African navies declining


African navies are – a few exceptions aside – in a state of decline. That’s the view of a colloquium of naval experts polled by defenceWeb.

The experts, nearly all retired admirals who now consult, say it has been a bad decade for most African navies.

“I believe that Africa is sliding – with the possible exception of the north African states and perhaps Namibia,” said the Brenthurst Foundation’s Rear Admiral (Retired) Steve Stead.
“In 1997 the Kenyan Navy sent two ‘missile boats’ to participate in the SA Navy’s (SAN) 75th Anniversary Review – I doubt they could do it today,” he adds.

But retired Rear Admiral Chris Bennett, co-author on a recent official popular history of the SAN, says Kenya is working hard to make the ships they have properly seaworthy, “but struggling with technical infrastructure as all African states do in regard to maritime forces.”
“Overall Africa’s maritime capability is sliding,” confirmed noted defence analyst Helmoed-Römer Heitman, “with only North Africa and SA showing any real improvement. Small navies like those of Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, Kenya, Senegal and Tanzania all once had nice little fleets able to do a reasonable job in their waters. All now suffer from obsolescence and maintenance problems.
“At the extreme end, Angola once had a small fleet and now de facto has none. The Nigerian Navy is trying to rebuild itself, but is nowhere nearly at the capability levels it once had,” Heitman adds.

That is also the view of retired Rear Admiral Rolf Hauter. “With some exceptions like Morocco, Algeria, South Africa and one or two smaller countries like Namibia, it can only be described as sliding. “There is little doubt that there are good intentions across the Continent but these are unfortunately not backed by adequately funded government programmes,” Hauter says.
“…despite being measured against a low base, both Kenya and Tanzania have probably slipped most during recent years. Both countries have, according to me, the will to be successful in securing their maritime assets but are unfortunately too financially pressed to preserve the capability required to do so,” Hauter adds.
“This is to an extent underlined by the fact that more and more private security companies are getting involved in the maritime security environment partly because of the sliding capabilities but also due to an exponential increase in maritime security requirements.”
Africa financially pressed but increasingly aware of naval needs

Commander Thean Potgieter, a lecturer at the SA Military Academy says “an important aspect one must not underestimate (which might spell good tidings for African navies), is that the maritime security awareness in Africa is certainly recently much enhanced. It is in essence the first time since independence that many African countries view maritime security as important to security in the whole.”

Stead notes navies are expensive “and it must be clear what its roles are going to be. What is at issue is whether a country needs a navy, and if so, what for? Would a form of coastguard or a maritime police wing not suffice if the primary role is going to be fishery patrols? The second step is to determine what that maritime force is required to do and then evaluate its ability against expectations. In other words, how operational is it? Otherwise you end up with misfits … with naval vessels that can perform a regional role but in reality cannot go to sea.” It has been suggested the Nigerian Navy falls into that category.
“Given the economic realities (just take a look at the national gross domestic product of African countries) establishing navies is virtually impossible – and yet it is perceived as a status symbol (and none want coastguards!),” Stead adds.

Turning to the SAN, Stead notes it has better (modern & capable) equipment than possibly at any time in its history “and yet there are serious doubts about its operational capacity.”

Heitman agrees, saying the real improvement in the past decade is “being undermined by the lack of operating funds – and the lack of the will to deploy.”

Hauter adds that despite the improvements “there remain tremendous gaps especially to enforce our rights and obligations in the exclusive economic zone through adequate coverage by means of offshore patrol vessels (OPVs). At the same time we are unable to support our foreign policy in terms of peace support operations through a lack of a strategic maritime lift capability.” The SAN is scheduled to acquire three new OPVs and three smaller inshore patrol vessels by about 2015 and wants a strategic maritime lift capability by 2017.

Bennett and Heitman both identify Namibia as bucking the general trend. “Namibia has shown very serious intent to develop a small coastguard/navy … and unless there is a change of heart I believe they should make it.

Heitman says Namibia is “very systematically and professionally” building itself an effective coast guard force within a very tight budget. It is a great example of how to do things, much like the upgrading of Botswana’s Air Wing to an Air Force.”
A decade ago

There is an axiom that while it may take five years to build a ship, it takes about 50 to build a navy. No African country except SA had a navy before decolonisation started around 1960.

Bennett noted a reason for this was that the colonial powers provided naval power to their own satisfaction and while local land forces and in some cases air forces were formed, African colonies were not required to establish navies. In most instances they could not, in any case, as colonies, South Africa excepted, were not industrialised and the skills base to crew and maintain the ships were not available.

