Cash-strapped SA Navy takes aim at new torpedoes
Critics aghast as navy seeks new munitions said to cost about R60-million each
The navy is buying state-of-the-art torpedoes for its arms-deal submarines even as the rest of its fleet battles to stay afloat.
This week Armscor confirmed plans to buy a new torpedo system for Heroine-class submarines to replace their ageing torpedo stockpile, which is kept in a high-security facility in Cape Town.
It is unclear how many new-generation fibre-optic guided torpedoes are on the shopping list, but an industry expert said each one cost as much as R60-million.
News of the acquisition coincides with a military budget crisis, with the navy unable to afford vital offshore patrol vessels. The government has also delayed a massive naval shipbuilding programme (projects Biro and Hotel), which would create thousands of jobs.While patrol vessels are widely considered an essential item, the same cannot be said of new torpedoes, which may cost billions and are unlikely ever to be used. Worldwide there have only been three torpedo engagements since World War 2.
"There is no way we need new torpedoes," said one arms industry insider. "They also have no value to the local industry. The value to the country of a torpedo weapons system is minuscule compared with building a ship."
Earlier this year naval chiefs confirmed severe operational challenges stemming from a R5-billion cut in military spending across the army, air force and navy. They are unable to fill 2,000 staff vacancies and said they may soon be forced to shed a further 600 jobs.
Paul Hoffman SC, founding director of Accountability Now, questioned whether torpedo acquisition was even legal. "I doubt that procuring torpedoes will comply with any of the criteria that bind the state: fair, equitable, transparent, competitive and cost-effective.
"What is wrong with the existing stock? Who would we use torpedoes on, and why can't we find a cheaper local alternative?" Hoffman said.
UPGRADE NOT UNEXPECTED
But military sources said submarines without torpedoes were like frigates without fuel. The weapons acted as a deterrent against would-be aggressors. The torpedo upgrade had also been on the cards for several years and was not unexpected.
"The problem is if you do away with torpedoes then why have a submarine? It no longer becomes the same deterrent," said one retired senior naval officer.
"Nothing like this starts suddenly - it [the tender] is something that must have been there for a long time and is now coming up."
Anti-arms industry activist Terry Crawford-Browne questioned the need for new torpedoes when the military had not used the first batch. "It is just absurd that we continually squander money," he said.
Defence consultant Helmoed Heitman lamented the timing of the torpedo tender but said the hardware was necessary to replace outdated stock.
"The timing is unfortunate because [Project] Biro has been postponed," Heitman said.