South African Navy

South African Navy
Emblem of the South African Navy.svg
Founded1861 (historical)
1922 (official)
Country South Africa
1,000 (reserve)
Part of South African NDF
Garrison/HQSaldanha Bay, Simon's Town, Durban, South Africa
ColorsGreen and white
Minister of Defence and Veteran AffairsNosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula
Chief of the NavyVice Admiral Mosuwa Samuel Hlongwane
Master at Arms of the NavySenior Chief Warrant Officer Matee Molefe[1]
Admiral Hugo Biermann, Vice Admiral Refiloe Johannes Mudimu
EnsignNaval Ensign of South Africa.svg
JackFlag of South Africa.svg

The South African Navy (SA Navy) is the naval warfare branch of the South African National Defence Force.

The Navy is primarily engaged in maintaining a conventional military deterrent, participating in counter-piracy operations, fishery protection, search and rescue, and upholding maritime law enforcement for the benefit of South Africa and its international partners.[2][3]

Today the South African Navy is one of the most capable naval forces in the African region, operating a mixed force of sophisticated warships, submarines, patrol craft, and auxiliary vessels, with over 7,000 personnel; including a marine force.

With formerly deep historical and political connections to the United Kingdom, the first emergence of a naval organisation was the creation of the South African Division of the British Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in 1913, before becoming an nominally independent naval service for the Union of South Africa in 1922.[4]

In its history, South African naval vessels and personnel have participated in the First and Second World Wars, as well as the South African Border War. In the apartheid post-war era, the South African Navy was extensively aligned with NATO and other Western nations against the Soviet Bloc.[5]



Officially, the South African Navy can trace its origins back to the creation of the South African Naval Service on 1 April 1922. Unofficially, however, the Navy has an unbroken association with the Natal Naval Volunteers, formed in Durban on 30 April 1885, and the Cape Naval Volunteers, formed in Cape Town in 1905.[4] Loosely, and indirectly however, the earliest naval establishment was the Port Elizabeth Naval Volunteer Brigade, founded in 1861.[6] On 1 July 1913, following the creation of the Union of South Africa in 1910,[7] the South African Division of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve (RNVR[SA]) was established, although with complete organisational and operational control being directed by the Royal Navy.[4][8]

First World War

SAS Immortelle, circa 1935

As part of the British Empire, South Africa went to war against the Central Powers on 4 August 1914,[9] despite significant Afrikaner opposition.[10] A total of 412 South Africans served in the RNVR[SA] during the war, with 164 members volunteering for the Royal Navy directly.[11] One officer and eight ratings died during the course of the war.[11]  South Africans would see service on warships in European waters and the Mediterranean, as well as participate in the land campaigns in German South West Africa and German East Africa. Under Royal Navy jurisdiction, the RNVR (SA) patrolled South African waters in converted fishing vessels, helping in mine clearance in response to the operations of the German raider Wolf in 1917,[12][13] as well as protecting the strategically important Royal Navy naval base at Simon’s Town.


On 1 April 1922, the South African Naval Service (SANS) was formed and, alongside the RNVR (SA), tasked with the protection of territorial waters, minesweeping and hydrography.[11] In the same year, the SANS commissioned the small hydrographic survey ship HMSAS (His/Her Majesty’s South African Ship) Protea, two minesweeping converted trawlers HMSAS Immortelle and HMSAS Sonneblom, and the Training Ship General Botha - all formerly in Royal Navy service. As a result of the Great Depression in 1929, coupled with lack of government investment, the SANS by 1939 had been forced to return all vessels to the Royal Navy.[14] At the outbreak of the Second World War, the service had only three officers and three ratings in its ranks.[4]

Second World War

The British declaration of war against Germany on 3 September 1939 threw South Africa into a constitutional dilemma due to her status as an autonomous Dominion within the Commonwealth. Prime Minister J.B.M. Hertzog and other anti-British factions of the coalition United Party called for strict neutrality, whilst the more anglophile Deputy Prime Minister Jan Smuts advocated that South Africa was constitutionality, and morally, obliged to support Britain and fight fascism.[10] Two days later, after a close parliamentary vote of 80 to 67 in favour of Smuts, South Africa followed Britain and declared war on Germany.[10]

During October 1939, Rear-Admiral Guy Halifax, a retired Royal Navy officer living in South Africa, was appointed Director of the South African Naval Service, later renamed Seaward Defence Force (SDF) in January 1940.[15] Overseeing a large industrial program of converting civilian whalers and fishing trawlers into military vessels, despite being highly primitive, over 80 such craft would go on to be the backbone of the South African naval forces.

