Publication: Institute for Security Studies : Institute for Defence Policy Issued: Date: 1996-10-01 Reporter: Commodore Theo Honiball

An Alternative to the SA Navy's Corvettes



Institute for Security Studies : Institute for Defence Policy
Occasional Paper No 11

Date October 1996


Commodore Theo Honiball (ret),
Former Chief of Naval Staff Planning

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Since the early 1970s the South African Navy has been trying to replace its type 12 Whitby class anti-submarine frigates which were bought under the Simon's Town Agreement in the early sixties.

There were several projects Taurus in co-operation with Portugal; Burlap, a local design; Picnic in France, and during the last five years two further attempts. All these projects, except Picnic which was cancelled by France in 1978, were cancelled due to the lack of funds. Since the last project has been cancelled in 1992, South Africa's financial situation has not improved. In February 1996, there were R3,65 to the US dollar. By August 1996 the Rand had dropped to R4,50 per US dollar. "As our debt burden rises to approximately R37 billion next year, the interest repayment is likely to increase to a little over R40 billion", the Minister of Finance told the Senate in May 1996 (Business Day, 29 May 1996).

South Africa's crime rate has escalated to the extent that foreign investors have warned the South African government to get its (crime) house in order. The threat to South Africa's future growth and stability is clearly internal security, or the lack thereof. The SANDF has been preparing a Defence Review document which is intended to state the Defence Force's requirement for the future. A decision on the SA Navy's proposed corvette programme has been delayed until the Defence Review document has been accepted by politicians. Meanwhile, the Deputy Minister of Defence and the Navy have been lobbying extensively among the politicians, hoping to get the latest multi-billion Rand corvette programme approved. The original proposed budget submitted by the Navy was as follows

* 1995 - R 133,6 million
* 1996 - R 249,5 million
* 1997 - R 298,8 million
* 1998 - R 361,5 million
* 1999 - R 304,7 million
* 2000 - R 302,8 million

That was before the Rand/dollar exchange rate deteriorated by more than 23 per cent.

In addition to this budget, the Navy has planned an additional R800 million to purchase helicopters which will be carried by the proposed corvettes. Billions more have been asked for to replace the Navy's Daphne class submarines with second hand British Upholder class submarines which have been offered for sale. The total package for four corvettes and four submarines was R5,68 billion as reported by Die Beeld in July 1996.

It is clear that, as much as South African citizens would like to be proud of their Navy, the burden on the taxpaying public is reaching the point where the SA National Defence Force as a R10 billion per annum consumer of the national budget, needs to take a serious look at the billions of taxpayers' Rands that it is trying to justify as defence expenditure, while from an internal security point of view, the country is in serious trouble.

In the Navy's case one can ask the question is there an alternative to the Navy's proposed corvette programme that will reduce the costs? Is it possible to satisfy eighty per cent of the requirement at half the cost? When one examines the factors influencing the SA Navy's decision, it appears that there are indeed considerations that need to be reviewed, because the situation in South Africa has changed since the Navy relaunched its attempt to acquire new ships several years ago.

Understandably, it will be extremely difficult for the Navy to change its requirements now. It will make the Navy appear to be indecisive and could put their project at even greater risk. The decision to change the requirement, in the light of changed circumstances, will have to be a political decision from the top down and the Navy will be grateful to have received anything at all. The Navy's present course is 'all or nothing' as it cannot back down on its stated staff requirement, and the risk is that in the present deteriorating climate, the Navy will get nothing. So many expectations have been created over the last years, that the politicians are obliged to give the Navy something. A solution for the politicians is required.

The Threat

During the apartheid era the threat was clearly defined Communism and the expansion of Soviet power in Africa. As the former SADF fought a war in Angola, Defence Force funds were channelled to the Army and Air Force at the expense of the Navy's budget which was reduced from more than twenty per cent in the 1970s to less than ten per cent in the 1990s. After the elections in 1994, descended upon Southern Africa and due to there no longer being a 'threat', the dismantling of the SADF's budget became a popular topic to various organisations. To counter the 'no threat' scenario, the SANDF formulated a 'core force policy' stating that, in the absence of a threat, one does not dismantle the Defence Force, but establishes the minimum level of manpower and equipment required that would enable the Defence Force to maintain the skills and doctrine of a capability which could be expanded when required later. This reasoning is valid when a threat is seen purely from a military perspective, but nationally it is a narrow view. A threat to a nation is not necessarily military. In the case of South Africa, the threat has not disappeared, it has simply shifted from an external threat to an internal threat. The struggle against and resistance to the apartheid regime has as an aftermath, continued civil disobedience and a generation of uneducated youth which is having a catastrophic effect on internal safety and the economy of the country. As the threat has shifted to an internal threat situation, so must all available funds be shifted to save the country from economic ruin by anarchy, lawlessness and violence. Unfortunately, the external threat guardians, the SANDF, will have to shift their funds to fight an internal threat. Already, the Army is regularly engaged in internal protection, but perhaps its members need to be retrained and some of them changed into police uniforms. If there is going to be an Air Force and a Navy in future at all, they will also have to make sacrifices to counter the present internal threat.

