South Africa lacking in maritime search and rescue capabilities


South Africa is one of six signatories to a multilateral agreement to improve maritime search and rescue operations in Southern African waters.

The countries who committed to the agreement last year, facilitated by South African Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula, are Angola, Comoros, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa.

SAnews reported at the time of the signing “the objective of the multilateral search and rescue agreement is to ensure co-operation between the signatories in pulling together resources to improve maritime search and rescue in the region”.

One not overly impressed by the agreement is top South African defence analyst Helmoed Heitman especially when the current state of the country’s primary respondent for search and rescue – the SA Air Force (SAAF) – is taken into account. Second respondent would be the SA Navy.

“The SAAF has no dedicated search and rescue aircraft, so all there really is to hand are the few C-47TPs and the C-130s. Both types have only weather radar and no FLIR or even long-range day TV cameras, so they are limited in their search capability. If they do find survivors, at least they can drop rafts assuming they still have some and other life preserving supplies,” he said adding the same limitation applied to the Oryx – only a weather radar “but good at lifting people off ships or out of the sea once found”.

The SAAF/SA Navy Super Lynx maritime helicopter is different he said.

“It has a proper surface search radar and a FLIR/TV but is obviously limited in terms of range/endurance and how many people it can pick up. In the right conditions and if there was a frigate nearby, a Lynx could find survivors and bring the ship to the scene. It can also lift individuals off a ship or out of the sea.”

Turning to other search and rescue options – “if we use imagination and think out of the box” – Heitman sees the Gripen with its radar and recce pod coming into the picture.

“It could find a ship in distress speedily and guide others to it. That would also give a quick first reaction.”

“Everything,” he maintains, “is limited by range.

“South Africa does not have any capability at all to cover the outer bits of the SASAR (South African search and rescue) area and helping the other signatory countries would mean having to land and refuel before starting a search, which would apply to most maritime aircraft anyway.

“Bottom line – if you get into trouble at sea, hope it is close to a South Africa air base and the ship or boat is large enough to show on weather radar and stays afloat long enough to be found. Or hope one of the frigates or Drakensberg is close by and has helicopters embarked,” is his succinct summing up.