Navy supports new maritime patrol aircraft


The South African Navy has expressed strong support for the Air Force to acquire new maritime patrol aircraft, with the Navy chief pledging its commitment to Project Saucepan to acquire new aircraft.

The South African Air Force has been without a purpose-built maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) since the last of the elderly Avro Shackleton aircraft were retired in 1984. The task of patrolling the seas around South Africa was taken over by converting World War Two-vintage C-47 Dakota transport aircraft for maritime surveillance duties. Inshore patrol of the coastline was performed by the P166S Albatross until the latter were retired as a cost-cutting measure in 1993.

Since then, the Dakotas, operated by 35 Squadron in Cape Town, have been upgraded with turboprop engines and rudimentary radio, radar and surveillance equipment, but they are still hopelessly out-dated when compared to modern maritime patrol aircraft equipped with state-of-the-art sensors and longer range.

The threat of piracy in the waters of the Southern African Development Community has resulted in the Air Force giving greater urgency to its maritime patrol aircraft acquisition program, known as Project Saucepan.

The South African Navy, with the aid and support of Mozambique, has maintained an anti-piracy patrol in the Mozambique Channel since early 2011, under Operation Copper. The naval presence generally consists of a frigate supported by a C-47TP Dakota maritime surveillance aircraft of the South African Air Force. The Air Force also supplies a Super Lynx helicopter that operates from the frigate.

The area covered by Operation Copper is over 66 000 square nautical miles. While the frigate can only cover a very limited area at any one time, the use of the Super Lynx can extend the area under surveillance ten-fold.

Rear Admiral (JG) “Bravo” Mhlana, Director Fleet Force Preparation of the SA Navy, explained last week that, with an endurance of up to four hours, the maritime patrol Dakota directed by a land-based Air Component Commander, dramatically extended the area under surveillance for Operation Copper.
“It is a joint effort,” Mhlana said. “This whole exercise becomes intelligence driven and when we get that intelligence, it is then when we try and make cost-effective use of what we have, mostly based on the availability of maritime patrol aircraft”.
“The maritime patrol aircraft that was provided to us for this operation was of great value and it managed to provide us with vital information. We’ve used (the Dakota) mostly in areas where we felt that or received information that there is an activity taking place and thereafter we will focus in those areas,” Mhlana continued.

Mhlana stated that the Navy, “got value for the maritime patrol aircraft that was there and we used it to the best of our advantage and abilities.”

In response to a question by defenceWeb, Chief of the Navy, Vice Admiral Refiloe Mudimo, mentioned that Phase Two of the Maritime Security Strategy would introduce the Maritime Patrol Aircraft as an additional source to the information compiled by the newly established Maritime Domain Awareness Centres. These Centres keep track of shipping and maritime security matters around the South African coast.
defenceWeb reported in May last year that that Chief of the Air Force, Lieutenant General Carlo Gagiano, said the burning need was for airborne sensors. “We have a gap there we have to fill very quickly.” This is why Saucepan is “so important” and “will make such a big difference”.

Project Saucepan does not only relate to the acquisition of maritime patrol aircraft, but also addresses the urgent need to renew the air transport fleet. Senior officers in the Air Force have spoken of acquiring one aircraft type that can be used for both transport and maritime tasks. However, the Air Force has more recently spoken of acquiring smaller and thus cheaper aircraft, comparable in size to the Beechcraft King Air 350, which is already in use by other air arms in a similar role.

The Air Force’s budget is expected to increase in 2013/14 to take Project Saucepan costs into account.

Gagiano also stated that the new patrol aircraft would be based at various locations around the coast and not just at Air Force Base Ysterplaat in Cape Town, as is presently the case.

With increasing instances of illegal fishing in South African waters and piracy threatening to extend down the east coast, it is not just the Air Force that is pushing for new patrol aircraft. Mudimo backed the acquisition by saying that, “the South African Navy highly supports Project Saucepan because it is going to assist us in terms of fighting maritime crime at sea.”