Navy to Make Big Wave with New Fleet
SAS Amatola and other corvettes set to boost SA's blue-water combat capability
The South African Navy's first corvette, the SAS Amatola, sails into Simon's Town in November, improving SA's ability to exercise more fully a role as a regional power at sea.
Contracts associated with the corvettes have been the focus of allegations of arms-deal bribery.
A Scorpions investigation centres on allegations that Deputy President Jacob Zuma sought a payoff from contractor Thales, via Schabir Shaik's company African Defence Systems, for the choice of their information-management system to control the weapons.
Some critics ask whether SA really needs the corvettes, while others question technical aspects of the weapons to be placed on board. But those favouring the acquisition argue the navy was so depleted that the decision to buy the new ships about the very existence of a serious navy.
And then there is the cost. Based on initial defence department figures and current exchange rates, payments to contractors will total about R7,3bn. That is about a quarter of the budget deficit expected by the national treasury this year, which some critics say could have been better spent on development.
The debates and allegations are likely to continue, but there is broad agreement that the ships' stealth capabilities and its two engines, one diesel to drive propellers and the other gas to power water jets, are significant advances in naval engineering.
A second corvette is expected in South African waters next February, the third around the middle of next year and the fourth some time later. It will take two years to fit the combat suites, but when they are fully operational and the three new submarines are delivered by the end of 2008 the navy will have a bluewater combat capability, something that the current strike craft fleet cannot provide.
While there is debate on the combat suite the information technology and weapon systems that determines the ship's ability to fight and defend itself naval experts agree its hull and superstructure design is among the world's most advanced.
Angular features of the corvettes' construction allow radar waves to be deflected into the ocean rather than back to a transmitter.
The absence of portholes also increases its stealth qualities, as does the emission of exhaust fumes near the waterline. If stealth is required, the water-jet engine can be used, and sonar cannot detect the propellers.
Water jets raise speed, making the corvettes an effective tool for chasing ships in a fisheries protection role. Corvettes are not specialised vessels like frigates, and the new ships will have functions ranging from fisheries law enforcement to disaster relief and peace operations support.
The weapons on board SA's corvettes will not amount to a highly offensive posture, in line with the government not wanting to overplay its hand in Africa and to save money.
But the German Frigate Consortium says upgrades can be carried out easily, given the modular construction of the vessel.
The corvettes will have 20mm and 35mm guns as well as 76mm guns lifted off the strike craft. French Exocet missiles will be on board for attacking other ships, but do not have the distance of more modern missiles.
Denel subsidiary Kentron's Umkhonto missile will also be aboard to provide defence against missiles and aircraft.
Helicopters, which will lift off from the aft desks of the corvettes, will help guide missiles as well as provide a role detecting submarines, if that upgrade is chosen.
The deck can also take the air force's Oryx transport helicopter, but only in calm seas.
Jane's Defence Weekly SA correspondent Helmoed Heitman says the ship is extremely well suited to the rough conditions of winter seas in the south Atlantic and is a leap in naval design.
But he has concerns about the crane on the ship possibly raising its radar signature from some angles and the location of engine rooms that may affect its degree of redundancy if hit.
Naval historian Prof Renfrew Christie, dean of research at the University of the Western Cape, says the corvettes are "remarkable ships". He says the combat suite "is the not the most advanced", but is suitable for SA's existing requirements and budget limitations.
Richard Young, whose firm C²I² bid against Thales and lost, is full of praise for the corvettes' hull, calling it "an extremely sophisticated platform". But he views the Exocet missiles, the guns and the French-designed command and control system as outdated 1970s technology and not powerful enough.
Young charges that an absence of "plug and play" attributes will make the system difficult to upgrade later.
With the departure of many weapons officers from the navy during the 1990s for jobs in the communications sector, there is widespread belief that there is not enough manpower to run the corvettes.
But the navy's director of fleet force preparation, R-Adm Arne Söderlund, rejects this, saying that technically qualified crews will be ready by 2005. He boasts that SA's naval training is among the best in the world.
Jonathan Katzenellenbogen is International Affairs Editor.
With acknowledgements to Jonathan Katzenellenbogen and Business Day.