Indications are any plans to expand the presence of soldiers on South Africa’s landward borders will not happen if the current status quo as far as financing is concerned remains in place.
According to an analysis done for Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Defence (JSCD), there is “a significant reduction” in the number of Reserve Force mandays from 2,7 million in the 2016/17 financial year to 1,8 million in the current financial year.
With by far the majority of soldiers deployed on Operation Corona border protection duties coming from Reserve Force units, it appears the military will be hard-pressed to maintain the present commitment. This sees 15 companies, sub-units, in parliamentary jargon, currently deployed along South Africa’s borders with Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.
Planning was for the number on companies deployed to increase by one, possibly two, a year to a maximum of 22. Senior Reserve Force officers have privately told defenceWeb “it is and will remain a problem”.
Other areas of concern raised in the analysis, tabled at last week’s meeting of the JSCD are personnel numbers. The meeting took place ahead of the Department of Defence’s budget presentation to the National Assembly, scheduled for May 25.
In February Armscor made public the names of preferred bidders for new naval platforms, including a hydrographic vessel.
Durban-based SA Shipyards was announced as the preferred bidder for the hydrographic vessel and associated equipment. The new vessel will, once in service, replace SAS Protea, which both irks and pleases military analyst Helmoed Heitman.
“The build of the survey ship is apparently planned to start in the current financial year but I’m not so sure this will happen,” he told defenceWeb adding a local private sector company has apparently been chosen as the system integration partner for Project Hotel.
“I believe the company concerned has hired some competent people but I hope the build and subsequent fitting and testing of systems does not become an exercise in badge engineering with the actual work handed off to a foreign firm.”
As to the actual specification of the survey ship he maintains there is no need for it as the tasks it will do can be handled by an offshore patrol vessel (OPV) using offboard systems.
“There is no need for a large chart room – we now use computers, not pencils and parallel rulers – and much of the basic survey has been done with mainly updating left. That said, having the capability does keep the SA Navy in a different league which has political advantages, although those have not been exploited.”
Why, he asks, was it the Indian Navy which handled survey work for a fellow Southern African Development Community (SADC) country recently and not the SA Navy?
“If South Africa is not going to do regional hydrographic work I find it difficult to justify a dedicated ship.”
Taking the future build of the maritime arm of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) into account as it stands in terms of Armscor’s February preferred bidder announcement Heitman said the concept ort 10 to 12 identical hull/machinery packages would, for him, have been a better option.
“Obvious points are the economies of scale and easier support and training compared to the currently approved seven ships with different hull and machinery packages,” he said.
Indications are, as Heitman points out, work on the new hydrographic platform will start in the current financial year with the six patrol vessels – three inshore and three offshore – apparently set down for the next financial year.
This could see delivery of the first offshore patrol vessel (OPV) in 2020 with an initial operating capability of perhaps six months after that and full availability again six months later, he said as a guesstimate.
That means the maritime protection duties envisaged for the SA Navy in line with the blue economy sector of Operation Phakisa will until then have to be handled by the existing fleet.
Heitman said he would prefer not to see the four Valour Class frigates assigned routine patrol work.
“They should be kept in reserve for when something serious comes up. That does not mean keeping them tied up all the time. They would conduct patrols as part of training, both in South African waters and the Mozambique Channel and more distant patrols in African waters. Additionally they would participate in anti-piracy operations in east and west African waters and patrol the islands during peak poaching season.”
At the time of publication there has been no further announcement from Armscor on finalisation of preferred bidders and expected delivery dates.