Hit by budget cuts over the past few years, the South African Navy (SAN) is bucking the regional trend and falling behind other navies in Africa, says the Chief of the South African Navy, Vice Admiral Mosiwa Samuel Hlongwane.
“The naval balance of power is shifting on our continent,” he told delegates at the Maritime Security Conference, at Simon’s Town, in Cape Town, on Friday.
He highlighted advances made by navies in Egypt, Algeria and Nigeria and said South Africa was lagging far behind.
“With the notable exceptions of the recent contracts signed for the navy to acquire a replacement hydrographic survey ship and three new in-shore patrol vessels, the defence force is stagnating to a large extent.
“In particular, the platforms acquired under the Strategic Defence Packages of the early 2000s are beginning to suffer from a lack of funds for support and maintenance.”
Hlongwane said South Africa’s frigates and submarines urgently required refits in order to keep them operational to the end of their 30-year design lives.
“While from a defence perspective we have to appreciate the enormous decisions and conflicting requirements faced by our leaders in Cabinet and obviously comply with our mandate in the best possible way, we do need to scan the environment for developing trends and emerging threats and plan for the possible challenges that may face us in the future.”
Hlongwane said South Africa was bucking the regional trend and “is heading backwards in the worst case or merely marking time in the best case in terms of our operational capability”.
He described how Algeria was busy with a major modernisation and expansion programme similar to the one South Africa conducted in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“In my opinion, they could soon challenge Egypt for the title of premier navy on the African continent.”
Algeria has recently acquired two 3 700 t Meko A200 frigates. “These are very similar to the SAN’s Valour class but are significantly better armed in terms of surface warfare with much longer ranged guns and missiles,” said Hlongwane.
The Algerian navy had also acquired three 2 880 t Chinese corvettes armed with long range antiship missiles. Hlongwane said these were just over half the size of the SAN frigates but were better armed for surface warfare and carried the SSN 25 antiship missile.
Algeria’s other acquisitions included two new Russian kilo class submarines to complement the four it already had. This makes Algeria the largest African submarine operator.
The Algerian navy now also has a San Giorgio class landing platform dock acquired from Italy. The large flight desk vessel displaces 9 000 t and can carry 350 troops, 36 mechanised vehicles and three to five medium helicopters.
Hlongwane said the second country that was building up acquisitions was Egypt. The Egyptian navy has funding assistance from the US and Saudi Arabia.
Its recent acquisitions include four Type 209 submarines from Germany, which are similar to the SAN 209 submarines “but are significantly better armed”. It has acquired two 21 000 t mistral class landing helicopter dock ships. “These extremely capable, large amphibious ships can carry 900 troops, 59 mechanised vehicles and 16 medium helicopters,” said Hlongwane.
Egypt has also ordered 50 KA 52 combat support helicopters from Russia for the two ships.
In addition, it has ordered a 6 000 t Fremm class frigate from France, which is almost identical to the frontline Fremm frigates used by the French navy.
Hlongwane listed Nigeria as the third nation which had recently made some major acquisitions. The Nigerian navy has been very active in combatting piracy and other maritime crime in the Gulf of Guinea in recent times.
Nigiera has recently acquired two second-hand Hamilton Class Cutters handed down from the US Coast Guard. The vessels are armed with a 76 mm gun and are slightly smaller than the South African frigates, said Hlongwane. It has also bought two new P18N Class corvettes from China.
Hlongwane said Algeria and Egypt had both appeared to be modernising or expanding their submarine fleets. “This is likely more in response to increasing instability in the Middle East, North Africa and the Mediterranean regions rather than African hegemon ambitions.”
In contrast, South Africa will be acquiring a modern hydrographic survey vessel and three robust, relatively simple in-shore patrol vessels.
Hlongwane said Nigeria appeared to be increasing the hours of its ships at sea. “The SAN on the other hand reports ever diminishing sea hours to Parliament every year, driven by a declining budget.
“This is not a very comfortable situation especially when seen in light of the build-up in the capability of the navies to the north of us.
Hlongwane said the need for the SAN to be a key regional role-player could only be driven by a budget which adequately supported “government levels of ambition”.
“I am not advocating that we acquire new powerful ships to match those being acquired to the north of us . . . just that I would like to adequately maintain and support the really excellent ships and submarines that we already have in our inventory so that I can send them to sea to improve the expertise, confidence and morale of my sailors and get back to my vision of being “unchallenged at sea”.