SA shipbuilders unite

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South African shipbuilders and their supporting industry have formed the South African Shipbuilding Defence Industry (SADI) forum to better engage the government and each other as news on the placement of orders related to Projects Biro and Hotel remain elusive.

Prasheen Maharaj, financial director of Southern African Shipyards, based in Durban, says some 16 companies – with 8000 employees – have joined the forum, launched at the Africa Aerospace & Defence (AAD) 2010 exhibition last week. They include his company, Damen Shipyards Cape Town (DSCT) and suppliers Siemens, Atlas Elektronik, Thales and Natcom, among others.
“We have a legacy of discord and mistrust within the South African shipbuilding industry,” Maharaj says, “but now we need to speak with one voice and to talk with each other.” He says the forum will engage with government and other bodies with the express aim of ensuring that future orders for naval ships will be placed locally and not offshore.

Project Biro could see the South African Navy acquire up to six patrol vessels and Hotel will see the sea service replace SAS Protea, its hydrographic survey vessel. The Navy has previously said the ships would be built in South Africa. It has also suggested other African navies order the same patrol vessel and build as well as maintain them in South Africa. However, the question remains “when?” The Navy last publicly spoke about the project in late 2008 and questions to Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Lindiwe Sisulu in July on the placement of orders did not elicit a specific response. This has left domestic yards and industry in an ongoing invidious position that they have to retain skills and capacity in the hope that the military will some day place an order – but without any certainty when that will be or what will actually be ordered.

Ports.co.za last month reported the forum hoped to be a “powerful lobby to prevent or avoid such orders being placed outside South Africa.” It reports that fresh in the memories of those present at a Vessel Construction and Repair Business Summit held in Durban last month under the auspices of Trade & Investment KwaZulu-Natal was the orders for frigates and submarines that were placed with German shipbuilding consortiums as part of South Africa’s Strategic Defence Procurement Package in 1999, “which resulted in strong political criticism and disappointment among local shipyards and suppliers”.

Yet many would argue South Africa did not have the capacity to build submarines – and that it was not worth acquiring these for a single order of three boats (the reason South Africa reportedly did not go ahead and attempt to build submarines in the 1980s – despite glowing press reports that it would and could). It is also not clear the 121m frigates could have been built by any South African yard without substantial modification and expansion of infrastructure. The Navy has thus far resisted paying for such work.

Previous attempts to build a local shipbuilding industry for large vessels have foundered on a lack of follow-up orders. The 147m SAS Drakensberg was built in Durban in the early 1980s and at the time created an expectation that a class of frigates would follow under Project Falcon. When this was abandoned for a lack of funds disappointment as well as job and skills losses followed.

In this regard, Engineering News last week reported DSCT director Frank Rebel as saying he would consider expanding his facilities if Biro (and Hotel) “resulted in this country ordering a sufficient number of vessels in an appropriate timescale.” DSCT can for now build vessels of up to 60m in length.

Ports.co.za reported Rear Admiral (JG) JE Louw told the Durban summit the six patrol vessels would come in two sizes – three with a length of 50m and another three larger ships of around 80 or 90m. The smaller ships would operate up to 50 nautical miles (nm) from the coast, while the larger vessels would operate out to 200nm, the limit of South Africa’s exclusive economic zone. The new hydrographic vessels will be of the same size as the latter. The summit was also told the Navy was still looking for a strategic support ship (Project Millennium) capable of carrying a battalion of infantry and a squadron of tanks and helicopters. Maharaj added if “we can build patrol ships for the South African Navy, this can lead to further exports into Africa where there is a requirement for up to 30 and more patrol boats,” he said. “We have to become more creative in preventing such orders going offshore.
“The South African shipbuilding industry defence industry can compete with the best in the world. It is a strategic industry that can be a big job and skills creator, a centre of innovation and an export revenue generator.”



Pic: Shipyards far and wide are after Biro and Hotel. Numerous European, Indian and Chinese yards – and even one from Turkey – were at AAD2010. Most were also at AAD2008. This is a Lurssen design.