In South African waters, the SDF, in partnership with the Royal Navy, ensured maritime control around the strategic Cape Sea route and was primarily involved in coastal patrol, mine clearance, and significant anti-submarine operations between 1942 and 1945 due to a sustained U-Boat offensive, with over 100 merchant ships being sunk off the South African coast.

Members of the South African Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve serving on board HMS Nelson during WWII

South African naval vessels similarly contributed to the Mediterranean theatre,[16] and later the Far East.[17] From 1941, South Africa assisted in escorting convoys along the North African coast, including the resupply and eventual evacuation of Tobruk, embarked on mine clearance operations, successfully engaged enemy submarines and undertook harbour salvage tasks. In 1942, a unified national naval service emerged following the successful amalgamation of the SDF and RNVR(SA), creating the South African Naval Forces (SANF).[8] As the war came to its end, South Africa received its first purpose-built warships, three Loch-class frigates from the Royal Navy.[14] Deployed to the Far East under British command, South Africa later contributed to operations to liberate Japanese held territory.[17]

In total, over 10,000 service personnel volunteered for service in the SANF, and its predecessors, with 324 losing their lives and 26 battle honours gained.[11]

Post war

A year after the end of hostilities, on 1 May 1946 South African Naval Forces were reconstituted as part of the Union Defence Force before undertaking its final name change in July 1951, when the SANF officially became known as the South African Navy.[5] The year 1948 was a turning point, not only for South Africa as a country following the National Party's electoral victory, but also the direction of the Navy.[18] British influence became increasingly diminished and curtailed across the service. In 1952 the previously used title of HMSAS (His/Her Majesty's Ship) changed to just SAS (South African Ship), in 1957 the Royal Navy transferred control of Simon's Town naval base to the SA Navy after 70 years of occupancy and later, in 1959, the British crown which had featured in the Navy cap badge and other areas was replaced by the Lion of Nassau from South Africa's coat of arms.[19]

SAS Jan van Riebeeck in British service as HMS Wessex

In the immediate post-war years the South African Navy underwent significant levels of qualitative, and quantitative, expansion as the Royal Navy disposed of its surplus war materiel.[20] In 1947, two surplus Algerine-class minesweepers, were acquired from the United Kingdom, HMSAS Bloemfontein and HMSAS Pietermaritzburg, as well as a Flower-class corvette which was converted into the hydrographic survey ship HMSAS Protea. In 1950, South Africa further expanded her naval capability and purchased the first of two former British W-class destroyers, SAS Jan van Riebeeck, in 1952 SAS Simon van der Stel,[21] and later, the Type 15 anti-submarine frigate SAS Vrystaat (formerly HMS Wrangler).[22]

By the early 1960s, the South African Navy was fast reaching its highpoint of international inclusion and is generally considered to be the golden age of a well balanced, modern, and effective service optimised for conventional naval engagement alongside friendly Western international partners.[20]

From 1962 to 1964 the South African Navy received three Type 12 President-class frigates: SAS President Kruger, SAS President Steyn and SAS President Pretorius respectively.[21] These were first rate, ocean going fast fleet anti-submarine escorts that propelled the South African Navy into the age of a modern warship operator on equal footing with the West.[23] The order of three Daphné-class submarine from France in 1968[24]—to operate submarines for the first time—again catapulted the service further. The early 1970s would see the South African Navy operating at the height of its blue-water power projection ability with the first of the Daphné-class submarines, SAS Maria van Riebeeck, being commissioned in 1970, with SAS Emily Hobhouse and SAS Johanna van der Merwe entering service the following year.[24]

The second half of the 1970s however saw South Africa facing severe amounts of international isolation and criticism. In 1973 the UN labelled the policy of apartheid a "Crime against Humanity",[25] magnified further by the brutal state repression and subsequent mass incarcerations and deaths following the Soweto uprising in 1976[26] and the death of prominent anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko in 1977.[27] The following year a UN arms embargo, loosely in place since 1962, became mandatory.[28] The ensuing international economic disinvestment from South Africa was stepped up, placing huge strains on the economy. Coupled with these severe problems, the cornerstones of the country's regional foreign policy faced collapse and complete transformation with the end of Portuguese rule in Angola and Mozambique in 1975,[29] and the negotiated settlement in Ian Smith's Rhodesia to the end of white minority rule in 1979.[30] As South Africa became increasingly involved in the Border War in South West Africa (modern day Namibia) and Angola, the Navy began to readjust its previous international outlook and organisation. The then Minister of Defence, P. W. Botha successfully sought military connections with Israel and nine "Reshef"—Warrior-class in South African service—missile strike craft were ordered in 1974.[21] Following the Soweto uprising and subsequent mandatory arms embargo, South Africa had been forced to accept the cancellation of another significant naval procurement of two new Type-69A light frigates and two Agosta-class submarines from France.[31]

