SA Navy risks becoming ‘sitting duck’, leaving 3000 km coastline exposed – Kobus Marais

Vice Admiral Mondo Lobese, the Chief of South Africa’s Navy, recently threatened to sever ties with the arms manufacturer due to its failure to repair the Navy’s vessels. In an interview with Biznews, DA Shadow Minister of Defense Kobus Marais called it a bold statement by the Navy chief and expressed his doubts about Armscor being the right entity to run the dockyard that repairs naval vessels. He stated that the significant failures of Armscor and Denel have contributed to the current dilapidated state of the South African Navy, which has no serviceable submarines and only one operational frigate. This means South Africa can’t defend its 3000 km coastline or honour its international treaties and obligations. Marais pointed out that there is also no capability in the Air Force for the protection of our coastline, which leaves South Africa vulnerable with outdated technology and unable to defend the country or deter any of its enemies. He emphasised that urgent restructuring and repositioning are needed at Armscor and Denel, and the highly capable private defence industry should take over. Marais warned that if the situation continues, the Navy may end up being a “water wing”, which would be an embarrassment and a sad day for South Africa. – Linda van Tilburg

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:00 – Introduction 
  • 00:42 – Kobus Marais on if it’s feasible for the navy to sever ties with Armscor
  • 05:39 – Ongoing friction between the two is hindering a solution
  • 09:17 – How to prevent exploitation of Maritime resources
  • 10:59 – The status of the submarines
  • 15:37 – The rumour that the defence force is considering bringing in Cuban experts to repair some of the equipment
  • 19:14 – On the strategies moving forward
  • 23:34 – The private sector
  • 25:09 – The large coastline we have is unprotected
  • 26:00 – Conclusions

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Highlights from the interview ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Urgent need for restructuring needed at Armscor, Denel – not up to the task 

It was a very bold statement by the Chief of the Navy. While I have enormous empathy for him due to the state of the Navy, the dilapidated vessels, and the poor support services needed for upgrades and maintenance, we must remember that Armscor is a fully state-owned company. It reports to the Department of Defense, is part of its budget, and receives its funding from the Department of Defense, over which the minister has oversight.

Armscor is actually a contracting agent for the defence force for its munitions and prime mission equipment. So, I am not convinced that Armscor is the right player to run the dockyard. We know that there are private sector defence industry role players and stakeholders with a much better track record of servicing and delivering vessels. For instance, the current experience with the Damen Shipyard in Cape Town, with the delivery of the three multi-mission in-shore patrol vessels, is not only within the timeframe but also within the original budget. This is proof of the capabilities of the private sector. Compared to the state-owned enterprises, whether it’s the Dockyard within Armscor, Denel, or any of the other state-owned enterprises, you will see an enormous failure in service delivery. This has contributed significantly to the dilapidated state of the Defence Force, and most certainly of the Navy.

There needs to be political will and decision-making. Without that, the Vice Admiral can talk, and he has also spoken about the need for more vessels, which I support. However, with the current political support and resource provision, I am doubtful about his success. Regarding Armscor, I believe that Armscor and DENEL must be completely restructured and repositioned, perhaps not as two separate organisations, but as one entity supporting the Defence Force and its needs. In this way, the private sector can provide a much better, reliable, and in some cases, even affordable service. We must look to the private sector to meet these needs and drive economic development and job creation benefits that can be derived from it.

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South African Air Force: Sentiment against Denel, Armscor stronger

The Chief of the Navy is not the only one experiencing this friction and frustration. You will most certainly find that within the South African Air Force, this sentiment might be even stronger. There seems to be a significant dislike for the role that DENEL and ARMSCOR are playing, and they are often blamed for all the delays. However, this is not entirely true as there is also an enormous inefficiency and unwillingness among certain senior managers to implement the required changes. Therefore, unless there is a political will to restructure the defence force and define what we require going forward, it’s unlikely that we will see a significant change and improvement in the near future. Hopefully, May 29 will provide an opportunity for voters to say, ‘Let’s change this.’ Maybe it is their will that we must drive this change. We need to do something. Otherwise, the Navy might just become a water wing, which would be an embarrassment and a very sad day for South Africa.

