New captains for three SA frigates


The South African Navy this morning changed the command of three of its four Valour-class frigates during a single parade. Rear Admiral (JG) BK Mhlana handed over command of the SAS Mendi to Captain (Capt) JA Mbotho, Capt MA Boucher to Capt M. Nkomonde for SAS Isandlwana and Capt CG Manig to Capt MA Boucher for SAS Spioenkop.

The frigates were acquired under Project Sitron as part of the Strategic Defence Package signed on December 3, 1999 with the European South African Corvette Consortium. The contracts became effective on April 28, 2000. The SAS Amatola arrived in South African waters in November 2004, the SAS Isandhlwana in February 2005, the SAS Spioenkop in May and the SAS Mendi in September 2005. The National Treasury in 2007 put their combined cost at R9.65 billion.

The Navy notes since their arrival, the frigates have been “very effectively utilised” in various exercises, operations and rescue missions. “Recently SAS Isandlwana returned from Tristan da Cunha Island where the ship successfully rescued 11 crewmen from a Taiwanese fishing vessel that sank. SAS Spioenkop patrolled our waters during the FIFA World Cup 2010, took part in the IBSAMAR II trilateral exercises with Brazil and India and patrolled off Mozambique against piracy, illegal fishing and drug trafficking [sic*]. SAS Mendi was relieved by SAS Amatola in continuation of the same operation [Hopper] off Mozambique.”

The Meko ships are collectively called the “Valour” class and each commemorates an incident of conspicuous bravery. “The symbolism, however, is not in the battle itself, and who the victors were, but the extreme valour shown by the forces involved — both the victors and the defeated,” a navy spokesman said in 2004.

The Amatola is named for the redoubt of the famed Xhosa chief Sandile, who fought British colonial expansion in the 19th Century, and SAS Isandhlwana, named after the hill dominating the site of one of the most famous battles of the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879. Spioenkop is named for the January 1900 battle between Boer and British forces for the possession of the hill on the banks of the Thukela (Tugela) River in now KwaZulu-Natal. Spioenkop hill marks the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the 1899-1902 Anglo Boer War.

There is a progression in the names and the fourth vessel therefore takes its name from an event in World War One – but unlike the others it commemorates not a battle but valour during a maritime disaster. The 4230 gross registered ton (GRT) passenger ship SS Mendi was ferrying the mostly-Pondo 5th Battalion, SA Native Labour Corps (SANLC) from Britain to France when the steamer collided with the 11,000 GRT liner SS Darro during the early hours of February 21, 1917. Described as South Africa’s worst naval disaster, 607 members of the SANLC, nine of their white countrymen and 33 crew members died when the troopship sank 11 miles off St Catherine’s Light in the English Channel. Famously, the Rev. Isaac Wauchope Dyobha led the doomed men in song and dance as the ship went down. The SAS Mendi, with HMS Nottingham, laid a wreath at the coordinates of the disaster on August 23, 2004, on her way home from Germany.

The Valour-class frigate is a multi-purpose and multi-capable vessel suitable for executing various naval missions. The SA Navy had no operational ships in this class, having lost the last of three Type 12 (Rothesay-class) anti-submarine warfare (ASW) frigates, the SAS President Pretorius (F145), to obsolescence in 1986.

Frigates are the workhorses of any navy. They are capable of conducting sustained operations and are designed to negotiate sea conditions such as those found off the South African coast. The frigates are designed to carry one Denel Oryx-class or two SuperLynx helicopters, which significantly improves and extends the ship’s surveillance, operational and sea rescue capabilities. The Lynx will be capable of day and night operations in conditions up to Sea State 6. An Oryx or similarly-sized Rooivalk will be capable of day or night operations up to Sea State.

Routine tasks can include:
– Regular patrols for the protection of marine resources against poaching and pollution in the country’s Economic Exclusion Zone;
– Law enforcement at sea with respect to piracy and the smuggling of drugs, weapons and other contraband;
– Peace and civil support missions could include:
– Search and rescue (SAR) missions as far south as the Prince Edward island group;
– Evacuating of civilians from coastal areas in times of emergency or crisis; and,
– Providing gunfire and other support for land forces, as well as the transport of limited equipment and personnel in support of land action, especially during peacekeeping missions.

Typical wartime duties could include:
– Patrols;
– Defensive sea surveillance;
– Combat SAR;
– Special operations; and,
– Minelaying and other sea-denial missions, once hostilities begin.

The frigates were built to a modern stealth design to avoid enemy radar and infra-red detection. In addition to these features, the Meko A-200SAN class is characterised by a unique propulsion system that which comprises a water-jet drive in addition to two propellers. Its CODAG-WARP system (COmbined Diesel And Gas turbine-WAter jet and Refined Propellers) consist of a steerable propeller and a water jet. The power is provided by a combination of diesel engines and gas turbines.

The class is also defined by a lack of funnel, causing some wags to call them “boats.” In traditional naval terminology the difference between a ship and a boat lay in the presence or absence of a funnel. It is one reason submarines, regardless of size, are always called boats. To add stealth, exhaust fumes from the Meko A200 design are cooled and released below or just above the waterline, making the corvette almost invisible for infrared systems.

