Publication: SA Shipping News Issued: Date: 2003-11-01 Reporter:

Present SA Navy Bridges the Technology Gap Between the Past and the Future



SA Shipping News

Date November 2003

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He is referring to the fact that at the moment there are a lot of people doing more than one job in preparation for the arrival of the four corvettes.

The SAN corvette programme and the arrival of the SAS Amatola is the culmination of four year's work to bridge the gap between the Navy of the past and the Navy of the future.

The future of the Navy is what is concerning everybody at present, particularly the upgrading and honing of technological skills to levels of speciality that will ultimately be the envy of the world's navies.

To do this a lot of pre-deployment training has had to be done. Both non-technical and technical staff involved in the corvette programme had to learn to speak conversational German. This was extended to family of employees relocated overseas for the duration of the contract.

The technical staff was required to embark on a three tier training programme. To facilitate bridging the technology gap, the first stage was to learn basic computer skills. Staff then progressed to a PLC (programmable logic controlling) course which introduced them to the independent parts monitoring system consisting of 2500 sensors throughout the ship; and the third level took the form of a special learning opportunity where they were introduced to new technologies and given a basic understanding of the equipment and systems concepts they would be learning about when they got to Germany.

With 23 new technologies identified and training taking place in at least 10 different countries including France, Germany, UK and the USA, the challenge was to get the technical staff to a point where it was possible to embark on technology transfer training from the various suppliers.

This evolved into the project training phase which included learning how to operate the equipment and systems. The vessels uniqueness in terms of the mix of equipment, systems and technologies has meant that technical staff has worked very closely with the manufacturers to develop training material. Training has been equipment specific for the past year and nine months.

Admiral Rabe says that the standard of training within the SAN is extremely high. People sent away to outside courses do consistently well. This has been measured favourably against other navies.

"We have a lot of very proactive people who, based on how they have been taught in the past, are capable of developing more detailed courses about specific equipment. They compare for example the information they receive with their previous knowledge,'' he says.

Training is an ongoing process, some of which has been with the German navy to allow personnel to gain valuable experience at sea in vessels of a similar size to the new corvettes. This is separate from the contract of training with suppliers, as is the flag officers sea training (FOST) - the process whereby a vessel is declared operational to NATO standards.

Each corvette will have a crew of 110. The core delivery crew of 45 people and another 15 staff have been fully trained to operate the vessel and bring it safely to South Africa.

Recruiting the corvette crew started three years ago. Internal advertising resulted in a pool of interested people who were assessed and their capabilities matched to the skills required. The criteria were that they had to be qualified, medically fit, have a clean disciplinary record and be enthusiastic.

From an experience point of view there was clearly going to be a problem recruiting experienced people who reflected the country's demographics.

There aren't many senior qualified personnel that are Africans and the nature of skills is such that you cannot take people from the street," he says.

SAN's 2010 vision is to be demographically representative, so to address this problem the recruitment programme is focussed heavily on swelling the numbers of Africans in an effort to grow into the future.

As training became more intense it was necessary for the removal of all crews from the existing force, and this has been somewhat painful for the existing fleet, which is buckling under the strain.

To counteract this they are drawing from their pool of naval reservists who are being used extensively to fill the gaps. At least 100 reservists are being called up at any one time.

"We knew it when we started the process that the challenge was going to be that the navy of the future must take priority but that we would have to keep the present navy going to meet commitments that we have," says Admiral Rabe.

In the process the SAN is shedding its past too. Many of its older vessels are being disposed of, including a submarine, minesweepers and strike craft.

The reserve force is been redesigned and the intention is that every unit in the navy will have a reserve force component in the region of 20%, so that people can be called up on short call up periods.

"The idea is that each reserve post will have more than one person utilised in that post. Unfortunately the reserve force is at a fairly low level so it will take a while to build it up," says Admiral Rabe.

The military skills development programme is also designed to accommodate the reserve forces in the future. The SAN has a policy that if its officers receive formal overseas training, they have to sign a contract to at least work back the time and investment. However, in the case of the corvettes, this becomes functional training so in an effort to retain technical staff long term, a production bonus system was put in place last year.

This is based on a service period of 4 years followed by two further periods of 6 years each. Technical staff who choose to remain with the SAN receive significant bonuses (more than a year's salary) upfront for each period they commit to. This incentive ensures there isn't an exodus of qualified staff into the corporate environment.

Admiral Rabe says that it has been well received and to date there had only been a couple of cases of people who, for personal reasons, had been unable to embrace the opportunity presented to them.

"Generally, it is tremendously exciting, it's new and it's good stuff for the future," he concludes.

With acknowledgement to the Shipping News.