Institute for Security Studies (Tshwane/Pretoria)

South Africa: Navy's Frigates and the Somali Pirates

Photo: Daily Nation
Marines from NATO's Portuguese frigate Corte-Real arrest suspected pirates on their skiff in the Gulf of Aden (file photo).

There is increasing pressure on South Africa to join the antipiracy efforts off the coast of East Africa. Some say that modern warships acquired as part of the controversial post-apartheid arms deal could be deployed, but Anton Kruger, writing in www.the-african.org, asks whether South Africa really has the capability or the obligation to get involved.

During the first week of October, a South African-owned yacht with three South African citizens on board was hijacked by Somali-based pirates off the coast of Tanzania and forced to turn back to the Puntland coast.

Many are asking why South Africa is not joining the international naval fleets to combat Somali piracy, which is essentially an 'African problem'. The European Union (EU) has also asked South Africa on several occasions to join the EU anti-piracy task force. After all, South Africa acquired naval warships at great expense after the end of apartheid. Why not use them?

Firstly, the objectives of the South African Navy, as outlined by the South African Department of Finance, state that the role of the SAN are to defend and protect South Africa and its maritime zones. Using SAN resources to combat piracy would therefore only be justified if the piracy threat were to move southwards into the SADC area and threaten South African trade.

Yet the South African White Paper on Defence further states that, as a fullyfledged member of the international community, South Africa must fulfil its responsibility to participate in international peace support operations. But is the anti-piracy effort strictly speaking a peace mission?

This issue has not been entirely cleared up and it would seem that there are considerable contradictions between the SAN's own stated strategy, that of the UN, and other government strategies.

The second issue is South Africa's capability. South Africa has the only naval force south of the Sahara able to conduct credible anti-piracy operations. Currently, there are only five frigates, seven medium patrol aircraft and 18 small-range coastal patrol craft belonging to sub-Saharan nations available to patrol the 63.124 km of coastline south of the Sahara. Of the five frigates, four belong to the SAN, and most of the patrol aircraft belong to the South African Air Force (SAAF).

The SAN was fairly recently reequipped with modern frigates, submarines, and reconnaissance helicopters and also recently held comprehensive anti-piracy exercises. The SAN's Maritime Reaction Squadron (MRS) is a special combat capability that was initially planned for inland waterways and coastal areas in support of peacekeepers, but that can be adapted to anti-piracy operations. Yet the SAN is being crippled by acute financial shortages. The South African defence budget has been repeatedly cut in recent years and plans are in the pipeline to reduce the SAN's operational capability even more in coming financial years. The government plans to reduce the hours spent at sea by the SAN from 9 000 this year to only 8 000 in 2011 and 2012.

Under the current defence budget, the SAN will only be able to deploy one patrol frigate together with one support ship at any given time, and that will most probably deplete its yearly operational budget. The SAN also has other responsibilities, which it is barely 8 YPS /Blohm+Voss capable of fulfilling at this time, such as anti-poaching, search and rescue, and overall maritime defence of the South African coast. Under the current defence budget, deploying one frigate to the Somali coast would mean that the SAN is unable to fulfil its primary responsibilities towards South Africa.

Up to 14 countries have committed naval forces to the joint maritime task force to patrol Somali and adjacent waters and deter piracy. This amounts to nearly 30 foreign warships that are off Somalia's coast at any one time, but has had little effect in deterring Somali pirates, who have moved their attacks further into the Indian Ocean and up to a few miles from the Kenyan and Tanzanian coasts, where the poor capabilities of the Kenyan and Tanzanian navies have left coastlines wide open to attack and exploitation.

One would have to ask whether the deployment of a single South African warship will make any difference to the situation if the current extensive foreign naval force operations are unable to do so.

It would be much more worthwhile for the South African government to concentrate on patrolling the SADC's eastern maritime border. It is a much smaller area to cover, and the SAN could operate from ports in Mozambique and Madagascar. This would make much more economic and military sense than to try conducting operations in the north Indian Ocean and serving as an African fig leaf for international inaction on Somalia.

Sidebar: Who Will Pay

According to diplomatic sources, several European countries have indicated their willingness to at least partly finance South Africa's participation in the international effort to combat piracy. This would include the integration of marines into the naval task force and training in Djibouti or Mombasa.

"It is in line with South African foreign policy ideals of 'Africa for the Africans', and yet there is absolutely no African presence here," said one source.

Though it is clear that South Africa won't be able to send more than one warship to the area, the Europeans believe any help is welcome to achieve the mammoth task of fighting the elusive Somali pirates.

"Perhaps we need the piracy to move down to Southern Africa for South Africa to become involved," said the source.

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InFocus

South Africa's Frigates and the Somali Pirates

Marines from NATO's Portuguese frigate Corte-Real arrest suspected pirates on their skiff in the Gulf of Aden (file photo).

There is increasing pressure on South Africa to join the anti-piracy efforts. Some say that modern warships acquired as part of the post-apartheid arms deal could be deployed, but ... Read more »