In May 2016 reports of illegal Chinese trawlers emerged by amateur AIS trackers. Although authorities were aware of the trawlers, and successfully intercepted one, questions arose about South Africa’s maritime security. Indeed, a week later further reports of illegal fishing activity emerged, prompting more questions than answers. Whether the Navy or other departments of government were aware of the transgressions and capable of interdiction remain in doubt. Forget about hyper-sensationalist threats of piracy. It is illegal fishing and general irregular maritime trafficking in South African borders that poses the real cost.

This is not to say that plans are in place to remedy this. The South African Defence Review, now passed into legislation, strongly urges for the procurement of maritime patrol aircraft to achieve good situational awareness at sea and capitalise on the deployment of existing blue water naval vessels. Project Saucepan, now cancelled and effectively replaced by Project Metsi, aims to provide this.

But with what budget?

Recent reports of the defence force’s budget, and its respective ability to bring maritime surveillance assets online, is in dire straits. With current defence budget set at 1.05% of GDP, next year expected to hit 1.03%, and the year after a woeful 0.98%, there is no hope of a long-term solution. The Defence Review’s ambit specifically aimed at a significant defence budget increase, which has not materialised. To compound this problem, there was never any consideration for a “plan B”. To be sure, a first choice would be a dedicated squadron of fully-militarised aircraft, but the money does not exist for this, and the time period to even begin this process is counted in years.

So where does this leave the objective of securing South African seas?

The strategic problem of South African maritime security

To achieve a modicum of good order at sea, South African security and government officials require several capabilities. The overarching ambition of “find, fix, finish” is fulfilled through three broad aspects of maritime security.

First, the ‘find’ component requires a sophisticated surveillance picture of South African oceans. Doing so requires the use of coastal radar, AIS data, and active maritime patrolling through the use of maritime surveillance aircraft. Second, ‘fix’ the identified threat or vessel by the use of patrol vessels, whether through the Department of Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF), or the South African Navy. Thirdly, ‘finish’ in this context relates to the interdiction and arrest of suspects and any evidence.

Part two and three are already online and available, albeit in limited capacities. Four frigates in the SAN and two operational within the DAFF provide a small-but-useable blue water patrol and interdiction capability to ‘fix’ and ‘finish’ suspected illegal vessels. The policy guidelines in Operation Phakisa, in as much as it pertains to maritime security, provide a general outline on how the joint oeprability between military, police, and other services can be conducted.

All of this is a hopeless exercise without the ‘find’ capability. In this regard there is limited success. Large areas of South Africa’s massive maritime are of responsibility are unmonitored. The country’s fleet of aircraft now consist of a handful of C-47TP relics that are more appropriate dropping the 101st Airborne over Normandy farmland than in monitoring Southern African ocean space. Combined with limited AIS and associated radar data, that is effectively it, as far as effective maritime surveillance is concerned. “Finding” any manner of illicit maritime traffic in South Africa’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) with such limited resources is a hopeless exercise. A solution is required, and it cannot wait for imaginary defence budget to materialise.

So what is plan B?

In order to achieve a modicum of awareness at sea, South Africa must get imaginative with its surveillance capabilities.

In this regard, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) have solved part of the problem. Utilising satellite-based synthetic aperture radars, the CSIR is able to wield a system dubbed “SeaFAR” to identify suspicious vessel traffic. This system was crucial in the apprehending of suspicious Chinese vessels in May, and helps provide some manner of big picture on illegal maritime traffic.

SeaFAR is interesting in this regard in that it opens up a digital toolset that could hypothetically expand to include close-in aircraft maritime surveillance data, stationary radar information, and even algorithmic-based threat prediction of vessels nearing South African waters.

But what aircraft? For the South African Air Force (SAAF), any platform proposed in Project Saucepan has been shelved with the cancellation itself. Combined with the woeful budgetary climate for defence acquisitions, and the thought of large systems similar to a P-3 Orion are out the window.

For a plan B to work, a cost-effective, immediate solution should be on the cards. In this regard South Africa has options, both at sea and in the air.

For the latter, local South African companies Atlantis Corporation and Avex Air Training are offering an innovative “Metsi/Saucepan-lite” option. The option: Five Australian Dornier 328-120TP turboprop aircraft. At a fraction of the cost of larger considerations, the Dornier can provide a cost-effective, $2,500/hour operating cost maritime surveillance solution. Able to patrol large distances throughout South Africa’s EEZ, the aircraft have already proven themselves in the multi-year search for flight MH370. Five years service in Australia, the aircraft could be used another 28. Combined with local expertise in maintenance, and an existing understanding of the aircraft’s operation, the ex-Australian Dornier option may not have all the bells and whistles the Navy wants, but it provides the core requirements of maritime surveillance within a realistic budgetary framework.


Most-crucial, the aircraft are immediately available. Instead of a five year (or longer) lead time on new air frames, the five MSAs can begin immediately. Put simply, if authorised in 2016, South Africa could see an MSA from this century operating in its maritime space before the year’s end, with all five in operation by end of 2017. It might not detect submarines, and it would not be able to service South Africa’s Antarctic missions, but it would be able to exploit a majority of South African maritime airspace, feeding detailed information on threats into SeaFAR and elsewhere.

From an industry perspective, the ability to maintain, train, and fly the aircraft from entirely South African organisations would be a neat fit. With no need of external supplies or maintenance teams, and the existing ability to train pilots and crew, the SAAF could get airborne, and stay airborne, within months.

Options such as AtlantisCorp’s would be a limited, hybrid adaptation of a state requirement, but it would also be an immediate stop-gap solution, paving the way for a longer-term MSA many years later, when budget provides.

If one applies this creativity in the air and in the sea, “finding” the targets would make the limited blue water vessels’ task considerably-easier. If an SAN frigate is able to tap into SeaFAR data streaming from satellite radar and overhead aircraft, the needle in the haystack suddenly becomes much easier to find and intercept.

For areas out of reach of aircraft and established satellite regions, imaginative solutions would have to be sought.

One such consideration in this regard would be for the positioning of stationary, unmanned marine robotic platforms (MRPs) with a simple radar payload. Power constraints notwithstanding, these MRPs could loiter in areas far away from land in South African waters for months at a time, providing further info for SeaFAR’s information network.


These unmanned surface vehicles could loiter in a specific formation for months, or years, and provide a “tripwire” early warning system for other assets aiding in maritime surveillance. Using renewable power sources, the cost of such operations are tiny compared with larger surface vessels or helicopters. Moreover, a local capability already exists in the operation and maintenance of such robotic platforms through civilian scientific companies based in South Africa.

Together, the combination of satellite data with real-time aircraft surveillance, aided by MRPs, would solve in part the sea blindness plaguing South Africa. It is not a complete solution, and the combination of new platforms would be bold new ground for the SANDF and maritime agencies as a whole, but without an increased budget the options are limited. As far as ‘plan B’ goes, ladies and gentlemen, this is it.

Cover image: The Dornier 328 turboprop MSA, as used in the search for flight MH370. Used with permission from Aerodata