Submarines to receive new batteries


South Africa’s fleet of three Heroine-class Type 209 diesel-electric attack submarines are to receive new batteries as part of their “first minor overhaul”, the Ministry of Defence and Military Veterans says in two answers to Parliamentary questions.

The battery consists of 480 man-sized cells and weighs 250 metric tons, according to a South African Navy briefing to Parliament last month. Navy Chief Director Maritime Strategy Rear Admiral Bernhard Teuteberg at the same briefing said a battery costs R35 million. He also described the overhaul as “major”. 
“In order to ensure that the SAS Manthatisi (S101) will be operational for a period of at least eight years on completion of the first minor overhaul, the SA Navy will procure a new battery for the submarine,” the ministry says in answer to a Parliamentary question by Freedom Front Plus MP Pieter Groenewald. “Each submarine will, in turn, be fitted with a new battery on completion of their respective minor overhauls.”

Another answer notes the Manthatisi is “presently in reserve, and has been so since October 2007. The submarine is being prepared to become the first Type 209 Submarine to be overhauled in Simon’s Town Naval Dockyard,” the answer continues. “The SAS Manthatisi will be undergoing an overhaul in accordance with the laid down schedules for this type of submarine. The scope of work for the overhaul of SAS Manthatisi is currently being determined.”

The Manthatisi is the lead-boat of class of three submarines acquired for R8.1 billion as part of Project Wills,a component of the controversial Strategic Defence Package. She was laid down at Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft, Thyssen Nordsee Werke, Kiel on May 22, 2001, was launched June 15, 2004 and commissioned November 3, 2005. It arrived in South African waters in April 2006. Her sisters were both commissioned March 14, 2007. The Charlotte Maxeke arrived in South African waters in April 2007 and SAS Queen Modjadji I in May 2008.

In answer to Groenewald’s question as to whether the repairs might be done in Germany, where they had been built, the ministry said the Navy was “not giving consideration to sending the submarine to Germany for repairs. The requisite capabilities are being sourced and developed locally, and these capabilities will form the foundation for not only the maintenance of SAS Manthatisi but also the subsequent overhaul of SAS Charlotte Maxeke and SAS Queen Modjadji I, as scheduled in the SA Navy Maintenance and Upkeep Plan for the Medium to Long Term Expenditure Framework.”

The ministry insists in the first answer “the majority of this overhaul consists of routine maintenance and replacement of parts as opposed to repairs. Very little known repair work is required on the SAS Manthatisi. It will be the first submarine to undergo this process. Many elements of this process are unknown and infrastructure and training will need to be established in order to create a submarine overhaul capability in country. It is envisaged that the process will be complete by mid to late 2012.” Teuteberg last month said the Manthatisi wa expected to return to service in 2013.
“The Navy is currently in the process of establishing a list of maintenance to be completed during the minor overhaul. This list is termed the ‘Scope of Work’. Once the Scope of Work has been established, the spares requirement will be known and will be the major factor in establishing the cost for the overhaul,” the ministry added.

The Business Day a month ago the boat’s extended spell on the “hard” has variously been described as routine battery maintenance or the result of a minor encounter with the quay causing damage to the aft dive plane. Experts and opposition MPs have suggested that there is something more seriously wrong with the submarine.

Teuteberg told the Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans that there were three issues involving the Manthatisi. The first was that when the submarine is in harbour it is plugged into a shore service to keep its 250 tons of batteries charged. The South African Press Association elaborated that “someone” had connected the submarine to this “the wrong way round”, blowing fuses in the submarine, apparently because the wires had not been marked properly. The sailor responsible had been disciplined. “A board of inquiry was convened and… a person was held responsible; he was reprimanded,” Teuteberg said.

The second was that in rough weather the vessel “banged” into a quay, causing minor damage to the aft plane, which helps steer and trim the submarine underwater. However, the integrity of the hull was not compromised, he said. SAPA noted the “bash” was sustained when putting to sea on a stormy day. “The entrance to the submarine base is too small for this type of submarine with one screw. We did touch the quay [with the aft plane] and bent plates slightly upwards. We immediately took the submarine out of the water and checked its water-tight integrity… the only damage was [the plane] which was bent upwards.” Teuteberg said there were now plans to widen the entrance to the submarine pen “so that there is more space”.

The third issue, Business Day says, involved the efficiency of the batteries, the admiral explained, saying that when being charged, batteries produced hydrogen and the build-up of the gas damaged some of the submarine’s 480 cells. The problem had been solved by introducing hydrogen release valves and the manufacturer had given the undertaking that some of the damaged units would be replaced free of charge, the broadsheet reports.

The Parliamentary question continues that the “battery is currently housed in the Submarine Battery Workshop where it is being trickle charged to ensure that the battery is maintained at operational levels. This means that the battery is being discharged and charged to ensure that the system remains operational without depreciating in Ampere Hours.” This despite the battery being replaced…

The answer also records that the fuse incident took place sometime in 2008, after the boat was placed in reserve. “The submarine’s wiring is not damaged but an incident did occur in 2008 during which mainly fuses were blown in a shore supply box (external of the submarine),” the ministry said. “During a switch over from shore to ship electrical supply, an incident occurred whereby an AC [alternating current] plug was incorrectly inserted into a DC [direct current] socket. This led to a number of fuses being blown (as with trip switches) protecting electrical equipment onboard from incorrectly phased electrical supply. This incident has led to changes in design and standard operating procedures to ensure that a similar incident cannot occur again. The minor repairs that had to be affected to the outboard switchboard were completed shortly after the incident occurred, in excess of 18 months ago. There are currently no repairs required to the submarine’s wiring.”

Freedom Front Plus defence spokesman Pieter Groenewald says it is a worry the boat was placed in reserve after just 18 months of service. It is a further worry that according to the answer the Navy and Armscor Dockyard currently lack the knowledge to service the submarine and that the whole process must still be learned. “For a submarine that cost R1.6 billion, the taxpayer is certainly not getting value for money. The minister cannot say what it [the service] will cost and there I uncertainty whether it is a major service or just a minor overhaul. The minister says it is a minor overhaul but in the briefing it was said this was a major service, hence the time period [two years] involved.”

The FF+ MP, who was a member of Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Lindiwe Sisulu’s Interim National Defence Force Service Commission, added the battery is a further uncertainty. He says the answer is contradictory. In one line it is avered the current battery is being maintained but in the next it is said a new battery is being acquired. “… the question is why is the current battery still being charged and discharged? If a battery’s lifetime is eight years, why is the existing battery’s life just six years?
“From the minister’s answer it is clear the full implications of the purchase was not realised and that the contract is defective. A proper contract would have ensured that the necessary knowledge of the maintenance and services required would have been part of the [contractor-provided] training,” Groenewald said. I will certainly be asking more questions to get clarity on this.”

Pic: A view of the battery hall, taken from R Adm Teuteberg’s presentation to the National Assembly, November 17.