Shortage of air and naval assets turns Op Copper into a listening post


The tri-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) counter-piracy initiative in the Mozambique Channel – Operation Copper – has become largely a radio listening post tasking due to the non-availability of South African airborne and naval assets.

South Africa, in the form of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF), has been the major contributor asset-wise since the start of the initiative just on seven years ago. Mozambique and Tanzania are the other partners in Op Copper, supplying manpower as observers.

Naval assets have been the major South African platforms deployed with all four the Valour Class frigates spending sea time in the busy sea lane. The converted strikecraft SAS Galeshewe (P1567) and SAS Isaac Dyobha (P1565) have also been tasked with counter-piracy duties as has the Navy supply and replenishment vessel, SAS Drakensberg (A301). “Drakies”, as she is affectionately known, is the only South African vessel to have been involved in any anti-piracy activity. That was five years ago when she was the designated “stopper” for the EU Naval Force’s Atalanta task group for a specific mission.

The frigate SAS Spioenkop (F147) was tasked to take up station in the Mozambique Channel last August but developed mechanical problems soon after arriving and was withdrawn. An undisclosed OPV replaced her but there has been no South African naval presence since late September with indications that an OPV might again be sent up the east coast after the Armed Forces Day events in Durban later this month.

A change in operations planning and execution saw the SA Air Force (SAAF) withdraw 35 Squadron and its C-47TP aircraft from Mozambique in November 2015. Previously an aircraft was tasked for and spent time in Mozambique usually based at Pemba. This was changed with aircraft from the AFB Ysterplaat based squadron flying up the coast doing maritime patrol work en route before entering Mozambican airspace and transiting into a support role for the naval asset on station. Aircraft also routed via AFB Waterkloof for refuelling and then on to Maputo before undertaking maritime patrols.

With 35 Squadron to all intents and purposes grounded since September last year due to a wiring corrosion problem and a lack of aircrew, Operation Copper has now become a listening operation using communications equipment at Silvermine and Durban.

At the time of publication defenceWeb had not had a response from the SAAF media unit on the status of 35 Squadron. It’s eight C-47TP aircraft are all the SAAF has for maritime patrol and reconnaissance work. Five of them are fitted as pure maritime aircraft with two for transport and one for electronic warfare.