The Maritime Environment

South Africa is blessed with access to the sea via several well-run ports with a sound infrastructure. The long coast-line is exposed to the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The strong Mozambique current flows down the east coast towards Cape Agulhas, the southern tip of Africa. The light Benguela current flows up the west coast. Along the South African continent, the shore descends gradually to a depth of 200 metres below the surface, and then descends suddenly down an undersea cliff face to depths greater than 2 500 metres. What is significant about this feature is that this undersea cliff is close to the coast varying between less than 10 kilometres along the east coast and out to 100 kilometres at Cape Agulhas. Another feature is that the strong Mozambique current attains its strongest flow of up to 5 knots (9 km/h) close to this undersea shelf. Abnormal waves or swell that occur along the Eastern Cape coast are also a result of the effects of this undersea shelf.

Shipping that moves around the South African coast consists of ships that call at South African ports and ships that are passing around the South African coast for another destination. To save fuel and to take maximum advantage of the south westerly flow of the Mozambique current, ships tend to navigate where the current is strongest. Ships rounding the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Agulhas come as close as is permitted by regulations, in order to keep the voyage as short as possible. For this reason, the Department of Transport's Shipping Directorate attends the International Maritime Organisation's (IMO) conferences on the separation of maritime traffic around the South African coast, to establish recognised shipping traffic separation lanes.

Some ships that have to proceed against the current when going from west to east around the South African coast, are able to avoid the strong current by sailing close to the coast (less than 8 km) where there is a counter-current.

The result is that more than ninety per cent of the shipping around the South African coast is close to the coast seldom further than 90 kilometres (50 nautical miles) from the coast. Beyond that there is a vast expanse of empty ocean that reaches into the roaring forties, where few ships care to go. Should any patrolling need to be done in that area, only the use of maritime patrol aircraft makes sense. Assuming that a ship and an aircraft have the same surface of the sea coverage by radar, an aircraft flying at 180 knots (325 km/h) will cover twelve times more ground than a ship patrolling at 15 knots (27 km/h) in the same time. An aircraft can patrol an area at sea in one day that will take a ship twelve days to do. Clearly, the Navy needs ships that can cover the area where the maritime traffic is and in wartime, where the country's assets need to be protected within the coastal area and aircraft are required to patrol the area beyond coastal zone. The question of long range maritime patrol aircraft, however, is one which must be decided by the SA Air Force. Without such aircraft, the Navy must concentrate on the sea area where the traffic is, i.e. close to the coast. To venture into the vast sea area of the South Atlantic without maritime air guidance is wasted effort.

A Shipborne Helicopter

Perhaps the single most important cost multiplier in the type of ship the SA Navy is proposing, is the helicopter carried on board such a ship. The SA Navy has made provision for R800 million for helicopters. In order to make it worth having a helicopter on board, the helicopter must be able to take off and land on the ship in bad weather conditions. The worse the weather, the more hazardous operating a helicopter at sea becomes. The helicopter needs a stable platform from which to operate and in order to provide that stability, the ship's size has to be increased. To have a helicopter available for at least eighty per cent of the time at sea, the ship's specifications or the Navy's staff requirement has to specify certain helicopter operating criteria so that the helicopter is able to operate in high sea states. The helicopter requirement increases the cost dramatically, not only because of the cost of buying, maintaining and operating a helicopter, but because it increases the size of the ship. A helicopter might well be a 'force multiplier', but it is also a tremendous cost multiplier. The alternative solution to the shipborne helicopter is a land-based helicopter operating from a shore base. If one accepts that 95 per cent of all shipping around the coast is within 50 nautical miles (90 km) of the coast, a land-based helicopter makes sense.

The size of such a helicopter is not limited and it certainly has a more stable platform from which to operate. For example, the Offshore Super Puma Mk2 operates from a shore base to service oil platforms 200 nautical miles (360 km) out to sea. During the Oceanos sinking, shore-based helicopters did the rescue work, and in the weather at that time, it was unlikely that a corvette would have been able to operate its helicopter at all. Coast guard helicopters, which can also be used for combat missions in time of conflict, would not only relieve the Navy of the burden of acquiring and accommodating a helicopter, but would cut the costs of the corvette dramatically.

The Navy's other ships (the supply ships Drakensberg and Outeniqua) that operate helicopters were conspicuous in their absence when the Oceanos sank.