Admiral without a fleet, only one frigate serviceable, can’t cope with any disaster  

An Admiral without a fleet is what he will end up being because currently, we know that only one of the frigates is partially serviceable. Yes, he’s got the two new multi-mission inshore patrol vessels, but they are still on sea trials. And the third one will seemingly be delivered towards the end of this year. But you can’t run a Navy with a coastline of more than 3000 kilometres and an exclusive economic zone much larger than the surface of our country, and an even larger surface when you consider our international treaties and obligations. So, for all practical purposes, you will be without vessels. Then you haven’t even touched on the technology, communication, radar, and all those high-tech capabilities that you require as force multipliers. God forbid that we face a disaster on our seas around South Africa, especially with this increased commercial maritime traffic due to the problems in the Red Sea. But yes, we have a huge challenge, and I don’t think people realise the enormity of this dilemma that we are sitting in and the problems that it can cause us in the future in terms of foreign investments and confidence with foreign investors to grow our economy and create jobs

South Africa can’t protect 3000 kilometres of coastline, fulfil naval obligations: We are a sitting duck

The short answer is, we can’t. We don’t only rely on the Navy, but we also must rely on the Air Force to do maritime surveillance and patrols. Currently, at 35 Squadron in Cape Town, we have no capabilities. So there are no Air Force capabilities to fulfil that function. To a large extent, we are a sitting duck. Even the technology that we are using is outdated in many cases. I sometimes compare it to still using analogue technology while our adversaries are using fifth-generation digital tech and satellite technology. That is what we are facing. We see in the DRC, for instance, where rebels are using surface-to-air missiles and precision target mortar bombs. We know that our adversaries, who have bases and cells in South Africa, are using highly advanced technologies. We are just not there to be one step ahead. It is a concern and something that we should be addressing. The commander-in-chief should be aware of this and make changes, but unfortunately, we don’t see that happening.

None of the submarines are currently serviceable

We know that the last one that was partly serviceable was involved in an accident some time ago. Currently, none of them are sailing. So, one can argue, do we need these three submarines? But the fact is, we do have them. To bring them back to life and to do those essential midlife upgrades will probably cost in the region of R400 million to R500 million each. This is not a lot if you compare it with the overspends on employee costs. We will have an overspend every year of at least R3 billion. So, with much less than that, we can upgrade all three frigates. You can even do at least two of the submarines and then shortly after that, you can do the other one as well. So, if the priorities are right, the restructuring of the defence force is being done, and the reprioritization of resources, including money, is done correctly, there should be money to do that. But again, you need political will and both restructuring and reprioritization, which you need that political will, and that’s currently not available.

Joint Russia-China naval exercise: SA was the useful idiot 

I was very outspoken at the time, and I believe I was proven correct afterwards. An Afrikaans is saying that when you come from a farm with pliers and a piece of wire, you can get anything going. “Met ‘n tang en bloudraad kan jy alles regmaak.” We at least had the perception of what happened with that frigate. It was basically to show that we have some presence, while both Russia and China came with their latest Navy vessels. In my opinion, we played the role of the useful idiot. Russia used that as blatant propaganda, where they, among others, said that they would launch the hypersonic missile at that stage, which was never the idea, but the official news agency Tass said that and published it. Then China came with their latest vessels. They were much more subtle, but I think the message was brought across that they have this capability and both of them have these lovely partners, ideological partners in the southern point of Africa that they have access to.

We gained absolutely nothing from that. In any situation and exercise, the objective must be to get benefits that you can apply in your own Navy in this regard and to protect South Africa and to build this cooperation so that you can work together for the betterment of not only South Africa, but our major trading partners as well because that is what brings us money and that is what is making the whole economy in South Africa tick. But that clearly was not the case. And I think we were just the useful idiots at that stage because that was in the time of the Ukraine war and that was shortly after Lady R’s controversial visit to South Africa. I think we didn’t gain anything from that, nothing.

Cubans stole jobs from South Africans 

We used Cuban experts as part of an operation to maintain and rebuild our land vehicles and prime mission equipment. I recall asking them why we use Cuban mechanics when we have all these people who have worked on these vehicles, who were part of the construction, build, and design of these vehicles. These vehicles are not highly technological. They work with carburettors and very elementary technology for that time. The message was that no one was available and even the private sector was abusing the opportunities to make more money, which is obviously rubbish. I think the whole operation has been found by even the Auditor General to be a wasteful expenditure, irregular expenditure, and most probably illegal. A few vehicles have been repaired and maintained, but in my opinion, this was also possible with the use of ordinary South Africans to provide them with jobs. This has actually stolen jobs from South Africans.

