August 20, 2012: One of South Africa's three German built submarines (SAS Queen Modjadji) recently (July 17th) was damaged when it accidentally collided with the ocean floor during a training exercise. The Queen Modjadji was the only one of three new submarines (entering service between 2005-8) that was operational. The other two were laid up for "maintenance." Now the Queen Modjadji is as well, although the recent collision did not damage the pressure hull. But there was a visible dent in the outer hull and some internal damage.
One of these new Type 209 submarines has been out of service for five years, ostensibly for maintenance. But it turned out that the main reason was that there were not enough qualified sailors available to operate the boat. Further investigation revealed that this was not just a problem with the three new submarines.
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. Thus the navy budget only allows ships to spend 5-10 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 seven years the South African navy received four new MEKO (NATO) type frigates and three Type 209 submarines. These German built boats displace 1,300 tons, are 59 meters (183 feet) long, have eight torpedo tubes, and carry 14 torpedoes and a crew of 36. These are world class subs. But the South African Navy needs $1.2 million a year to operate each Type 209 boat. The new frigates are equally expensive. The government has not been providing enough money to cover all those costs. To make matters worse, the expanding oil industry and other high tech sectors of the economy have been tempting experienced officers and NCOs to leave the navy, especially the submarine service. Civilian jobs offer experienced sailors two or three times what the navy is paying them. 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. As a result, subs don't go to sea much and when they do they are being handled by poorly trained and inexperienced crews. This will become an issue as the recent accident involving the Queen Modjadji proceeds. Another embarrassing aspect of the Queen Modjadji incident was that it was the first South African sub to have a black captain (Commander Handsome Thamsanqa Matsane, who took command four months ago).
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 of inexperienced crews to sea increases the risk of accidents. Ships are complex beasts and the seas, especially around South Africa, are rough, often extremely 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. To make matters worse, there is more corruption. A German investigation four years ago revealed that some $40 million in bribes was demanded by South African politicians, and paid, to ensure that a German firm got the contract to build the three subs. No bribery prosecutions of South African politicians resulted from the German investigation (which the German government tried to keep secret). The three German subs cost South Africa nearly one billion dollars.