In 1987, South Africa commissioned the locally designed and built Fleet Replenishment ship SAS Drakensberg. Constructed in Durban, it remains the largest and most sophisticated warship to ever have built in South Africa. Three years earlier, the Navy's other support ship, SAS Tafelberg, had undergone a refit that greatly increased her amphibious capabilities. A real boost for the Navy's influence, Tafelberg could deploy a company strength landing force, six landing craft, two medium helicopters and be equipped with a small hospital.[31][20] Throughout the decade, the South African Navy continued to participate in the Border War and coastal protection. For 23 years (1976–1989) the South African Navy maintained determined sea control around Southern Africa and provided valuable support to land operations.[32] By the end of the 1980s, as white minority rule was coming to a negotiated end, the Navy had lost all of its major surface warships, had a drastically reduced anti-submarine/anti-aircraft capability across the board, and almost complete international isolation.[11] As South Africa disentangled itself from external and internal security operations, the South African Defence Force underwent severe budgetary cuts. The Navy endured a reduction of personnel by 23%,[20] the disbandment of the Marines, the closure of two Naval Commands (Naval Command East and Naval Command West), two Naval Bases at Cape Town and Walvis Bay, and the termination of the relatively advanced program to domestically build replacement submarines.[33] A positive for the Navy during this period however was the acquisition of the multipurpose sealift/replenishment ship SAS Outeniqua, a former Soviet-built Arctic supply vessel, in September 1992 as a replacement for the 35 year old Tafelberg.[34]

Despite the austere cutbacks, the Navy was leading the way for a South Africa that was slowly being welcomed back into the international community, even before the landmark elections of 1994. In 1990, the survey vessel SAS Protea became the first South African naval vessel to visit Europe since 1972, and in the same year SAS Drakensberg and two Warrior-class strike craft, SAS Jan Smuts and SAS Hendrik Mentz, sailed for Taiwan in what would be the first time South African vessels had been in the Far East since 1945. Other international visits in the following years included Zaire, Kenya, Bangladesh, Turkey, France, Portugal, and Uruguay.[11] As the "Rainbow nation" was lauded following the ANC victory in the first free democratic elections in 1994, one of the starkest symbols of this new era was the explosion of foreign warships and dignitaries visiting South African ports, often from countries that did not have a previous connection, such as Russia, Poland and Japan.[19] In 1994, 21 foreign vessels from eight countries called at South African ports, with 26 visits from 12 countries in 1995, and 27 from ten countries in 1996. In 1997 the navy celebrated 75 years, with 15 countries sending ships for the festivities.

The acute need to re-equip the navy, including the wider Armed Forces after the lifting of apartheid-era sanctions, was addressed by the Strategic Defence Package of 1999.[35] Better known as the infamous "Arms Deal", the acquisitions in the package, and those persons involved, have been repeatedly subject to substantive allegations of corruption, fraud and bribery.[36] A total of R30 billion (US$4.8 billion in 1999) was pledged to the purchase of modern military equipment. For the navy, its share led to a total transformation from a “brown-water” force of ageing missile patrol craft and short-range submarines, to a force with significant “green-water” combat capability once again.[37] In 2001, with an initial request of five vessels, later reduced to four, the German Meko A200SAN general purpose corvette design was procured (designated frigates in South Africa), along with four British Super Lynx naval helicopters, and three German Type 209/1400 diesel-powered submarines. Also under construction from 1991 were three locally built T-Craft inshore patrol boats.[20] As South Africa approached the millennium, and beyond, the ANC government gradually returned the Navy to a level of maritime power last seen in the 1960s and 1970s, and successfully reintegrated the service back into maritime operations with regional and international partners.[11]

South African Navy Today

Surface Fleet

Commissioned into service from 2006, at a total cost of R9.65 billion, the four Meko A200SAN’s, the Valour-class in South African service, became ‘easily the most powerful surface combatants in sub-Saharan Africa, and...restored South African naval pre-eminence'.[38] Constructed with principles of stealthy design, the class has a 50% smaller radar signature of similar vessel size, 75% less infrared emissions, 20% lower life-cycle cost, 25% lower displacement and 30% fewer crew members.[39] Specifically designed to conduct sustained operations in the sea conditions found off the South African coast, the four frigates are able to undertake a range of tasks from maritime law enforcement, to civil support, and military operations such as area denial, gunfire support and intelligence collection. The embarked SuperLynx helicopters significantly improve and extend surveillance, as well as all-round operational capabilities. With a return to operating general-purpose, multi-mission warships, the Valour-class have been hailed as modern, impressive and major regional anti-surface, anti-air, and anti-submarine platforms. SAS Amatola, SAS Isandlwana, SAS Spioenkop, and SAS Mendi possess two four-cell launchers for 8 Exocet surface to surface missiles, 16 to 32-cell domestically built Umkhonto VLS missiles for air defence, a single OTO Melara 76mm main gun, a twin Denel 35mm Dual Purpose Gun, two Oerlikon 20mm cannons, and two 12.7mm remotely operated guns.[39]

