Surface Forces: The South African Scam


March 9, 2010:  The South African Navy has 18 warships, and they are expensive to operate. In an effort to deal with these high operating expenses, and a shrinking defense budget, ships are being kept in port more often. In the next four years, the budget allows ships to spend only 6-7 percent of their time at sea. The U.S. Navy has its ships at sea about 50 percent of the time. This is the main reason the American fleet is the most effective in the world. Being the largest fleet on the planet helps, but having a qualitative and quantitative edge creates an unbeatable combination.

In the last four years, the South African navy received four new MEKO (NATO) type frigates and three Type 209 submarines. These are very capable ships, but very expensive to operate. For example, the German built Type 209 is one of the more widely used diesel-electric subs in the world. The South African boats displace 1,300 tons, are 183 feet long, have eight torpedo tubes and carry 14 torpedoes and a crew of 36. These are world class subs.

The South African Navy needs $1.2 million each year to operate each Type 209 boat. The government has not been providing enough money to cover all those costs. To make matters worse, the expanding oil industry, and high tech sectors of the economy, have been tempting experienced officers and NCOs to leave the submarine service. Currently, an experienced submarine petty officer earns about $13,400 a year. Civilian jobs offer two or three times that. The navy needs about 150 submarine sailors to provide full time crews for these boats. The navy has not been able to obtain enough qualified submarine sailors.

The South African politicians believe that having a lot of ships in commission, even if they don't go to sea much, provides the potential for putting a lot of ships out there if the need arises. Left unsaid is the fact that sending a lot inexperienced crews to sea increases the risk of accidents. Ships are complex beasts, and the seas, especially around South Africa, are rough. This can be a fatal, for inexperienced crews, combination.

But many nations with large numbers of warships, staffed by inexperienced crews, believe that they will never have to use these ships a lot, in wartime or otherwise. That's a reasonable assumption for South Africa, which is surrounded by nations with even more decrepit armed forces. So the politicians are playing a cynical game, funding relatively large armed forces, which they cannot afford to adequately train, safe in the knowledge that they are unlikely to be found out. The South African politicians are also living in the past with regards to the armed forces. Back in 1989, 4.5 percent of GDP was spent on defense, and the armed forces were large and well trained. Now, defense gets 1.2 percent of GDP, and the armed forces have not shrunk 73 percent to adjust for the smaller budget. Unwilling to cut the force in line with the smaller budget, the politicians prefer to run a scam. The sailors complain, but at least they still have jobs. To South African politicians, that's a reasonable outcome.


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