Despite a productive year of operations, the South African Navy (SA Navy) still faces a number of critical challenges, primarily amongst these being an unfavourable budgetary disposition.
As thousands of visitors lined the quayside of Naval Base Simon’s Town this past weekend enjoying the annual SA Navy Festival, Vice Admiral Mosiwa Hlongwane, Chief of the SA Navy, briefed journalist about the current state of the Navy.
In his second year at the helm commanding the SA Navy, Hlongwane noted that although this period has been “a challenging and enjoyable period,” the SA Navy was operating under budgetary restrictions and new challenges that require different remedies and approaches.
Although the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has been forced to reduce capacity and operational effectiveness in order to stay within its meagre budget, it appears that once again the SANDF has been instructed to reduce its budget by R5 billion. This will have a direct effect on the Navy, which must reduce its budget allocation by a further R147 million.
“You can imagine how many things you could do with R147 million,” Hlongwane lamented.
As a result, the Navy Command Council will be meeting to discuss the budget cut and the implications thereof.
The man tasked with command and control of all vessels and units of the Navy is Rear Admiral Bubele Mhlana, Flag Officer Fleet. He has to deal with the implications of the budget cuts.
“I think it is a matter of ambition versus reality,” he said. “For us in the military, we understand the constraints that are there, but we always strive to do with what we have,” he clarified.
Warning that it was very easy to “reach a dead end” which was very dangerous,” Mhlana foresees that due to the economic cycle, things may improve and recover from the current slump.
Mhlana said that the reduced budget “is a serious concern because it also goes to understanding the effect on the equipment, whereby we have to maybe cut or reduce the number (of people) that we normally recruit.”
However, he continued, “It will mean that we are able to fund at least most of our ambitions.”
One of those ambitions is the acquisition of new Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPV) under Project Biro.
“Of course Biro is very important to the Navy and we all want to realise it,” Hlongwane said. “We have budget constraints, but at the moment we don’t think it will affect Project Biro. Although the project is underfunded, we also wanted to discuss the issue of the projects in the coming work session.”
The Navy Command Council will be discussing contingency plans if not enough funds are made available for Project Biro.
“Yes,” Hlongwane stated, “we have indicated that we are facing budget constraints, but the country needs Biro. We are certain that we’ll realise Biro as it is at the moment.”
Operation Copper, the combined South African and Mozambique maritime counter piracy operation in the northern Mozambique Channel, continues to rely on the SA Navy for the majority of the allocated resources. A Joint Task Force comprising Offshore Patrol Vessels, Boarding Teams and Maritime Patrol aircraft continues to be deployed to the Mozambique Channel.
Operation Copper, Deputy Chief of the Navy Rear Admiral Hanno Teuteberg emphasised, is just part of the Maritime Security Strategy designed to safeguard the South African sea lanes of communication on both sides of Africa.
Although the SA Navy is concentrating on the East Coast, Teuteberg observed that with the reduction in piracy off the coast of Somalia down to Tanzania, the Gulf of Guinea on the West Coast is increasingly becoming the new area of focus.
Once again, the budgetary constraints are brought to the fore when it comes to the operational status and availability of the fleet’s vessels.
Mhlana said that since last year (2015/16 financial year which ended on 31 March 2016), “we have seen a tremendous participation of the navy in various exercises and operations. At the beginning of this year we fully participation in Armed Forces Week whereas at the same time we deployed a frigate in India.”
“I’m comfortable to indicate that we are a Navy at sea, we are doing what we are supposed to be doing, we have challenges as the Chief of the Navy has indicated, planned maintenance like refits which then affects availability of some platforms at full level of capability.”
The submarine side has not been neglected, as twice during the last year two submarines were at sea at the same time. Currently a submarine is on a long 40 day deployment.
As for the time the Navy vessels spend at sea, Rear Admiral Sagaren Pillay, Chief Director Maritime Strategy, said that in the SANDF Performance Plan, the SA Navy needs to achieve 12 000 sea hours.
Since the start of the current financial year on 1 April, Pillay said that based on the first 21 days, “there is every indication that the South African Navy will achieve that particular target.”
Pillay noted that during the previous financial year, the Navy achieved approximately 10 000 hours. “Our achievement was pretty much in terms of what we planned and what was achieved we regard as being satisfactory.”
The issue of staffing within the South African Navy is the responsibility of Rear Admiral Rusty Higgs, Chief of Naval Staff. He says that keeping trained personnel within the Navy “is an issue with which we have been grappling with for decades.”
The Navy recognises the reality that they are severely budget constrained at the moment. “We have to operate within that, we have to cut our suite according to the cloth, the diminishing cloth which we have. It is a major factor,” said Higgs.
“Because of finance constraints, ships are not spending as much time at sea as the Navy would like. This has the knock-on effect of the Navy not being able to qualify people.”
Higgs said that “it’s a continuous battle which we fighting. At the moment the situation is relatively stable.”
The upgrading of the Durban naval facilities continues, with the Naval Station Durban upgraded to Naval Base on 8 December 2015. Once again, there are budget implications in bringing the Naval Base to full operation capacity. One of the stumbling blocks is the requirement for additional accommodation, particularly for married personnel.
The plan is to increase the workshop and dockyard capacity so that the Durban base can perform all required DEDs (Docking and Essential Defects/Planned Maintenance) for the OPVs.
During the past year, the SA Navy conducted several exercises with partner navies such as Germany and France. “These,” Hlongwane explained, “are critical in terms of sharpening our forces and achieving high levels of readiness.”
SAS Spioenkop has just returned from a ten week deployment to India where she participated in India’s Presidential Fleet Review and the fifth iteration of Exercise IBSAMAR, held jointly with the Indian and Brazilian navies. Whilst in transit, she conducted diplomatic port visits to Mauritius, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Madagascar. An example of the importance of such visits was that it stimulated renewed interest from the Malagasy Government and Navy to forge closer ties of cooperation in military and maritime security matters.
On matters relating to international maritime cooperation, the SA Navy hosted the 21st SADC Standing Maritime Committee (SMC) which brings together littoral and landlocked states that have a vested interest in the Southern African coastline, whilst Hlongwane attended the 2016 Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) in Bangladesh.
The SA Navy was at pains to emphasise that it is fully committed to safeguarding South Africa’s sea lanes but at the same time not hide the truth of the tremendous budgetary constraints. “Yes indeed, we have a budget constraint,” the Chief of the Navy said, “but we are trying to do what we can do with the little we have. So it’s really affecting us.”