As the SA Navy has a strength of only four primary surface warships, in an effort to improve asset availability in more routine littoral patrol operations and ease the stress on sophisticated, but ill suited, warships, three previously decommissioned Warrior-class strike-craft were modernised and recommissioned as offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) between 2012 and 2014 - SAS Isaac Dyobha (P1565), SAS Galeshewe (P1567) and SAS Makhanda (P1569).[40][41]

Primarily, the Warrior-class undertake the more traditional naval task of patrolling South Africa’s Exclusive Economic Zone and upholding maritime law enforcement. Ordinary tasks include anti-smuggling, monitoring against illegal immigration, search and rescue, fishery inspection, and routine border protection. With the ability to operate far out into the Cape and handle the often rough seas, the OPVs are also expected to complement the navies combat ability, particularly when undertaking anti-piracy patrols in the Mozambique Channel.[42]

Reflecting their new policing role, the Warriors’ old Skerpioen missile launchers and the rear 76mm gun was removed. In replacement, the craft have gained the capacity to support a small RHIB and a limited contingent of marines for boarding suspect vessels, as well as maintaining their original 20mm and 12.7mm heavy machine guns.[43]  

As of 2020, two River-class Coastal MCMV are still in service with the SA Navy, however, they are believed to have lost their mine-hunting capabilities due to the retirement of the antiquated PAP104 Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs). Whilst still maintaining a decompression chamber for operational diving, the River-class are now deployed on general OPV/IPV coastal defence duties, and are equipped with a single Oerlikon 20 mm cannon, two 12.7  mm machine guns, and a RHIB.

Alongside the Warrior and River-class are the more modern T-Craft, with three entering service from 1992. Constructed with twin-hulled catamarans of glass-reinforced plastic sandwich construction, three have also been built for Israel in 1997. The T-Craft, with their far lighter construction and smaller size, undertake maritime security patrols considerably closer to the shore and inspect various inlets and bays. SAS Tobie, SAS Tern, and SAS Tekwane are equipped with a single 12.7mm Browning machine gun and have the capacity to embark a RHIB with a small complement of marines to inspect vessels.[44]

Submarine Fleet

Between 2004 and 2008, three German built Type 209/1400 submarines were delivered as a like for like replacement for the obsolescent apartheid-era Daphné-class submarines. Considered South Africa’s first “true” submarines, the Heroine-class represents a significant upgrade of the navy's sub-surface force due to considerable advancement in underwater performance and endurance.[45]

South African submarines SAS Charlotte Maxeke (S102) and SAS Queen Modjadji (S103), accompanies Los Angeles-class submarine USS San Juan (SSN 751), into False Bay in Simon's Town, South Africa, 4 November 2009

As of 2020, South Africa is one of only three states on the African continent, along with Algeria and Egypt, that currently operate submarine assets, and the only state in the sub-Saharan region. With near subsurface supremacy, the SA Navy operates a strong conventional underwater naval deterrent against any theoretical continental state actor.[46]

Highly sophisticated vessels, the Heroine-class’ utility, aside from traditional anti-ship engagement and area denial, is its intelligence collection via special forces deployment. A series of modifications have been made to the class so as to undertake these clandestine operations.[20]

Currently fitted only with regular torpedo tubes, the Heroine’s do have optional UGM-84 Harpoon integration capacity for further anti-ship potential, however, as of 2020, this has not been utilised. Similarly, whilst currently not able to deploy any land attack armaments, Germany is developing a medium-range missile, the IDAS, for their own Type 209s which would primarily be targeted against air threats, but also small surface vessels and coastal land targets.[47]

Auxiliary Fleet

With the retirement of SAS Outeniqua in 2004, SAS Drakensberg is the sole fleet replenishment ship with the primary role of supporting combat vessels at sea.[48] Drakensberg is also modified to carry two rigid-hulled inflatable boats (RHIB), as well as two landing craft utility (LCU) for limited amphibious use. Since the end of minority rule, Drakensberg has undertaken numerous humanitarian and anti-piracy operations, consistently shown the ‘rainbow flag’ on global voyages of goodwill, and reintegrated South Africa back into international naval exercises.[49]  

The SA Navy continues to operate the specialist hydrographic survey vessel SAS Protea, which was commissioned in 1972.[50]