SA was an exception because of the industry required to support the gold mines as well as fishing fleets. In addition, Britain regarded the Cape Sea Route as strategic and established a naval port that included a dockyard at Simon’s Town to control it. SA established an embryonic navy, the SA Naval Service, but this was strangled by the Great Depression in the 1930s so that at the outbreak of World War Two in 1939 the service mustered three officers, three ratings and no ships. A new Seaward Defence Force was then established with some haste. Its successor, the SA Naval Forces, mustered 1436 officers, 8896 other ranks and 89 vessels including three frigates.

In 1998 Colonel Louis du Plessis in The Challenge of Effective sub-Saharan Maritime Defence in The Military Challenge: Protecting sub-Saharan Africa (Col Louis du Plessis & Prof Mike Hough [editors], Human Sciences Research Council, Pretoria,1998) noted that Africa was at the time “unique among the Third World regions in its preponderance of ineffective navies”.

Du Plessis then director of the Centre for Military Studies at the University of Stellenbosch wrote this held “true even when the northern Arab-African navies are included. The number of minor vessels grew between independence in the 1960s and he mid-1980s. Since then, there has been a gradual decline in all sizes of vessels in sub-Sahara;and even the initial increase during the first decades after independence added little to the combat potential of the many weak navies.
“In addition to their limited mobility and firepower, there is a lack of clarity in their overall orientation: in particular, their definition of missions, patterns of acquisition, logistic adequacy, maintenance capability and the quality of their training and operational experience.
“Consequently, most sub-Saharan navies can be considered either as at an embryonic level of development … or at a stage of stagnation and decline, such as Mozambique’s. They are generally regarded as little more than ‘incipient coastguards.’

Du Plessis then developed a rank framework of the maritime capability of 44 sub-Saharan countries. Using this he identifies one littoral navy, two “possible” coastal navy contenders, seven constabulary navies and 18 “token navies.” Sixteen states, most land locked, had “virtually no maritime capability” at the time.




West Africa

Southern Africa

Horn of Africa

East Africa

Central Africa

Rank 5

Adjacent force protection navy

These are navies that have some ability to project force well offshore, but are not capable of carrying out high-level naval operations over oceanic distances.

Rank 6

Littoral navy

(Offshore Territorial Defence Navies)

These are navies that have relatively high levels of capability in defensive (and constabulary) operations up to about 200 miles from their shores, having the sustainability offered by frigate or large corvette vessels and (or) a capable submarine force.


South Africa

Rank 7

Coastal navy

(Inshore Territorial Defence Navies)

These are navies that have primarily inshore territorial defence capabilities, making them capable of coastal combat rather than constabulary duties alone. This implies a force comprising missile-armed fast-attack craft, short-range aviation and a limited submarine force.




Rank 8

Constabulary navy

These are significant fleets that are not intended to fight, but to act purely in a constabulary role.









Rank 9

Token navy

These are navies that have some minimal capability, but this often consists of little more than a formal organisational structure and a few coastal craft. These states, the world’s smallest and weakest, cannot aspire to anything but the most limited constabulary functions.



Cote d’Ivoire

Sierra Leone











Cape Verde

DR Congo

Equato Guinea


Rep Congo

Rank 10

No navy



Burkina Faso













C African Rep



Du Plessis’ sub-Saharan African naval rankings as at 1998, but with the ranking system modified to the 2001 Leadmark system developed for the Canadian Navy. Note that may of these ratings would have changed since 1998. This table published for historical purposes only.

Du Plessis’ sub-Saharan African naval rankings as at 1998, but with the ranking system modified to the 2001 Leadmark system developed for the Canadian Navy. Note that may of these ratings would have changed since 1998. This table published for historical purposes only.

Du Plessis continued that “the maintenance of a navy, by its very nature, is capital-intensive and technology-intensive undertaking. Consequently, the few sub-Saharan societies experiencing economic growth in conditions of relative political stability are those identified above with some kind of maritime capability.
“The majority of the population south of the Sahara live below the subsistence level, many in extreme poverty. The fact that the population growth rate by far exceeds the economic growth rate, results in an inexorable decline in income per capita. Given these realities, the priorities are not maritime. The socio-economic obstacles oblige the states to choose rice rather than rockets, shelters rather than ships.
“The internal civil strife in African societies that threatens state security is rooted in economic causes. … Armies and air forces are often needed to maintain domestic order,whereas the irrelevance of navies in his context has made them appear a somewhat less pressing national priority to many national policy-makers. …even by Third World standards, Africa south of the Sahara lags behind all other regions in naval development – both in qualitative and quantitative terms … not only in mobility and firepower but also in training experience and maintenance capability. In fact, most are regarded as coastguards.

Little has changed in the last dozen years.

Pic: The Kenyan patrol craft KNS Shujaa and KNS Nyayo at a recent Indian naval review.