A philosophical view of the SA Navy

A philosophical view of the SA Navy


Robert Harm (Capt, Retd.)


I agreed to write a short epistle on the above after a discussion I had with Don Ruffles. The idea was born from the fact that there is a naval build-up taking place around the world, especially in the Asian theatre. I will refrain from discussing the reasons for the build-up, as they are vast, varied and complex. I am rather looking at the effect of technology on the navies going through the process of the build-up. In discussing this I can only state that the SA Navy has been very fortunate in its progress from a rather low level of technology to the present day high level of technology, as few if any disasters accompanied this progress. In this discussion it is assumed (this has never be quantified) that it takes navies (men and machine) roughly 10 years to master any new ship or weapon system.


Square One

The SAN became “independent” in 1957, and received as a legacy some ex-W class destroyers (one of them modified to Type 15 frigate), a number of Loch class frigates, Algerine class minesweepers, Ton class minesweepers, Ford class seaward defence boats and boom defence vessels. All these assets had been designed before WW2, and used the technology of that time. This also meant that the men serving in these vessels had the mind set of that time.


Initial progress

The Simon’s Town Agreement provided the first step up in technology with the ordering of three Type 12 frigates. These vessels were designed during the mid-1950’s and provided new technologies in main armament, gun direction and target acquisition, ASW weapons and sonars, radars and mechanical and electrical power systems. The ship’s complements for these ships were mainly trained in the UK as part of the building process. The decision to follow this process would prove to be live-saving, as this ensured the move from the older destroyers and frigates went relatively smoothly as men accepted the technological progress more or less in their stride even though some found it difficult. When the ships returned to South Africa in the mid-1960’s it was the first opportunity to learn to use this new weapon system to its fullest capability. This process allowed the SAN to modernise both Type 12 frigates and W class destroyers as following step-up in technology. Once again this step-up went smoothly, although it was made easier as the platforms remained the same. In this process no major accidents were experienced.


A new weapon system

Before learning to use the surface fleet to its optimum capability (in other words within the assumed ten year period), the next step-up in technology was undertaken when acquiring the submarines. This was a totally new platform, with new weapon systems and mechanical and electrical power systems. Having learned the lesson of the first acquisition programme, the complements were trained in France (from where the platforms were acquired) ensuring a high standard of training and acceptance of the new technology. However, a new leaf was added in that the project was driven as a turnkey project which included the complete manning, training and maintenance bases. This allowed the SAN to introduce this new weapon system seamlessly, and without major accidents. The submarines arrived in South Africa in the early 1970’s.


Another new weapon system

Development in the SAN never relaxed, and while the submarine project was being finalised, another new weapon system was acquired. The introduction of the strike craft into the SAN brought another set of new technologies such as high speed diesels (main engines) and gunnery system, missiles and target acquisition system. After the submarine acquisition project, the SAN followed a very similar approach to the acquisition of the strike craft, confirming that “success breeds success”. However, this project went a step further as six of the nine vessels were built locally. This confirmed that the technological lesson learned during the upgrading of Type 12 frigates and W class destroyers were put to good use. But this new weapon system was introduced before the SAN had learned to operate the submarine system to its fullest capability. In this case the SAN was in the fortunate position that the two weapon systems were introduced in separate geographical areas. But once again no major accidents were experienced, after this weapon system was introduced in the later 1970’s.



The approach followed by the SAN during these repeated step ups in technology has meant that new weapon systems were introduced without major problems and in spite of the fact that previously introduced weapon system had hardly mastered. No mention is made of the introduction of the new frigates and submarines as I have not been intimately involved with these weapon systems. It does, however, seem that the processes used in the past were not followed to the same extent in the acquisition of these weapon systems, as cost cutting seems to have had a higher priority than in earlier projects. This seems to have resulted in some major incidents (loss of main engine in frigate and required battery replacement), although these might also have been caused by cost cutting in maintenance systems.



Comparing the SAN’s technological progress with the progress in other navies, the SAN’s problems are miniscule when compared with other much larger navies. I am referring to the Canadian Navy’s problems with their submarines (they can barely keep one submarine operational), the Australian Navy (more or less in the same “boat”), the US Navy (problems with new technologies in the Ford class aircraft carrier, Zumwalt class destroyer and especially the new LCS (both trimaran hulled and single hulled). But the best example is the Indian Navy, which in the last two years have introduced a “new” aircraft carrier and a new class of submarine, and is about to introduce nuclear power to both aircraft carrier (new) and submarine (new). In the last 18 months they have experienced 10 major naval disasters (which have in some cases led to loss of life). This has led to the resignation of the Chief of the Indian Navy, who has assumed moral responsibility.