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Private sector upgrade old army vehicles, used by Burundi and in Cabo Del Gado 

There are very good examples of private sector know-how. For instance, OTT Technologies – OTT, has a subsidiary where military veterans are the majority shareholders. They have upgraded Ratels, Samils, and Casspirs to the extent that countries like Burundi and Rwanda have bought them and are currently using them, even in Cabo Del Gado. In some cases, this old South African prime mission equipment is in a much more reliable state than what we are currently using. So, the use of Cubans was, in my opinion, rubbish. It is not justified. It was pure political payback.

Remember, it was also during that time that they tried to smuggle this Cuban medicine under the so-called project Thusano, which they tried to manipulate. There were a couple of generals in the defence force and even more at that time, part of the military command council, which I’ve referred to and still refer to as Mr. Cuba and Monsieur Cuba because everything was about Cuba. So, I would not be surprised if they get Cubans for repairs. However, I don’t think that Cuba has the naval capabilities and the naval history that they can rely on to do that. That would be ridiculous, and it’s not as easy as looking after a few Mambas and Casspirs as they’ve done. 

Rationalise Armscor and Denel, let “highly capable” defence industry expertise take over

When you look at the defence industry, our South African defence industry is highly capable, highly developed, and has the best technology available that they are currently exporting to NATO countries with significant success. In many cases, we don’t even make use of those defence industry stakeholders, their products, resources, and technology. So, there’s a lot that can be done. I believe that there should be a rationalisation between Denel and Armscor. I believe that there should be some research and development going on, which is a nonprofit side, and there’s a responsibility of the government to do that. I also believe that certain divisions within Denel are probably of high strategic importance to us to maintain, for instance, the Denel Dynamics, the Aeronautics side, and the Landward System. There should be a lot of rationalisation taking place. Much of the manufacturing that Denel is doing can be done by South African industry companies. They’ve got similar products that we are trying to procure from abroad, for instance, the Badger under Project Hoefyster. I do believe that there are roles for them to play, but state-owned enterprises should not be the key stakeholder, it should be the private sector.

We need a smaller, restructured Defence Force to defend and act as a deterrent  

In my opinion, we should involve the South African defence industry and the resources they have access to, along with their international partners. This could greatly benefit us in restructuring the defence force, repositioning a smaller but more capable defence force, and especially in the use of technology. For instance, we have Milkor, a company with a highly capable UAV manufactured in Cape Town. It has a reach of several thousand kilometres and can easily be used as a reconnaissance and surveillance vehicle in a maritime domain and EEZ. Each defence industry company in South Africa has a capability and a contribution they can make. If you want to resolve the problems of the defence force and its defence capabilities, you can bring a number of these stakeholders around the table. I know that most, if not all of them, want to see South Africa succeed with a defence force and want to play a role.

From their perspective, it’s very important. If your local defence force is not using your technology and equipment, or they are as poor as we are at the moment, then it’s bad for their business as well. So it’s also in their international interest to ensure that we are well-restructured, well-positioned and that we have a strong defence force. Any modern democracy, in my opinion, needs a strong defence force. It’s not just the insurance policy that we need, should we need a defence force to defend us, but it’s also a deterrent for those who might have the inclination or the objective to do us harm or to use or abuse us for the wrong reasons.

Defence budget keeps on shrinking 

We are not utilising the technological capability available in the private sector to a very large extent, mainly because of the budget that we do not have. Remember, even with the current budget that has been announced, in real terms, it is smaller than the amended budget of last October. So with that, and the fact that they have now deployed an additional 2,900 soldiers, which will cost us an additional R2.4 billion, that will come from the bottom line of the already overburdened defence budget. The only way and place where they can cut that is primarily at prime mission equipment and on training. But because they cut the prime mission equipment, that means that there’s little money or no money available for the essential upgrades, especially the replacement of old technology and older prime mission equipment. So yes, it’s a huge challenge, but you know, and I know that they want to contribute, they want to play a role. I’ve had many interactions with them and I have doubt that they will and can play a significant role in rebuilding our defence force and repositioning it.

Our coastline is largely unprotected

Our coastline is largely unprotected, purely because we don’t have the capabilities or the technology. Even the Department of Fisheries and Forestry lacks the necessary capabilities. We know that the budget has been cut everywhere. Unfortunately, it’s an election year, and therefore, the government will not spend where it doesn’t make a voting difference. Unfortunately, these are things that people don’t see, don’t experience, and don’t know about. So, we certainly do not, and it’s unlikely that it will influence their voting pattern in the upcoming election

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