Africa needs OPVs


Each one of Africa’s 37 littoral states needs at least one offshore patrol vessel to secure their exclusive economic zones.

That is the view of retired Rear Admiral Chris Bennett, who told defenceWeb’s maritime security conference, held in Cape Town late last year that these should be steel-hulled ships at least 60 to 70 metres in length.

The retired flag officer and author said the African littoral states faced assymmetrical or unconventional threats “it is organisations, rather than countries; and, if I may say so, this is a more difficult threat to counter than other nations were at least you know where you stand.”

Bennett said Africa needed to establish a presence at sea to deter smugglers, pirates and poachers.

Very few countries in Africa have the industrial infrastructure to maintain modern warships fitted with modern equipment. These, says Bennett, “needs a terrific amount of maintenance. We’ve got to grasp this fact,” he added.

A country desiring a navy needs “some technology and some industrial capacity relatively close at hand” to maintain its fleet. “It is no use going along and buying a ship and then letting it lie alongside and slowly let it rust away.
“It is an old story, with a grain of truth that while it only takes five years to design and build a ship, it takes 50 to build a navy. This I’m afraid is very true.

Africa’s colonial heritage means that the occupying powers provided the navies,the admiral added. “Colonial powers did not export industry or technology. South Africa’s gold fields were an exception as well as its strategic location, which led to the creation of Simon’s Town with its naval dockyard.
“With these limitations from our colonial heritage, what can we sustain? Navies are expensive.

This stressed the need to speak to government about the need for proper funding, he added, saying Africa was by some calculations in 2005 alone losing $1 billion “simply from the poaching of fish. For a number of countries that is close to 10% of their GDP. No country can afford to lose 10% of its GDP.”

Describing the ideal African OPV, Bennett emphasised the need for a twin screw, diesel-powered vessel displacing between 1200 and 1800 tons with a maximum speed of 25 knots and a sustainable economic speed of at least 16 knots. “You must be able to carry out patrols at reasonable speed. At 10 knots you can only cover half the space in the same time as at 16 knots.

Bennett says an OPV must be operationally effective at sea, capable of operating independently for at least two weeks. To operate effectively “it cannot be a 400mt strike craft or minesweeper. It has to be considerably bigger” with an endurance of “at least 21 days”.

The crew also has to be a reasonable size “otherwise we are not serious”. The design compliment should be around “70 plus” crew and, divided into watches, they must be able to staff all sensors round the clock.

The cost of the hull he further added was small in comparison to the equipment fitted. The most obvious saving therefore is to pare back sensors and armament, as was done by the SA Navy for Project Sitron, where the country essentially bought frigate-sized vessels fitted with corvette armament.

The Department of Water and Environmental Affairs’ 85m environmental protection OPV, the Sarah Baartman, that has a minimal equipment fit, cost R150 million in 2005.

Bennett does however champion fitting of a helicopter deck, “plus, if possible, a hangar. A helicopter an enormous boost for an OPV. It can search huge areas of sea which is simply impossible for a ship.”

Turning to sensors, Bennett, a former antisubmarine expert, said “the first thing you are not looking for is an [antisubmarine] sonar”. However, the vessel will need a proper radio suite to communicate with the shore and other ships as well as navigation radar, high definition radar for close-in defence against assymetric threats, long-range search radar as well as electronic support measures with which to passively detect ships.
“The modern pirate, smuggler and poacher has access to modern detection equipment. They can pick up your radar and communications a long distance away. One needs EW (electronic warfare} equipment and a properly equipped operations room.”

Turning to weapons, Bennett eschewed surface-to-surface missiles (SSM), saying “you only need what is required for the task at hand, the assymetric war you are fighting”. He recommended instead 76mm and 20mm automatic cannon for the traditional shot across the bow.
“The 76mm has a sufficiently loud bang so that it is heard and when the shell goes in the water they will see the spout and they will know if they don’t stop the next round will take their bridge off. The rules of minimum force means one needs an accurate gun control system so you don’t hit the forecastle with you warning shot by mistake.”

The 20mm cannon a well as pedestal-mounted machine guns are required to protect the ship close-in. Also useful, and in some contradiction to his denouncing of SSM, is the fitment of “something like an antitank guided missile [in effect a very light SSM] to hit small vessels.”
“This is what you need to look at”, avered the retired sailor, “nothing fancy, a workhorse, not a racehorse. “We need commonalty in doctrine, in equipment as far as possible. Similar ships with similar engine, radars etcetera. They don’t have to be identical. This will allow countries to take hands and make it an African solution.”

Pic: A Lurssen shipyard OPV on display at Africa Arospace & Defence in Cape Town in September 2008.