SOUTH Africa’s navy and air force will always be smaller than those of countries with similar economies due to the funds available, but should be structured to offer the best possible combination of sea, air and land forces, R-Adm Derek John Christian told the Seriti commission of inquiry on Tuesday.
He was the fourth and last navy senior officer to take the stand on Tuesday in the second week of the commission’s hearings, describing the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) as a “mini” force, the product of a computerised design model that optimised its size and capabilities.
President Jacob Zuma appointed the commission of inquiry into the strategic defence procurement package, chaired by Judge Willie Seriti, in 2011 to investigate alleged corruption in the 1999 multibillion-rand arms deal.
R-Adm Christian made a visual presentation to help the commissioners compare the sizes and effectiveness of the new, 3,500-ton frigates with the country’s surviving and very old Strike Craft ships.
Weighing 415 tons, these were bought from Israel in sanctions-busting operations that defied the United Nations Security Council arms embargo against the apartheid government.
The pictures R-Adm Christian presented showed the Strike Craft struggling in the rough Cape seas, taking in a lot of water compared with the larger frigates, which sailed smoothly.
He also compared the capabilities of the new submarines with the three mothballed Daphne class submarines, the last of which was decommissioned in 2004.
He said maintenance of the Daphne submarines had become increasingly challenging as they suffered the effects of frequent use, eventually reaching the end of their life cycle. For example, replacing the compressed air tanks in the craft would have required cutting the submarines into pieces.
R-Adm Christian said South Africa’s navy faced similar challenges to those of Australia and Canada in the effect of rough seas on their warships.
He also reiterated points raised on Monday by R-Adm Philip Schoultz about the positive impact of the new frigates’ powerful radar communications systems, saying the three ships were strategically positioned in Durban, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town during the 2010 Soccer World Cup to assist the air force to take full control of the skies.
For example, there was concern that Cape Town’s Table Mountain could interfere with radar detection of unauthorised aircraft to prevent an attack like the one on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11 2001.
On Wednesday Maj-Gen Gerald Malinga, the deputy chief of the South African Air Force, will take the stand as the first witness to give a broad overview of the mandate of the SANDF. He will cover the historical background of the air force, its capabilities before the strategic defence procurement package, when those systems were acquired, the countries from which they were purchased, and when they were phased out.