The South Africa Marine Corps was first established as a sub-branch of the Navy in 1951 until 1955 and then reformed in 1979 until 1990, both times with the primary purpose of protecting the country's harbours.[15] The Marines also acted as regular infantry during the war until 1988, as well as performing counter-insurgency operations inside South Africa.[51] The Marines had an amphibious landing capability by operating from SASTafelberg and SAS Drakensberg, with an elite company, named the Marine Amphibious Company (MAC), being formed to ensure beach-head capability for landing large task forces, along with a small elite reconnaissance detachment between 1983 and 1989. The Marines were disbanded on 18 January 1990, following a major restructuring of the Navy at the end of the South African Border War.[52]

In 2005, the decision was taken to create a Naval Rapid Deployment Force so that South Africa could commit more to peacekeeping operations across the continent, particularly in the Great Lakes region. In 2006, this force became the Maritime Reaction Squadron. The Maritime Reaction Squadron provides an amphibious, diving and small boat capability to the Navy, deploying infantry-trained South African Navy personnel in various peacekeeping roles within the African continent, as well as assisting in boarding operations at sea, and humanitarian and disaster relief.[53]

The squadron consists of the following components:[54]

  • Operational Boat Division (OBD) with 10 Namacurra-class harbour patrol boats and six Lima-class utility landing craft
  • Reaction Force Division (RFD) consisting of one naval infantry company with a command and support element
  • Operational Diving Division (ODD) consisting of four operational diving teams of 17 divers.

Current Deployments

The Standing NATO Maritime Group (SNMG) 1 in formation with South African navy warships SAS Amatola (F145), SAS Isandlwana (F146) and the submarine SAS Manthatisi (S101) while participating in Exercise Amazolo

The SA Navy maintains the traditional role of providing a credible military deterrent, protecting South African interests against possible enemy attack, and participating in African Union peacekeeping missions. Whilst the likelihood of a naval engagement against a conventional enemy is extremely unlikely, the South African Navy today is primarily engaged in counter-piracy operations, fishery protection, and combating narcotic smuggling.[20]

Deploying at least a single Valour-class frigate or one Heroine-class submarine, along with aircraft from the South African Air Force, the SA Navy undergoes exercises with others, such as the United States Navy (Exercise Shared Accord/Southern Accord),[55] NATO naval battlegroups (Exercise Amazolo), the French Navy (the annual Exercise Oxide),[56] the German Navy (the biennial Exercise Good Hope),[57] the Royal Navy (ad hoc exercises when visiting South African waters),[58] the Indian Navy (the biennial Exercise IBSAMAR), and the navies of Uruguay and Brazil (Exercises Atlasur and IBSAMAR)[59]

The navy also provided air and sea security for the 2010 FIFA World Cup by deploying three frigates as guard ships off the cities of Durban, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town.[60]

Operation Copper

Since 2011, one of the SA Navy’s major and long-standing focuses has been that of the anti-piracy initiative, Operation Copper. After increased pirate activity in the Mozambique Channel (a crucial import/export sea lane for South Africa),[61] and subsequent requests for help from fellow Southern African Development Community members (Mozambique and Tanzania), the navy has routinely deployed assets in an effort to provide maritime security in the region.[62]

Since the operation first began, every Valour-class frigate has been deployed to the region on rotation, with the refurbished Warrior-class OPVs also being utilised. In 2012, the replenishment ship SAS Drakensberg was likewise deployed to the region, and alongside European warships, successfully captured seven Somail pirates. Elements of the Navy’s Maritime Reaction Squadron (MRS) are routinely embarked on deployed warships so as to give the ability to board suspect vessels.[51]

Although gaps in deployment have occurred as a result of mechanical issues, as well as the South African Air Force withdrawing its C-47TP maritime patrol aircraft in 2016 from Mozambique due to maintenance problems and lack of sufficient aircrew.[63] In 2018 the SA Navy notably deployed two warships simultaneously for Operation Copper, and were independent of foreign support.[64]

In the Mozambique Channel piracy and other maritime crime, particularly illegal fishing has substantially decreased in the region since 2011. With an estimated running cost of R154 million a year, an extension to Operation Copper has been approved and will continue to be funded until at least the 31st March 2021.[65]

Operation Corona

For the continued safeguarding of South Africa’s borders, Operation Corona aims to combat illegal fishing, poaching, and smuggling within its territorial waters. The SA Navy plans to carry out five maritime patrols in line with Operation Corona, with 84 days of surface and 22 days of subsurface patrols allocated for the financial year 2020/21.[66] Deploying to known hotspot areas, the SA Navy works alongside other Government departments such as the SA Police Service and Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, in an effort to deter rather than arrest.[67]

Future of the South African Navy

As the SA Navy enters the 2020s, the service faces significant challenges if it is to arrest its current decline.[20] At the opening of the South African Maritime Security Conference on 31 May 2018 in Cape Town, Chief of the Navy Vice Admiral Hlogwane warned that:

