The South African Navy’s new Maritime Reaction Squadron (MRS) will next year hone its skills, the unit’s commanding officer Captain (SAN) Solly Petersen says.
Petersen says the unit, commissioned last week, has acquired a number of special operations skills and has been benchmarked by the Special Forces.
But the skills are still compartmentalised and the MRS only has a basic operational capability. Boarding, ship clearing and helicopter fast-roping tactics, techniques and procedures must still be rolled out across the unit and fully mastered.
The special operations capable MRS consists of a 150 sailor strong Reaction Force Division (RFD) organised as a standard motorised infantry company, a Operational Boat Division (OBD) equipped with 16 boats of various types, each with four crew and an operational diving division consisting of four 17-diver operational diving teams.
The OBD currently deploys 10 Namacurra-class harbour patrol boats and six Lima-class utility landing craft. These will shortly be augmented and then be replaced with Project Xena riverine patrol boats. The prototype is currently undergoing tests with the Navy and a further four are expected to be delivered by the end of March.
The RFD consists of a headquarters element and support section in addition to three platoons of three sections of ten infantry- and special operations trained sailors.
Petersen says RFD troops receive several months worth of naval and infantry training. After their basic naval training at SAS Saldanha, sailors selected for the RFD spent four-and-a-half months at the SA Army`s Infantry School in Oudtshoorn acquiring proficiency in infantry skills including field craft, platoon weapons, section leading “and a variety of other skills from which they emerge as seasoned infantry”.
“However those skills are only 50% of what is required for the job,” says Petersen. “We then need to navalise them. They then undergo boats training. The OBD uses a number of boats and they must be familiar with all those types – so they obviously have to be seasoned sailors too.
“But this is just the foundation and we have to build on it,” he adds.
“In order to go forward, we need specialised boarding training using skills derived from house clearing. We brought legal officers aboard to give them all [the RFD “commandos”] training regarding the boarding of ships.
“The ship is an entity of its own, probably flying a foreign flag… you have to be sure you do the job [boarding and searching a ship and controlling its paperwork] properly and observe all the legal aspects.
“A lot of theory went into the boarding of ships using house clearing techniques. Once those things were covered, we did it practically. We now have three ten-strong teams. But the skill has to be taken to the greater MRS. Thirty of our sailors are now specialists in boarding operations… we now need to roll that out to the rest of the team.”
Petersen says some MRS leaders have trained with German and French forces, although he did not elaborate with whom precisely. The RFD has also received US training.
The MRS CO says his unit was also recently benchmarked by the SA Special Forces. Elements of the seaward 4 SF Regiment recently exercised in Simon`s Town and “gave us a whole week to check whether we were up to par. We learned a lot from them, the managing of the kit specifically and doing the boarding. That was a privilege; they don`t normally train anyone or give them access to their kit. It was quite a privilege to have them aboard. They put is through our paces night and day.”
Speaking after a polished boarding demonstration aboard the SAS Drakensberg, Petersen said: “What you saw here is a start. We have to be quite sure we go from here to greater heights. If we are to put these sailors in harms way they have to know what to do. They have to be thoroughly familiar with their tasks… The New Year will see them undergoing intense weapon training and also training in unarmed combat.
Tasks and size
Petersen concedes the small is force in size, but adds it is not small in capability. Speaking at the commissioning of the MRS, Chief of the SA Navy Vice Admiral Johannes Mudimu gave the unit a number of special operational tasks, including:
· Conducting interdiction, patrol and escort operations in coastal, lake, and riverine areas;
· Boarding of suspicious ships to counter criminal and illegal activities at sea;
· Combating poaching and smuggling;
· Operational diving and salvage operations;
· Augmentation of land forces;
· Beachhead operations;
· Spotting duties for naval gunfire support;
· Specialised boats crews for combat and combat support ships on deployment; and
· Force protection of vessels when in harbour or approaches during deployment.
“This is quite something. It is not small in that regard,” Petersen says.
Navy chief director maritime strategy Rear Admiral Bernard Teuteberg has said the unit`s personnel structure will be mirrored in the Navy Reserve. However, the informal view aboard the Drakensberg after the demonstration was that this force level is too small and that a RFD of at least four companies and a correspondingly larger OBD is needed. “What we have now should just be a beginning,” one officer said.
MRS v Marines
South Africa has to date, established and disbanded two Marine Corps. The first, existing from 1951 to 1955, was optimised for coast and anti-aircraft defence. Some Marines served aboard naval vessels in the manner of the Royal Marines` ships detachments.
When their static coast defence guns were declared obsolete, the Corps was disbanded. It bears saying that this need not have been the case. Sweden and Norway still maintain static coastal defences, including forts, guns and torpedo and missile batteries. Switzerland also still has fortress artillery, equipped with modern guns and mortars.
A second Corps was established in 1979 to take for the Navy a greater role in the counterinsurgency campaigns then raging across southern Africa. It was optimised as light infantry and eventually grew to a brigade in size. The Marine Corps for many years maintained a base at Wenela in Namibia`s Caprivi Strip from which it patrolled the Zambezi River. It also conducted urban counterinsurgency operations in South African townships. As the name behove, the Corps could also conduct conventional amphibious undertakings, most notably landing a reinforced battalion at Walvis Bay during Exercise Magersfontein in 1987. This Corps, however, fell victim to budget cuts in 1990 and was also disbanded.
Petersen, who had been a Marine company commander earlier in his naval career, says the mandate of the MRS “is vastly superior to that of the old Marines.”
“Never before have sailors been exposed to training of this nature when we talk about infantry and seamanship training. I`m an old Marine, so I`m a seasoned infantryman. I spent a year at the Infantry School doing all the courses, then a Marine company commander, then went on to command a ship (SAS Umzimkulu, a minehunter).
“So what you have in me is exactly what you will have in the MRS, a seasoned infantrymen and sailor in one.
“You`re looking at a highly skilled person that does boarding operations, beachhead operations, interdiction, a multitude of other tasks that has not been given to anybody in one package. So yes, you are looking at the MRS becoming a specialised group.”