The Southern African Development Community (SADC) anti-piracy tasking in the Mozambique Channel has been totally reliant on intelligence for more than a month now but a SA Navy offshore patrol vessel (OPV) is scheduled to take up Operation Copper duties later this month.
The Valour Class frigate, SAS Spioenkop (F147), was tasked to be on station by August 21 but had to return to Durban two weeks later with propulsion system problems.
This is not the first time that a navy platform has not been on station in the Mozambique Channel since the anti-piracy tasking started more than five years ago. The naval presence was withdrawn in mid-December last year and another platform only steamed into the position after February’s Armed Forces Day event in Port Elizabeth.
While the Channel, a busy shipping lane as far as South African maritime trade is concerned, has not been targeted at all by pirates for a long time, the Defence and Military Veterans Minister continues to see the deployment as a valuable one. Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula told the National Assembly during her 2016/17 budget vote that no incidents of piracy had been reported since the deployment of naval vessels.
SAS Drakensberg (A301), the Navy’s replenishment vessel, is the only South African blue water platform to have been involved in any anti-piracy activity. She was the designated “stopper’ for the EU Naval Force’s Atalanta task group in 2012.
Navy media relations officers in both Pretoria (headquarters) and Simon’s Town (fleet headquarters) have yet to respond to a defenceWeb enquiry sent three weeks ago. This publication wanted to know which platform would be replacing the frigate and what the extent of the damage to Spioenkop’s propulsion system was and how long she would be out of service. Others, including respected defence and military analysts, Helmoed Heitman, have also asked.
“We will have to wait and see if someone tells us what the problem is. We are not at war so there is no good security related reason not to be open about this (the Spioenkop propulsion problem),” he said.
defenceWeb has been reliably informed either the SAS Isaac Dyobha (P1565) or SAS Galeshewe (P1567) will be taking up Operation Copper duties later this month. Both are former Warrior Class strikecraft converted to an offshore patrol configuration. They are likely to remain the Navy’s only OPVs for some years to come as no announcement has yet been made by Armscor on the successful tenderers for three each new generation OPVs and IPVs. The tender closed a year ago.
The International Maritime Organisation (IMO), recognising piracy levels in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden have dropped considerably, has warned merchant shipping not to drop its guard.
“Merchant shipping should continue to take protective measures against possible piracy attacks in the Gulf of Aden and western Indian Ocean through diligent application of IMO guidance and best management practices (BMP),” IMO secretary general Kitack Lim said in London earlier this month.
He and EU Naval Force Operation Atalanta commander, Major General Rob Magowan, agreed naval forces are “still very much required” in the western Indian Ocean to prevent any possible resurgence of piracy. The mandate of the EU naval operation has been extended until the end of 2018.
Minister Mapisa-Nqakula has also indicated South Africa is “mindful of developing challenges” in the Gulf of Guinea and has started discussions with the Angolan and Namibian governments to pursue joint maritime patrols along the continent’s west coast.