When is SAS Drakensberg going to Cuba and South America?

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SA Navy (SAN) Chief Vice Admiral Monde Lobese has set ambitious targets for the maritime component of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF), and this includes an Atlantic Ocean transit to Brazil and Cuba as well as tasking a Valour Class frigate with a Russian visit.

SAS Drakensberg (A301), the 37-year-old South African built combat support/replenishment vessel, was earlier this year confirmed by the country’s senior sailor as being the chosen platform to visit South America and the Caribbean in the latter part of 2024. Lobese said the vessel – affectionately known as “Drakies” and also by its abbreviation DKB – would take part in “exercises” in Brazil, as part of South Africa’s intent to grow its naval presence with the accent on BRICS+ (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, Iran, Egypt, Ethiopia, and the United Arab Emirates). It may also load equipment for the SA Navy. The Cuban call would strengthen the military relationship between South Africa and the Caribbean Island nation.

Lobese did not specify dates for the close to 4 200 nautical mile voyage to the South American country or the presumably subsequent 2 600 plus nautical mile transit to Cuba, with another close to 6 600 nautical mile transit back to home port Simon’s Town to wrap up the deployment. Attempts by defenceWeb to obtain clarity on the excursion, going back to early May, have yielded no response.

Another issue which could impact on Lobese’s aspirations is parts availability. Armscor tender ENLS/2024/19 calls for “maintenance spares” for A301. Inquiries for detail to Armscor supply chain management (SCM) remain unanswered, even after the tender closing date. At the same time Armscor, via its public relations officials, informed defenceWeb it would not comment on still open tenders. This is to allow SCM “processes to unfold” ahead of public comment and ensure “all parties interested in the tender have the same information”.

A retired SAN captain, preferring anonymity, said tender ENLS/2024/19 could well be for spares to be carried aboard on the transits ahead of DKB, but could not elaborate without seeing tender documentation.

As to when A301 was last on “active duty” as it were, two Simon’s Town ship spotters maintain this was either late 2019 or early 2020. One said her last tasking was an Operation Copper deployment to the Mozambique Channel. Both men defenceWeb spoke to were among those who spotted the clandestine arrival of the Lady R in December 2022.

While alongside with only essentials operational, Drakensberg has not been entirely unserviceable.

Another Simon’s Town spotter filmed her helicopter deck being used for landing and take-off training, while moored, by a SA Air Force (SAAF) 22 Squadron Super Lynx (191) a year ago.

Last year Lobese said the SA Navy would soon start a project to replace the SAS Drakensberg. It is not clear how this will be funded, as the Navy already had to cut its patrol vessel numbers under Project Biro from six to three – Lobese has called for an additional 12 inshore and offshore patrol vessels to adequately project South Africa’s maritime domain.

The SA Navy has been exploring a Drakensberg replacement for quite some time, and originally hoped to have a new vessel in service by 2021. In 2015, Flag Officer Fleet, Rear Admiral Bubele Bravo Mhlana, currently Deputy Navy Chief, said “We are presently taking serious strain as the Drakensberg, for the last one and a half years, has been going through major maintenance. When it is not there, you are very limited in terms of reach, in terms of sustainment of the operations in distant areas.”

In addition to being used as a replenishment ship, SAS Drakensberg has also been used to patrol for pirates in the Mozambique Channel as part of Operation Copper. In April 2012 she helped European warships catch seven Somali pirates in the Channel.

SAS Drakensberg was launched in April 1986 by Sandock Austral and commissioned into service in November the following year. She has a full load displacement of 12 500 tons and a length of 147 metres. She can carry 5 500 tons of fuel, 750 tons of ammunition and dry stores and 210 tons of fresh water. In addition, 50 000 litres of fresh water can be made every day. Two Oryx helicopters, two landing craft and two RHIBs can be accommodated on board as well.

The Drakensberg is the largest ship built in South Africa to date and is reportedly the first naval vessel to be completely designed in the country. In addition to her replenishment role she is employed on search and rescue duties, patrol and surveillance duties and has considerable potential for use in disaster relief.

Amatola to Russia

SAS Amatola, meanwhile, has been earmarked to sail along the East Coast of Africa, through the Suez Canal and stop at Alexandria in Egypt. Here she will exercise with the Egyptian Navy. From there she will sail through the Mediterranean Sea, through the Straits of Gibraltar, and head north. She will sail through the English Channel, the North Sea and Enter the Baltic Sea. She will sail to St Petersburg in Russia and take part in their Navy Anniversary Parade at the end of July.

Lobese earlier this year said that by doing so she will become the first SA Navy ship to visit Russia, “who is one of our strategic BRICS partner countries.”

On her return voyage she will return along the west coast of Africa, stopping to refuel and exercise with African countries along the way. This voyage will be approximately 19 000 nautical miles, and will be one of the longest voyages ever undertaken by a SA Navy vessel. This will also be the first time that a SA Navy ship has circumnavigated the African continent since 1994.