The SA Navy’s supply and replenishment vessel, SAS Drakensberg (A301), is in harbour in Pemba, Mozambique and unable to proceed with Operation Copper anti-piracy duties apparently due to mechanical problems.
The 30-year-old, 147 metre long vessel remains the largest ship built in South Africa and the current tour of duty in the Mozambique Channel would have been her third. She has, to date, been the only South African naval vessel involved in any active anti-piracy operations. This was when she performed “stopper” duties for the European Union Naval Force Operation Atalanta in 2012.
Opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party shadow defence and military veterans minister Kobus Marais told defenceWeb he had “reliable information” Drakies, as she is affectionately and widely known, was currently tied in up Pemba with a broken piston and a pair of broken inlet valves.
“I was told a lack of lubrication oil and proper maintenance are the causes of Drakensberg not being serviceable.”
The SA Navy, in the form of spokesman Commander Sam Khasuli based at the Navy Office in Pretoria, said the maritime force “does not discuss details of operational deployments and forces assigned to specific operations but can confirm SAS Drakensberg is at sea”.
This response was rebutted by Marais who pointed out the unserviceability of the vessel had “absolutely nothing” to do with any operational deployment.
“What it does have to do with is proper planning and maintenance, including the use of approved lubricants, rather than what appears to have been sub-standard ones in the case of the Drakensberg,” he said.
Marais’ opinion was supported by a retired senior Navy officer. “Maintenance and maintenance management is a fleet function and has nothing to do with operational deployments. In fact, it is the task of the Navy, as well as the SA Air Force and SA Army, to provide the Joint Operations division with properly trained personnel and equipment to execute missions and tasks,” he said.
Marais said he had been told by the Secretary for Defence he could not confirm or deny there were problems with Drakensberg from time to time but these had been attended to.
The shadow defence minister now plans on asking defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula what the current state of the Navy fleet is and how much is allocated to maintenance. He sees this as being particularly relevant when the Department of Defence has committed itself to an unconfirmed spend of around of R9 billion on seven new hulls for the Navy.
Six of these are in- and offshore patrol vessels whose purchase has been deferred to the 2018/19 financial year. However, a start is set to be made on local construction of a new hydrographic vessel to replace SAS Protea by Southern African Shipyards in the 2017/18 financial.
“I acknowledge and accept South Africa needs a hydrographic capability and it also desperately needs maritime patrol capabilities both in the air and on the sea, but the current fleet should first be properly maintained.
“Drakensberg is a fleet replenishment vessel, tasked with assisting and supporting the Navy, particularly its combat vessels. Every day it is out of service sees South Africa’s already limited defence capabilities weakened even more,” he said.