‘the navy sits at the crossroads where its very existence is threatened... Some of the countries in the SADC are injecting financial resources to build their military capacity through acquisition programmes. Conversely, South Africa is on a path of reduced defence expenditure.”[68]

At a speech a year later on 12 July 2019, Hlongwane, recognising the struggling economy, again reminded his audience that:

“in the absence of a clear and present military threat, the government will find it difficult to justify spending large sums of money on defence. The platforms acquired under the Strategic Defence Packages (four frigates and three submarines) are beginning to suffer from lack of funds for support and maintenance, [and] urgently require refits in order to keep them operational to the end of their 30-year design lives...while the new hydrographic survey vessel and IPVs are modern robust ships fully suited to perform their missions, they will not significantly improve the combat capability of the SAN which is required to defend our country and national interests in terms of our constitutional mandate...the naval balance of power is shifting on our continent.”[69]


The South African defence budget has been on a downward trajectory since 1994 when expenditure was 2.56% of GDP. In 2010, that level was 1.12%, and in 2020, expenditure is expected to fall to around 0.95%, its lowest level since 1960.[70][71] For 2020/21, the Defence Budget totals R52.4 billion (£2.4 billion[72]),[73] with the SA Navy being allocated R4.9 billion (£226 million[72]), roughly 9%.[74] South African defence spending however has not matched recent inflation levels, an average of 5% annually,[75] which has pushed the Department of Defence deeper into financial difficulties and operational consequences.  

As a whole, the Defence Budget for 2020/21 has been given 87% of its required funding, a shortfall of R9.4 billion (£433 million[72]).[73] The SA Navy for 2020/21 has been allocated only 65% of what is reportedly required, a shortfall of R2.8 billion (£130 million[72]). As a result of the declining financial situation, the Navy has warned that it will seriously struggle to maintain its current capabilities, levels of investment, and international commitments.[74] As a result of Covid-19, as well as ongoing problems within the South African economy, GDP is expected to fall by 5.6% in 2020/21, with significant ramifications for the country and the South African Navy.[76]

Operational Hours

In 2013/14, the SA Navy operated with an annual target of 22,000 hours at sea. By 2018/19 this number had been lowered to 12,000 hours, with a further reduction to 10,000 hours annually from 2019/20.[77] By its own admission, the Navy requires a minimum of 12,000 hours (500 days) at sea per year to sufficiently train personnel, with an absolute minimum of 7,800 hours dedicated annually to fulfil its Force Employment obligations of border protection, maritime security, and anti-piracy operations.[78] Despite these requirements, by 2019/20 the SA Navy is financially resourced for only 6,000 hours at sea, and only 4,320 hours allocated for Force Employment operations. Vice Admiral Hlongwane has warned:

“Should sea hours be reduced below 10 000 per year, the SA Navy will decline rapidly and...any further reduction in sea hours will impact severely on individual and team training at sea, maintaining safety at sea and the safe navigation of all SA Navy vessels.”[78]

Skills Recruitment

In addition, the SA Navy is facing an acute skills shortage which is severely frustrating vessel availability. Vice Admiral Hlongwane stated that “the Navy Engineering capability is now extremely limited, which will increasingly impact on the safety and seaworthiness of ships and submarines and their ability to deploy.”[79] It is currently a cause for concern whether or not the SA Navy has the required skills to fully crew multiple highly sophisticated warships and submarines simultaneously.

Future Acquisitions

Despite the current budgetary crisis within South African defence spending, the purchase of the three new Inshore Patrol Vessels (IPVs), termed Project Biro and also the procurement of a new hydrographic survey vessel, Project Hotel have been approved in recent years. These acquisitions have been linked to the Government's broader aims of development of the ocean economy - Operation Phakisa.[80][81] With 90% of imports and exports dependent on the sea, South Africa’s Exclusive Economic Zone which is reportedly rich in natural resources, and the estimated loss of nearly $23bn annually to illegal and unregulated fishing, the SA Navy has successfully argued that maritime security is crucial to the national interest and economic development.[82]

Project Biro

Since 2013, the ambition for the SA Navy was the domestic construction of three offshore, and a minimum of six (later reduced to three) inshore patrol vessels as a replacement for the increasingly aged Warrior-class OPVs and River-class OPV/IPVs, as part of Project Biro. However, in 2018 it was confirmed that only the three IPVs would be constructed, with the OPVs being cancelled as a cost-saving measure.[83] With a final commissioning target date of December 2025,[84] with the first vessels delivered by 2021, these vessels, currently classified only as Stan Patrol 6211, will have a maximum speed of 26.5 knots and a range of 4000 nautical miles. Designed to be built with the Sea Axe Hull - the first to operate in South Africa - the straight-edged bow will improve safety, comfort, and significantly reduce fuel consumption and emissions. Equipped with radar, combat management systems, a forward gun position and various heavy machine guns, the vessels will also carry two RHIBs for boarding operations, with the aft deck being designed to accommodate various container arrangements that aid unique mission requirements.[85]

