Operation Copper, the anti-piracy deployment in the Mozambique Channel, is a demanding and expensive operation that is stretching the South African Navy, according to Flag Officer Fleet.
In his recent state of the Navy briefing, Rear Admiral Bravo Mhlana said that sustaining the seven day a week, 24 hour a day presence “is an extremely demanding operation in terms of logistic support and sustainment.”
The Navy has been involved in Operation Copper since SAS Mendi commenced patrols in January 2011. An operational pause was undertaken in July 2012 as the use of the frigates “was proving costly and expensive.” It was then decided to introduce the Warrior-class Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) into Operation Copper. Since then, deployment duties have rotated between the frigates and the OPVs, “with OPVs typically spending six weeks on station and the frigates up to four months on station.”
The replenishment ship SAS Drakensberg has also been sent to patrol for pirates, and assisted European warships in apprehending seven Somali pirates in early 2012.
Operation Copper has accounted for the bulk of the Navy’s total sea days. Whilst no actual figures were available, Mhlana said that the frigates were meant to operate approximately 120 days at sea a year, but the intense nature of Operation Copper forced the Navy to operate the frigates at a rate of over 220 sea days a year for each frigate.
“I must indicate that the last financial year was dominated by the OPVs which came to us as a big relief as the frigates could focus on other deployments and international commitments that happened for us in this particular year,” Mhlana explained.
“(For) the OPVs themselves, the mileage they gained from Operation Copper is far higher than in any other period since the inception of democracy in 1994.” Despite the challenges “that puts a strain on the finances of the organisation, we have more days at sea now than we have had before.”
Whilst the current mandate for Exercise Copper expires at the end of March, the Navy is preparing a frigate to replace the OPV on station. “We have no indication that Operation Copper will be terminated in a short space of time,” Mhlana said, as the Navy always waited “until the last day to get confirmation of the continuation of Operation Copper.”
“SAS Isaac Dyobha will return towards the end of next week [this week] and by that time SAS Isandlwana will be ready to take over. They are currently undergoing workup and operational sea training evaluation before we can confirm them mission ready…Until such time as we receive any instruction to discontinue, we will get ourselves ready.”
Although Mozambique and Tanzania are the other two SADC nations who had committed to supporting Operation Copper, South Africa is the major contributor of both personnel and equipment – for instance, Mozambique only contributes a few personnel aboard South African Navy ships.
The South African Air Force contributed shore-based aircraft from Pemba but apparently this is no longer the case.