In 2004, then-project director Rear Admiral (JG) Johnny Kamerman explained that the ships’ design features incorporated stealth characteristics that gave the Valour-class very low radar, acoustic and magnetic signatures. “It is the first major warship in the world with a horizontal exhaust and water jet propulsion, and has an X-form outer hull,” he said. Its manufacturers added that the design has the radar cross section of a missile patrol boat, 75% less infra red signature than previous designs as well as a 20% lower life cycle cost, 25% less displacement and 30% fewer crew. The lack of funnels also frees premium space amidships for armament, crew quarters and store rooms.

The class’ combat management system (CMS), apparently accounts for about 40 percent of each ship’s cost) was provided by Thales Detexis at a total cost of R2.599 billion. The Tavitac system is also fitted to the French La Fayette-class frigate and versions are aboard the Saudi F3000 air defence frigates and the nuclear aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle.

The acquisition contract also included a comprehensive logistics package, accounting for 7.5% of order volume. The package includes adequate and prompt spare parts supply, documentation and training. Also included was a computer-based Naval Logistic Management System that controls on board maintenance planning and execution by automatically generating weekly check lists and repair schedules.

Replenishment at sea can take place over the bow, stern or athwartships. Liquid and dry goods as well as passengers weighting up to 250kg can be transferred this way. Vertical replenishment can take place over the helideck and/or foredeck.

Kamerman said the ship was designed to “take punishment” and was designed for inherent growth. It had spaces with all the necessary fittings for rapid fitting of additional capabilities without needing modification. This meant that the ship could increase its surface to air missile outfit from 16 to 32 launch cells in a few hours. It is expected that the class will be substantially upgraded over the ships’ 30-40 year life. Kamerman has said the ships had plenty of space to accommodate new equipment and weapons and was designed to easily allow the removal of outdated technology through easily accessible hatches.

Possible planned upgrades include:
– Autonomous Underwater Vehicles: AUVs (under study as part of Project Mapantsula) are expected to revolutionise undersea warfare the way UAVs have air warfare. It is anticipated each of the corvettes and the multi-purpose hull vessels will carry an AUV for minehunting purposes, obviating the need for specialist vessels.
– UAVs: The Navy is following the ongoing development of rotor-propelled UAVs and plan to purchase some, to a scale of two per ship, when the technology matures.
– Land Attack Missiles: As of 2008 the class deliberately lacks a land-attack cruise missile capability for political reasons: such weapons are seen by some as “too aggressive” and out of keeping with the Valour-class’s “defensive posture.” However, like its peers the SA Navy recognises the growing importance of fighting in the littoral battlespace and supporting land forces during war and peace operations. As a result, a missile land attack capability is likely to be added as funds become available and sensitivities are assuaged.
– Upgrading Umkhonto: Denel is developing an all-weather version (dubbed AWSAM, all weather surface-to-air missile) fitted with a radar seeker and booster for the SA Army’s Ground-based air defence system (GBADS) as part of Projects Protector and Outcome. This would suggest the Umkhonto VLS (vertical launch system) can accommodate missiles capable of medium ranges and area defence (the current Umkhonto-IR is, by contrast, a short-range point-defence system.
– A new main gun: The 76mm gun fitted to the class is an interim cost-saving measure. Senior naval officials are well aware the gun is too small to effectively support forces ashore. In the medium term, a navalised version of the 105mm Denel LEO or the Denel G6 is considered optimum because of range and the already-existing range of land attack munitions for both calibres. The Navy was suitably impressed by the December 2002 testing of a German 155mm PzH2000 turret aboard the German frigate FGS Hamburg in the place of the 76mm gun and a later test aboard the FGS Hessen. In January 2006 Jane’s International Defence Review reported that the “development of the MONARC (modular naval artillery concept) naval 155 mm gun turret has moved up a gear following what contractor Rheinmetall described as the turret’s ‘tentative pre-selection’ as part of the armament solution for the German Navy’s future F125 frigate programme.

The Meko design was up against the LaFayette, an Italian Fincantieri design, a Spanish Bazan proposal and the British Marconi F3000 tender. The Bazan proposal had topped an earlier acquisition effort, Project Falcon, but this was cancelled in 1995 to make way for the Strategic Defence Package.

Apartheid-era projects to replace the Type-12 (President) class frigates as well as the “W”(Jan van Riebeeck) class destroyers included an abortive effort (Project Taurus) to acquire four Joao de Coutinho class corvettes from Portugal, thwarted by the 1974 Revolution. This was followed by the purchase and construction of two A69 Aviso (D’Estienne d’Orves) class corvettes in France. The French however declined to deliver SAS Good Hope and SAS Transvaal after the imposition of mandatory UN sanctions in 1977. Both ships were later sold to Argentina, where they still serve. Plans were then drawn for the local construction of a class of frigates on the same slipway as that used to construct the SAS Drakensberg. Strategic considerations, war and cost eventually scuppered that project.

The Navy’s Chief Director Maritime Strategy, Rear Admiral Bernhard Teuteberg, last November gave the National Assembly the following running costs:


Per Frigate

Annual personnel cost (if staffed to specification


Average annual operating cost (if spending 1 days at sea @ full operational capability


Annualised life cycle cost (presuming 30 years of service)


Total annual cost


Total annual cost over 30 years (excluding acquisition cost and inflation)



Acquisition cost


Operating cost over 30 years**








* As far as is publicly known, the Spioenkop has not yet taken part in Operation Hopper, the east coast anti-piracy patrol. The first ship deployed was the SAS Mendi around February, followed by the Amatola circa April.
** Rear Admiral Chris Bennett (Ret) argues modern ships can operate at full capability for 30 years if properly maintained and crewed and a further 10 years at reduced capability.