Whilst the introduction of these three modern IPVs will immediately play a crucial role in maritime law enforcement, it has been regretted by analysts that the offshore craft option was not also financially feasible. It had been hoped that the OPVs, with their helicopter carrying abilities, would have played a much more effective role in policing South Africa’s extensive exclusive economic zone (1.5 million km2),[86] particularly in the rough seas of the Cape. It was even reported in 2011 that nine OPVs could be constructed, without any IPVs, due to the rough sea state off the coast and the practical experience gained which favoured larger vessels.[87]        

In 2013, it was announced that the recently modernised Warrior-class OPVs would receive a further life extension of at least five years.[41] However, with the cancellation of the OPVs within Project Biro, it is currently unclear whether the ageing Warrior-class will have further life extensions, or be retired without a dedicated replacement.

Project Hotel

The second future acquisition programme for the SA Navy falls under Project Hotel, the replacement of the sole hydrographic survey vessel SAS Protea. The construction of this new vessel, currently being built by Durban based Sandock Austral Shipyard, will represent a major upgrade in capability for the Navy. Whilst SAS Protea was built in 1972, her replacement will be based on Vard Marine's VARD 9 105 science vessel, specifically adapted for South African service and ‘incorporates the latest hydrographic and oceanographic sensor suite’.[88] The ship will be an evolution from the Vard Marine designed HMS Echo and HMS Enterprise which have been in Royal Navy service since 2002.[89]

Also as part of Project Hotel, the SA Navy will receive two next-generation Survey Motor Boats, one Sea Boat, and another Inshore Survey Motor Boat to be kept ashore in reserve, as well as upgrading shore-based hydrographic infrastructure.[90] The project has a current completion date target of August 2023, with the first of the Motor Boats being launched in September 2020.[91]


As of 2020, the SA Navy’s main projects are under serious threat from years of underfunding, as well as recent budget cuts. Allocation of funding for Projects Biro (modern inshore patrol vessels) and Hotel (replacement hydrographic survey vessel), as well as the Army’s Project Hoefyster (new infantry combat vehicles), amounts to R2.8 billion(£129 million[72]), however the required level of funding needed is expected to be R13.7 billion (£633 million[72]), nearly a R11 billion shortfall (£508 million[72]). It is currently unclear how these projects will be financed if they continue to proceed.[84]

Similarly, Project Syne and Project Napoleon, the planned and urgently required midlife overhauls for the Valour-class and Heroine-class respectively, are both currently on hold due to lack of adequate funding. With an estimated cost of R3 billion, only R270 million has so far been earmarked for the projects until 2022/23.[84] The SA Navy is currently finding it difficult to effectively resource the growing backlog of refits, maintenance periods, and repair projects that are needed. With each delay due to financial insufficiency and every vessel that continues to operate without adequate maintenance, the SA Navy is pulled deeper into a vicious cycle of exacerbating known issues and escalating longer-term costs, until a point of forced reduced vessel availability.

Command, control & organisation

The command structure is depicted below.[92]:59[93] The Chief of the Navy, based at Navy Headquarters at the Navy Office (SAS Immortelle) located in Pretoria, is head of the South African Navy. All operational forces, including ships and submarines, fall under the control of the Flag Officer Fleet who is based in Simon's Town.

South African Navy command organogram.jpg

Chief of the SA Navy
Vice Adm M.S. Hlongwane[94]
Deputy Chief Navy
R Adm Douglas Faure[95]
Chief of Naval Staff
R Adm Gladys Mbulaheni[95]
Chief Director Maritime Strategy
R Adm D.M. Mkhonto[96]
Flag Officer Fleet
R Adm Musawenkosi Nkomonde
Director Maritime Plans
R Adm (JG) W van Niekerk[94]
Director Naval Personnel
R Adm (JG) J.S. Matshimane[97]
Director Maritime Warfare
R Adm (JG) H T Matsane[98]
Chief of Fleet Staff
R Adm (JG) L M Hendricks[98]
Director Fleet Force Preparation
RAdm(JG) A de Wet[98]
Inspector General (SA Navy)
R Adm (JG) S Msikinya[98]
Director Naval Logistics
R Adm (JG) F A Hans
Director Maritime Intelligence
R Adm (JG) M Bongco[99]
Director Fleet Logistics
R Adm (JG) Joseph Ikaneng[100]
Director Fleet Human Resources
R Adm (JG) L. Metu[94]
Naval Budget Manager
Mrs R. Mamaguvhi[94]
Director Naval Transformation
R Adm (JG) I Mzimande[98]
Director Maritime Diplomacy & Strategy
R Adm (JG) M.J. Josias[94]
Director Naval Engineering Services
R Adm (JG) B Mvovo[98]
Flag Officer Commanding
R Adm (JG) J. Dlamini[94]
Director Naval Reserves
R Adm (JG) R. Ndabambi[94]
Director Fleet Quality Assurance
Capt (SAN) M. A Boucher