The Size of Ship

Leaving off the helicopter and operating mainly in the coastal waters means the size of the ship can be reconsidered. For many years whale-catchers operated around the South African coast and went down to the ice during the whaling season. More than forty of the whalers were converted to minesweepers and anti-submarine ships during the Second World War and served around the South African coast and in the Mediterranean. These seaworthy ships were only 35 metres long and had a gross tonnage of only 250 tons. The South African Navy's Strike Craft are 58 metres long with a full load displacement of 450 tons. The Navy's corvette proposals by Bazan and Yarrow shipbuilders are closer to 3 000 tons. The Strike Craft were built for the calm conditions of the Mediterranean, but that does not mean that a ship of 450 tons is unsuitable for South African conditions. It really tells one that the ship's design is unsuitable for South African conditions.

Having considered the environmental factors, the helicopters question and lastly the hull design, it is clear that there is an alternative solution to the Navy's corvette requirement. For a modest start it can be a great deal smaller, by removing the helicopter from the ship, by finding a design suitable for South African waters and by redefining its mission to cover the area where ninety per cent of the action is. The SA Air Force already has a Maritime Air Command employing S47TP Turbo Daks and also already operates primarily the Puma/Oryx helicopter. There is no reason why maritime coast guard helicopters cannot have the responsibilities delegated to helicopters in an area out to 100 kilometres or more from the coast. Helicopter availability will also be higher than a shipborne helicopter. One should also bear in mind that the SA Navy already has ships in service that are capable of operating or carrying helicopters.

The Navy's Role

The Navy, as part of the SANDF, has a role in defending the sovereignty of the State, i.e. to protect South Africa against aggression from outside its borders. That is the Navy's primary role to fight at sea. All other roles, such as sea-fishery protection, search and rescue, combating piracy, smuggling and pollution, as well as diplomacy, are classified as "assistance to other departments" and are secondary functions. Naval ship acquisition is done for the primary role. That is why any navy has a task to justify its existence in peacetime and is often taken to task by other government departments for trying to take over their role. In peacetime, the Navy's primary role is to prepare for war. This means exercising capabilities, such as gunnery, missile warfare, anti-submarine warfare, mine warfare, submarine warfare. It is difficult to justify the astronomical expense of new warships in a no-threat era and to specialise in only one role raises the cost even more.

An Alternative Solution

There is a solution. One country in Europe has solved the problem by building multi role ships using containerised systems. By changing containers, the ship can change its role to air defence, missile warfare, gunnery (shore bombardment), anti-submarine warfare, mine layers, mine hunters, marine surveillance, fishery protection, scientific research, hydrographic surveying, sea training, pollution control, disaster relief, and search and rescue. Experience in the North Atlantic and the Baltic Sea ensures that these craft remain seaworthy in bad weather. The dilemma of replacing ships in peacetime can provide a political solution for naval planners by acquiring multi-role ships. Such ships are already in service in Europe, fully operational and more are on order. These 500 ton ships are approximately half the cost of the present corvettes proposed by competing shipbuilders, are thirty per cent cheaper to maintain and are so versatile that they can be fully utilised in peace and in war.

Southern African Co-operation

The advantages of a multi-role ship as a standard ship for Southern Africa are numerous, but the main advantages can be summarised as follows

* Operational availability A fibre-glass composite material hull requires less maintenance than a steel hull and costs thirty per cent less to maintain. Should a system on board become unserviceable, the containerised system can be disembarked and replaced with a serviceable container, and the vessel becomes operationally available almost immediately.

* Maintenance and training The maintenance of systems and equipment can be done ashore while the vessel is at sea. The serviceable systems ashore are also used for training. Where some countries lack the facilities to do the maintenance, a containerised system can easily be transported to a neighbouring country that has the capabilities to undertake the necessary repair and maintenance.

* Research and development While ships are operational and at sea, carrying out their tasks, development of new and improved systems can be done ashore. Sea trials of new developments ensure that the operational non-availability of the ship is kept to a minimum, because the containerised system needs to be embarked for the trial period only.

* Co-operation If several Southern African navies have similar systems, combined exercises to ensure optimum utilisation of common systems will raise the standards of the capabilities of all the navies in the region. The Government's policy of co operating with Southern African countries will become a feasible and practical reality.


While the South African taxpayer is already overburdened and the Government is faced with the daunting task of the upliftment of the majority of the population, the Government's decision-makers would do well to re-examine the Navy's requirements. It would be a great pity to place further demands on public coffers when there are alternative solutions to a requirement drawn up by the Navy many years ago. The threat has changed from an external threat to a serious internal threat that can have disastrous consequences for South Africa unless all available resources are harnessed to bring about internal security. South Africa simply cannot afford to spend more than R2 billion on four new ships, with helicopters and weapons adding an extra burden to the cost. Priorities must not only be allocated between the Defence Force and the other government departments, as well as within the Defence Force for the task at hand, but also within the Navy, to provide first for its main role of securing South Africa's coasts.

With acknowledgements to Commodore Theo Honiball (ret) and Institute for Security Studies : Institute for Defence Policy.