The South African Navy, in the clearest explanation yet, has told Parliament that human error and a battery construction fault lie behind the lengthy spell in dry dock of its R2.7 billion submarine SAS Manthatisi.
Busines Day reports today the extended spell on the “hard” has variously been described as routine battery maintenance or as a result of a minor encounter with the quay causing damage to the aft plane. Experts and opposition MPs have suggested that there is something more seriously wrong with the first submarine delivered in terms of the strategic defence package.
Rear Admiral Bernhard Teuteberg told the Portfolio Comitee on Defence and Military Veterans yesterday that there were three issues involving the Manthatisi. The first was that when the submarine is in harbour it is plugged into a shore service to keep its 250 tons of batteries charged. The South African Press Association elaborated that “someone” had connected the submarine to this “the wrong way round”, blowing fuses in the submarine, apparently because the wires had not been marked properly. The sailor responsible had been disciplined. “A board of inquiry was convened and… a person was held responsible; he was reprimanded,” Teuteberg said.
The second was that in rough weather the vessel “banged” into a quay, causing minor damage to the aft plane, which helps steer and trim the submarine underwater. However, the integrity of the hull was not compromised, he said. SAPA noted the “bash” was sustained when putting to sea on a stormy day. “The entrance to the submarine base is too small for this type of submarine with one screw. We did touch the quay [with the aft plane] and bent plates slightly upwards. We immediately took the submarine out of the water and checked its water-tight integrity… the only damage was [the plane] which was bent upwards.” Teuteberg said there were now plans to widen the entrance to the submarine pen “so that there is more space”.
The third issue, Business Day says, involved the efficiency of the batteries, the admiral explained, saying that when being charged, batteries produced hydrogen and the build-up of the gas damaged some of the submarine’s batteries, of which there are 480. The problem had been solved by introducing hydrogen release valves and the manufacturer had given the undertaking that some of the damaged units would be replaced free of charge, the broadsheet reports.
Teuteberg, who was briefing the committee on SA’s maritime defence capability, said that while the Navy was very proud of what it had achieved, particularly its role in securing the Soccer World Cup, he warned that underfunding could harm this capability. He pointed out that one of the frigates, bought for R3 billion [defenceWeb’ figure is R9.6 billion based on 2008 Treasury figures], would cost R133 million to operate for a year. A submarine would cost R30 million and a patrol vessel R32 million.
The SAPA notes defence minister Lindiwe Sisulu earlier this year, in a written reply to a parliamentary question by Freedom Front Plus MP Pieter Groenewald, said the Manthatisi was in the submarine shed “to minimise exposure to the elements while its batteries are being subjected to maintenance”.
In her May response she added the boat required repairs of two defects: First, “constructional repair to minor damage to the rear edge of the Starboard Aft Diving Plane caused by contact with the quay. This incident did not prevent the submarine from remaining operational, and the vessel subsequently participated very successfully in the NATO Exercise, Exercise Amazola.”
Secondly, she said, the vessel “was further being prepared to become the first Type 209 Submarine to be overhauled in Simon’s Town Dockyard, thereby establishing such a capability in the SA Navy. This requires in-depth analysis of the work to be conducted and complex planning in terms of the overhaul mechanisms. The other two submarines are being utilised fully for force preparation and employment, and presently provide sufficient sea-hours in order to meet all requirements.”
A further set of questions in June, to establish why the Manthatisi was “currently being refurbished in the dry dock” was met with the response: “Where else would the Honourable Member suggest we should refurbish a submarine?”
Teuteberg, who said the submarine had been out of operation for “about three years”, said there were a number of other reasons too. “One of them was the lack of submarine-trained personnel and the fact that I really only had two full crews for two submarines. Therefore… to ensure that I kept two submarines operational in order to train new crews — because, as you will know, I need to go to sea in order to give people training — we made a conscious decision… to rather not bring Manthatisi back earlier.
“[We would] leave her where she is and concentrate on the two in the water, in order to create a bigger manpower pool sooner.” He said the submarine was also being prepared for a “major overhaul”, although the boat was not being physically worked on at the moment, SAPA said. “We are in the planning stage, with assistance from… the manufacturer and other people in order to plan this very, very complex exercise of doing a major overhaul.
“At this stage, the prognosis is that by the end of 2013 she will be fully operational. That is when we want to take the next submarine out of the water and do her major overhaul. So it all ties in,” he said.
The Manthatisi is the lead-boat of class of three submarines acquired for R8.1 billion as part of Project Wills,a component of the controversial Strategic Defence Package. She was laid down at
Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft, Thyssen Nordsee Werke, Kiel on May 22, 2001, was launched June 15, 2004 and commissioned November 3, 2005. It arrived in South African waters in April 2006.
The boat also suffered a mishap in January 2006 off Norway. According to the answer to a Parliamentary question, a subsequent technical investigation discovered two separate electronic sensors in two separate mechanical-electrical systems had malfunctioned during a snorting exercise.
“The malfunctioning of the said sensors made it impossible for the submarine to maintain depth while snorting. It was, therefore, decided to stop snorting. Linked to this, the snort mast, which is designed to lower automatically, failed to do so. The prudent action of the officer commanding (Commander Kretschmer) was to return to harbour and rectify [the malfunction]. …the problem was the result of the highly unusual simultaneous malfunction of two electrical sensors. The Board of Inquiry into the incident found no human error.”
The answer also confirmed that, contrary to reports at the time, water had not entered the submarine: “The only water that entered the submarine was the water that entered via the snort mast into the drains tank. This is part of the normal and designed operation of the snort mast system.” Some damage was done to the light-plate fixed tube of the snort mast. The answer added that all costs of the repair were carried by the GSC and that the repairs had “no financial impact on the DoD.”
Democratic Alliance defence spokesman David Maynier commended Teuteberg for the briefing: “I think that Rear Admiral Bernie Teuteberg’s ‘pre-emptive strike’ on the portfolio committee on defence was exactly the right strategy. We received a comprehensive briefing on the problems – and more importantly on the solutions – to the challenges facing our Navy.”