Cabinet has seemingly approved the South African Navy’s maritime security strategy, although the wording in a statement announcing the move is ambiguous. The Joint Operations Division of the South African National Defence Force deployed the SAS Mendi to Mozambique earlier this year, in what the defence ministry has described as an information gathering exercise.
Government spokesman Jimmy Manyi says Cabinet yesterday “approved that the South African Defence Force [sic] should fine-tune its strategy to protect our waters from piracy. Being a littoral country, South Africa needs to have a balanced naval capability to effectively respond to maritime security threats affecting South Africa,” he said. “Cabinet noted the incursion of maritime crime into our waters, which might affect our trade routes through the seas.”
Cabinet in February tasked the military with developing a strategy to address the threat of piracy in Southern African waters. Government spokesman Jimmy Manyi at a post-Cabinet media briefing on February 25 said the executive had “noted the increasing threat of piracy in South African waters and agreed to explore initiatives aimed at assisting Somalia to counter some of the root causes of piracy.” Government also “further supported the implementation of the Eastern and Southern African-Indian Ocean (EAS-IO) strategy to combat piracy along the coast of Somalia and the greater Southern African waters.”
Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Lindiwe Sisulu told a related media briefing the same day the Mendi was already off Mozambique informally collecting information on piracy and cooperating with authorities there “to ensure maritime security in Southern African waters. We experienced an intrusion into the waters of SADC around the 28th of December with the hijacking of a Mozambican vessel that contained 28 Mozambicans and two Spanish sailors,” Sisulu said. “The Mozambicans requested of us to assist them because they don’t have the necessary equipment and in terms of a memorandum of understanding we have with Mozambique we responded to this.
“You will remember that the President indicated that we are doing all we can as South Africa to ensure that we can assist the fragile transitional Government of Somalia so that we have institutions on Somalia that can hold and that can impose some form of law and order. On the other hand it is not possible for us to sit back when we have incursion on waters that we are responsible for so we deployed the SAS Mendi to patrol the borders so that it can bring us a little more information and actually indicate to anybody out there that South African waters is protected. We have not yet formally deployed and when we do first Cabinet will be informed, Parliament will be informed and the public will be informed however we remain very concerned about the intrusion of piracy into our space and we remain determined that we will not allow it to continue.”
Tanzania has also requested South Africa to assist it in fighting piracy. “I am informed that the government has received a request from Tanzania, through the Department of International Relations and Co-operation, which has been forwarded to the Department of Defence,” she said last month in an oral reply to a question by National Council of Provinces member RA Lees. “The matter has subsequently been referred to the acting Chief of the National Defence Force so that he may advice the Minister, and the Minister may advice the Cabinet. Currently the matter is under consideration.”
Chief of the Navy, Vice Admiral Johannes Mudimu, last week said the Mendi’s patrol is on “instruction of government.” He was speaking to the media ahead of defence minister Lindiwe Sisulu’s budget vote last Wednesday. “Currently the ship is doing very well, patrolling Mozambican waters,” he said without adding any details.
The Mendi as well as South African Air Force aircraft of various types have been seen at and offshore of Pemba in northern Mozambique since late February, but government has been coy on the detail of Operation Hopper. It is understood the Mendi is carrying a contingent of Special Forces and Maritime Reaction Squadron (MRS) commandos to conduct boarding operations.
South African tourists and tour operators at the popular diving resort have reported the town’s airstrip has been used by a Douglas C47TP Dakota transport/maritime patrol aircraft, a Cessna C208 Caravan fitted with a Project Koiler reconnaissance system and a Casa C212 transporter. Up to two AgustaWestland Mk64 SuperLynx 300 maritime helicopters have also been seen by knowledgeable sources at Pemba.
Speaking on the sidelines of defenceWeb Border Control conference in March, defence analyst Helmoed-Römer Heitman noted there are also urgent moves afoot to obtain two maritime security aircraft – “probably on lease as an interim option”. The South African Air Force (SAAF) has long had a requirement for such aircraft – most recently under Project Saucepan – but have lacked the funds for this. The C47TP, now in use since 1943, is slated to retire in 2015, as is the C212 and a number of other SAAF platforms. There is however no indication in the Treasury’s Estimates of National Expenditure (ENE) that funds will be available by then to acquire the necessary replacements.
The ENE did note that the National Treasury will fund the acquisition of new ships for the Navy from the 2013/14 financial year. The parsimonious keeper of the national purse pencilled in a 52.3% increase in the Maritime Combat Capability subprogramme for the year starting April 2013. That budget boost will provide “for the replacement of the offshore and inshore patrol vessels [Project Biro], procurement of new harbour tugs and the replacement of small boats. This is also the reason for the increase of 73.9% in “transfers and subsidies” in 2013/14.” The latter will spike from R406.5 million in the April 2011 year to R603.7 million in April 2013 and the former to R803.9 million from R570.9 million.
Sisulu at the February 25 briefing “we discussed it [Biro] sometime last year and shelved it because it was not such an immediate option for us. But we might be getting back to that depending on the outcome of the strategy that we will be presenting to Cabinet. We would be considering re-energising Project Biro because as you well know some of our frigates are too big to move around the coast…”
The minister last Wednesday noted the strategy was “before Cabinet” and will be a “top priority” once approved, despite the paucity of funding for defence. Sisulu added that using the virements mechanism there was “necessary funding for the first phase.” Mudimu added at the same briefing the Mendi’s patrol was part of the plan now before Cabinet, details of which would be made public once Cabinet had approved it. At the Cabinet briefing today Mudimu said details of the strategy were expected to be revealed at a later stage, according to the state BuaNews agency.
It is understood SAS Amatola yesterday sailed from Simon’s Town to relieve the Mendi.