Navies are expensive to operate even in peacetime, they require long-term planning, work, and funding. Yet they remain crucial to national defense.
With sophisticated sensors and powerful, long-range weaponry, they patrol International waters and can respond quickly to crises and bring more firepower to bear than can air forces and ground forces.
Traditionally, South Africa used to boast the most powerful navy in sub-Saharan Africa. No more. That’s a serious problem.
Today, however, the South African Navy is a shadow of its former self. Government budgeteers have repeatedly, and excessively, cut their funding. Now, it can barely patrol its waters, much less project South African influence abroad.
An 18 August progress report from the South African Department of Defence (DoD) presented at a Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans (PCDMV) meeting explains that the South African Navy (SAN) does not have enough funds to refit most of its frigates and submarines to keep them in top fighting shape.
Only R786 million was allocated for naval vessel refit for the 2021/22 financial year, out of the required R1/479 billion
“This impacts negatively on the preparation of naval platforms for force preparation and forces employment,” the DoD stated.
“The underfunding of the refit, maintenance, and repair of vessels…is the major contributing factor towards the non-achievement of planned sea hours.”
Also, the SAN reports ever diminishing sea hours to Parliament every year, driven by a declining budget, the Navy has failed to achieve its annual sea hour target of 10,000 hours per year.
The effects of budgets cuts are far-reaching and are now being felt as only one of the four frigates, SAS Amatola, was partially refitted in 2014/15 and only one of the three submarines, SAS Manthatisi, was refitted in 2013/14.
While the three remaining frigates; SAS Isandlwana, SAS Spioenkop, and SAS Mendi; and the submarine and the SAS Queen Modjadji 1; could not be refitted since they became due for it due to funding shortage.
To keep naval vessels available for operations and to extend their service life depend mainly on periodically scheduled refits (major overhauls) of all systems, equipment, and machinery to ensure effective, efficient, and economical combat readiness of the total platform.
“Plans to refit the remaining three frigates and submarine will be finalized based on the availability of progressive funding to enable the phased commencement of their refits. In this regard, it is to be noted that the average cost estimate for a frigate refit amounts to R687 million and that of a submarine refit amounts to R660 million,” the DoD started.
Although, Armscor Dockyard is currently refitting the submarine SAS Charlotte Maxeke and R189 million has been earmarked to ensure the completion of the current refit during the 2023/24 financial year.
At the moment, the SA Navy’s focus is to prioritise essential maintenance and repair of the frigates SAS Spioenkop and SAS Mendi, the combat support ship SAS Drakensberg and the Submarine SAS Manthatisi to ensure their expedited operational availability.
The lack of availability of naval assets have not prevented the SAN from carrying out its authorized duties but at a marginal level. South African Naval deployed to Mozambique two Warrior-class strike craft operated as well as their embarked helicopters and a small RHIB boat to transport seaborne commandos to board suspect vessels. A submarine will be also deployed to support the naval contingent.