioning this is a step backwards in terms of transparency.

When defenceWeb earlier this month requested some detail on an apparent upcoming deployment to the Mozambique Channel the official SA Navy response was: “This is an operational matter and we cannot comment on it”.

Information on previous deployments has not – apparently – been considered “operational” and defenceWeb has reported regularly on the use of Valour Class frigates, offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) and even the fleet replenishment platform SAS Drakensberg (A301) to deter piracy and improve maritime security in the Mozambique Channel.

The last deployment, that of SAS Amatola (F145), which got no further than Durban due to technical and manpower problems as well as bad weather in the form of Cyclone Idai, was also reported by defenceWeb.

The lack of information on the next deployment has been termed “a step backward for transparency,” with one expert pointing out “as it’s not a covert operation, information should not be secret at all”.

The experts are African Defence Review Director Darren Olivier, and Kobus Marais, opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party MP who is shadow defence and military veterans minister.

“The decision to keep the basic details of the next Operation Copper deployment secret is a step backward for transparency and cannot reasonably be justified on the basis of ‘operational security,” Olivier stated.

“There is no element of surprise to maintain, as word will spread quickly among relevant communities the moment the ship enters the operational area. In this modern era pirates and other non-state actors are well-informed and connected.

“Instead, not making basic information about the deployment public only hurts the Navy and the SANDF as a whole, by squandering a chance to show South Africa’s voters why the force remains relevant and important and why it needs protection from further budget cuts.

“The more secretive the SANDF becomes, and this has been a regressive trend for the past few years, the harder it will become to maintain public support,” is how Olivier summed up the lack of information.

Wearing his parliamentary hat, Marais rightly states Operation Copper deployments are nowhere near covert.

“Information on these deployments should not be secret at all. More transparency is needed on deployments and projects to assure proper Parliamentary oversight, value for money and compliance with the Constitution. We know when troops and assets are deployed outside South Africa’s borders, the President must issue a letter to Parliament outlining time, reason, estimated cost and length of the operation,” he said.

Marais maintains regional safety and security is non-negotiable to reduce possible risks to South Africa “but taxpayers need to know money is utilised in the most effective way”.

He told defenceWeb he will request the Presidential authorisation and if that is not forthcoming the Defence Ministry will be on the receiving end of a formal Parliamentary question.