New vessels needed for the SA Navy more than ever

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With Houthi rebels attacking ships off the Horn of Africa and Red Sea and consequently diverting shipping around the Cape, SA Navy (SAN) Chief Monde Lobese believes more than ever that additional vessels are needed to fulfil the Navy’s constitutional mandate and protect South Africa’s maritime environment.

Speaking at a 20 years long service medal parade in Simons Town on 29 February, the incumbent Chief of the SA Navy said he has made it a priority to see his ships sailing at sea, conducting the roles for which they were designed and procured for. However, “I do not have to say to you that this will be difficult under the current financial situation that we are subjected to, but we must not allow ourselves to lose hope.

“Each of you who are following the news each day will notice that the message spread by the leadership of the SANDF [South African National Defence Force] – namely that the constant budget cuts must stop – is slowly filtering through the news media, and reaching the ears of the Government leadership,” he told those at the parade. “We must spread the message with every opportunity that the SAN stands ready and willing to do our duty. However, we are not always able to do our duty, because of the constant budget cuts,” Lobese cautioned.

Nevertheless, the Chief believes the tide is slowly turning, “and within a few months our ships will be sailing and doing what they are supposed to do.”

Some positive news on the SA Navy’s fleet was the blessing ceremony of the third and final Multi Mission Inshore Patrol (MMIPV) at Damen Shipyards Cape Town on 1 March. This vessel (P1573, future SAS Chief Adam Kok) will join her sister ships, SAS King Sekukhune I and SAS King Shaka Zulu, in leading the rejuvenation of the South African Navy along with the acquisition of a new hydrographic survey vessel under Project Hotel.

“Although we are grateful for our Government to procure these ships for us, we must repeat the message that in order to do our Constitutional Mandate effectively, we need at least 15 of these vessels [MMIPVs], as well as 15 larger Offshore Patrol Vessels,” Lobese emphasised.

“This requirement is again made clear with the current geo-political tensions that are taking place in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. These tensions have resulted in many of the world’s largest shipping companies diverting their cargo around our coastline.”

Lobese explained that on 28 February, there were 1 528 ships in South Africa’s Exclusive Economic Zone, and this is what the picture looks like each day of the year.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, our country is located at a strategic geographic choke-point around the world. We are living in a world where tensions can easily escalate into conflict. Our country is ravaged by international fleets of ships who come at night and strip our seas of fish that belong to us,” Lobese said.

“International terrorists can threaten the ships traveling past our coastline, thus dragging us into their conflicts. Our country’s largest external security threat will come from our seas, and not from land. If we cannot secure our coastline, the consequences for our country will be disastrous. That is why our government must capacitate the South African Navy with more funds, more ships, better and more modern equipment and more personnel.

“If all of us do our part, then the South African Navy can again deploy our ships at sea, and together we can take the Navy to Greatness,” Lobese told those at the parade.

Defence expert Dean Wingrin believes that further acquisitions in such numbers “is just wishful thinking with no chance of fruition. But, he must say it. Inshore patrol vessels and offshore patrol vessels are more useful than frigates for local patrols and many anti-piracy duties.”

Lobese’s comments came a day after Defence and Military Veterans Minister Thandi Modise hinted at the procurement of offshore patrol vessels during a question and answer session in Parliament. While the defence budget has shrunk in real terms, National Treasury has allocated some additional funding for things like border protection equipment and transport aircraft maintenance, suggesting the possibility that additional funding could theoretically be allocated for additional naval vessels.