The decrease in pirate activity off Africa’s east coast has probably contributed to an SA National Defence Force (SANDF) Joint Operations decision to withdraw air operations from Pemba in support of the anti-piracy Operation Copper.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) counter-piracy tasking is now in its fifth year of operation with South Africa as the major contributor of both personnel and equipment. Mozambique and Tanzania are the other two SADC nations who have committed to the operation in the Mozambique Channel since its inception in 2011.
The first Operation Copper deployment was early in 2011 following the hijacking of a Mozambican fishing vessel by Somali pirates in the northern reaches of the Mozambique Channel. Lindiwe Sisulu, at the time Defence and Military Veterans Minister, said South African warships were deployed to northern Mozambique along with a C-47TP maritime patrol aircraft from 35 Squadron and a 22 Squadron Super Lynx maritime helicopter. This hardware was supported by a total of 377 uniformed personnel from the air force, military health services and the navy.
Captain (SAN) Jaco Theunissen, Joint Operations spokesman, confirmed this week that Pemba and hence 35 Squadron would no longer be a part of Operation Copper.
“Maritime operations will continue from an SA Navy platform,” he said, declining to answer questions on whether the SAAF would still be part of Op Copper.
At present the offshore patrol vessel (OPV) SAS Galeshewe is on station in the Mozambique Channel having replaced one of her sister ships, SAS Isaac Dyobha.
At various times since the deployment started the Navy has put Valour Class frigates and the supply ship SAS Drakensberg into the seas off the lower east African coast as a piracy deterrent. More recently this task has been the exclusive preserve of the serving OPVs, all converted Warrior Class strikecraft.
The normal OPV crew requirement for an Operation Copper deployment is around the 60 mark including a Maritime Reaction Squadron component, divers, an ops medic and two Mozambican sea riders.
The only South African platform to have been an active part of a counter-piracy operation was Drakensberg. She acted as southern stopper for the EU Naval Force to prevent a suspected pirate ship from escaping the multi-national task force based off the Horn of Africa.
It is not known at present if the term of Operation Copper will be extended. It was last extended for 12 months by President Jacob Zuma, in his capacity as SANDF Commander-in-Chief, until the end of March this year.