Reflecting on local maritime security, how to optimise off-shore safety

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South Africa has one of the most capable naval forces on the continent, but it is geared towards battles and not patrol capability, argues Magnus-Lewis Olsson, CEO of Saab Grintek Defence (SGD) South Africa.

This year, with the SANDF’s mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and President Jacob Zuma extending the SA Navy’s anti-piracy mission off Mozambique, concerns were raised on the security of South Africa’s borders – with the SA fleet deployed in Mozambique, who was protecting South Africa’s porous coastline?

A disconcerting reality, considering that offshore protection for infrastructures like oil rigs, fixed offshore production platforms and various other floating-type facilities are limited.

This was a key point of discussion during last year’s Maritime and Coastal Security Africa (MCSA) Conference, where the fragility of offshore infrastructures was highlighted. These are regarded as ‘soft targets’ due to it being exposed to threats from ‘above, below and the sea’. It was agreed that the ability to respond is key to safeguarding offshore facilities.

Among its many defence and security solutions, Saab Grintek Defence (SGD) South Africa, a Gold Sponsor at this year’s MCSA Conference, is also a company geared towards improving awareness and optimising security at sea and within ports.

The importance of this mandate should not be underestimated. As noted by Thean Potgieter from the Institute of Security Studies: “The Indian Ocean is an economic, energy, cultural and military highway of considerable strategic importance.” [1] It stands to reason that it should be offered the best range of security solutions in order to protect sea traffic and infrastructures from the myriad threats facing it.

Lewis-Olsson explains that in order to enable safety and security in the naval sphere, various tactics and solutions need to be deployed: “For example, security solutions would need to be able to offer a complete network, which includes everything from port security and traffic management as well as a range of solutions for coastal surveillance, search and rescue, and for every type of underwater work in the offshore industry. Saab’s security solutions are designed to facilitate interaction, improve awareness and optimise and secure flows at sea and within ports.”

He adds that SA’s coast is not alone in facing this threat: “Making seaways, ports, offshore facilities and other maritime as well as shore-based infrastructure safe and secure is a major global challenge, and we aren’t just talking objects here – coastguards, the police and the naval fleet are all at risk. A company like Saab’s job would be to make their job easier as well as safer.”

How has technology enabled the safety and security of public servants finding themselves offshore?

“By providing them with knowledge,” says Lewis-Olsson, “knowing what lies over the horizon enables people to make the best possible decision and save lives. Maritime Surveillance products – like Skeldar – which provide fleets with situational awareness by scouting ahead and identifying potential threats, have the ability to change a high-risk situation into a controlled and responsive one.”

Maritime Surveillance is a state-of-the-art surveillance system designed for accurate detection and fast response to suspicious behaviour, such as subversive activities, piracy, smuggling or illegal immigration. It also provides support for search-and-rescue operations, disaster-relief and environmental-protection operations.

Ultimately, this is the operational structure needed within the South African Navy, says Lewis-Olsson, as the real threats facing local borders aren’t battles at sea, but threats in the form of illegal fishing, drug trafficking, piracy and illegal commerce.

Dr Deane-Peter Baker, assistant professor of philosophy in the Department of Leadership, Ethics and Law at the US Naval Academy, supports this view: “Ultimately, what is needed is a broad and comprehensive rethinking of South Africa’s approach to securing its borders, people, and interests… A recalibration of this kind will have to be realistic about the level of defence expenditure South Africa can afford (given the pressing social challenges that must be addressed by the government on a very small tax base), and must be set against a realistic assessment of the threat environment that South Africa is likely to face.” [2]

The solution? “Airborne surveillance assets, such as maritime patrol aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles, will be vital for situational awareness of the nation’s vast EEZ.” [3]

“South Africa has the most capable naval force on the continent, equipped with stealth frigates and torpedo-armed submarines, but there is a great need in the form of equipment for offshore patrols – a requirement that will hopefully receive continuing consideration in the South African government’s maritime security strategy,” concludes Lewis-Olsson.

[1] Thean Potgieter, Maritime Security in the Indian Ocean: Strategic Setting and Features, Institute for Security Studies, 2012
[2] Dr Deane-Peter Baker, The South African Navy and African Maritime Security, Naval War College Review, 2012, Vol. 65. No.2
[3] Ibid