South Africa has one 80-year-old plane left to patrol its seas

South Africa’s navy and airforce do not have money to service or replace their scanty contingents of vessels and aircraft essential to protecting the country’s coastline.

This is because the South African National Defence Force has been burning through its budget with high employee costs biting into funding which should go towards servicing these vehicles and procuring new ones.

These vessels and maritime aircraft are needed to defend South Africa’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and promote Operation Phakisa — the government’s initiative to develop the “blue economy”.

They are crucial in tackling the transportation of illegal immigrants, contraband, drugs, weapons, animals, mined natural resources, and fishery resources.

“The obvious impact is we have no patrolling and protecting of our strategic sea route around the Cape, which carries bustling maritime traffic,” explains Democratic Alliance MP Kobus Marais.

“We also have no effective protection against many with intentions to abuse and strip our maritime resources and cannot meet our international obligations to patrol and protect the southern oceans and the islands in these seas.”

Marais said the biggest problem was disproportionate spending on staff remuneration.

“While the budget has been reduced every year, the cost of employees has become the single biggest stumbling block,” Marais said.

Kobus Marais, DA MP

Marais explained that the government’s 2015 Defence Review Policy (2015DR)  document provided a clear guideline that the budget must be allocated and spent as follows:

  • Cost of Employees (COE) – 40%
  • Operations and training – 30%
  • Equipment acquisition and maintenance – 30%

National Treasury required that employee numbers be slashed significantly to accommodate the spending above, but this has not materialised.

“COE has crept up every year to the extent that it accounts for 64% of the 2021/22 approved budget,” Marais said.

Employee numbers have only been marginally reduced from what was required to hit that target, from 75,000 to 73,000.

This means the overspend on COE will be close to R3 billion, and it will account for 69% of the allocated budget.

SANDF soldiers

Marais explained the navy and air force were severely short-changed when it came to maritime capabilities.

Meanwhile, the South African Air Force (SAAF) only has one Dakota [Douglas C-47 Skytrain] aeroplane.

The plane is more than 80 years old but needs to do maritime patrols, reconnaissance flights and other maritime flights.

“We urgently require the procurement of the most suited and best value maritime patrol aircraft.”

Other aeroplanes in the SAAF include two 60-year-old C130 cargo planes, which cannot realistically assist with maritime duties. They are used for transporting soldiers and supplies within South Africa and to other African countries.

Marais said the Oryx and Rooivalk helicopters also needed to be upgraded to Mark II versions.

SAAF Dakota. Photo credit: Jaco Du Plessis

The South African Navy only has four frigates and three submarines at its disposal, and few of these are getting their required sea hours.

“Only one frigate is serviceable with the possibility of one more to be brought into service,” Marais said.  Of the submarines, only one is partially serviceable.

The costs for essential midlife upgrades of the frigates is close to R700m, while the submarines will cost about R660 million each.

In addition, the smaller strike crafts are at the end of their lives, Marais said.

Originally, there was a plan to procure both inshore patrol vessels and outshore patrol vessels, but due to budget constraints, this was amended to provide for only 3 IPVs. The first is only due for delivery this month.

SA navy vessel
One of the South African Navy’s frigates.

Marais said the DoD and SANDF urgently needed to be repositioned and restructured.

“A disciplined SANDF is non-negotiable,” he said.

“We also must refocus our defence priorities to best deal with the current and future threats, which might imply getting rid of ‘nice to have’ structures, units and personnel.”

Marais said part of this would include reducing the number of employees to between 50,000 and 55,000.

He called for strong and decisive political and operational leadership to significantly change the government’s military objectives.

“If not, we might find ourselves only with a ‘water wing’ and not a navy we so desperately require.”

Now read: Cubans want the R180 million SANDF owes for illegal Covid-19 drug

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South Africa has one 80-year-old plane left to patrol its seas