Fleet Command

Fleet Command includes all vessels and units of the Navy other than Naval Headquarters, Pretoria. Fleet Command is based in Simon's Town under control of Flag Officer Fleet.[92]

Four directorates are responsible for the day to day control of Fleet Command:[92]:70

  • Director Fleet Force Preparations (DFPP) is responsible for the day-to-day running of the ships and submarines and for ensuring their operational readiness. The Maritime Reaction Squadron and NavComCens also report to DFFP
  • Director Fleet Human Resources (DFHR) is responsible for all training and manning and also controls the training units.
  • Director Fleet Quality Assurance (DFQA) is responsible for the output of Fleet Command and monitoring quality assurance throughout Fleet Command
  • Director Fleet Logistics (DFL) is responsible for all Logistics units as well as for the maintenance of the fleet.

Naval bases

A view of Simon's Town and the naval base

The Navy operates the following Naval Bases:[92]:149

  • Naval Base Simon's Town – the largest and main naval base currently used by the South African Navy.  Constructed by the Dutch East India Company in 1743, and later developed by the Royal Navy, the base was transferred to South Africa in 1957 as part of the Simon’s Town Agreement and expanded in 1975. Simon’s Town is the homeport of the frigate and submarine flotillas, as well as housing training facilities.
  • Naval Base Durban – constructed during the Second World War to better serve the deployment of naval vessels off the eastern coast of Africa, particularly after the Japanese declaration of war in 1941.[17] In 2002 Durban was downgraded to a Naval Station with much of the infrastructure being taken over by the Army and later abandoned. In 2012, the decision was taken to renovate and expand the facilities. However, it was announced in 2020 that due to budget constraints, the reclassification of Durban as a fully operational Naval Base would be delayed.[citation needed] The station is currently home to the fleet's offshore patrol flotilla and will continue to be so after the delivery of replacement offshore/inshore vessels.[101]
  • Naval Station Port Elizabeth – provides support to the fleet and host to visiting ships, however no major vessels are based here.[102]

Training units

  • SAS Saldanha – located on the West Coast and provides training and development for ratings.[103]
  • SAS Wingfield – located in the Greater Cape Town area. Historically provided practical training for apprentices, but now offers training to both ratings and officers.
  • SAS Simonsberg – located in Simon’s Town and provides training in gunnery, anti-submarine warfare, communications, diving and seamanship. Simonsberg also includes:
    • Maritime Warfare Training Centre.
    • Submarine Training Centre, East Yard.
    • Nuclear, Biological, Chemical, Damage Control Training Centre.
    • Military Training Centre, West Yard.
  • South African Naval College - located in Gordon's Bay, the establishment provides training for naval officers.


As of the end of the financial year 2018/19, there were approximately 6,816 active uniformed members of the SA Navy, just short of the 7,071 target.[104] In addition, there are a further 1,071 civilian staff that further support the Navy.[105]

In 2006, the old Naval Reserve Units that were modelled on the Royal Naval Reserve system were closed down. A new Navy Reserve system was created consisting of roughly 1,000 reserve posts. These posts are pooled and members are drawn from them as needed to augment full-time units and ships' companies.


From 1922 to the 1940s the SA Navy was effectively an extension of the Royal Navy, and therefore wore the same uniforms and similar insignia. As British influence was gradually curtailed, in 1959 the British Crown in the SA Navy cap badge was replaced with the Lion of Nassau from the crest of the country's coat of arms. A black beret later replaced the peaked cap in working uniforms.[92]

In 2000 the new Coat of Arms was unveiled and the Chief of the Navy tasked Fleet Command to look at revising the Navy uniforms to reflect the new coat of arms. This saw new rank insignia for non-commissioned officers being implemented as well as the introduction of a side cap.[106]


Due to historical influence, the rank system is based on that of the Royal Navy.[107]

Rank group National rank General/flag officers Field/senior officers Junior officers Officer cadet
 South African Navy[108]
None SA-Navy-OF-9.svgBritish Royal Navy (sleeves) OF-9.svg SA-Navy-OF-8.svgBritish Royal Navy (sleeves) OF-8.svg SA-Navy-OF-7.svgBritish Royal Navy (sleeves) OF-7.svg SA-Navy-OF-6.svgSA-Navy-OF-6-Sleeve.svg British Royal Navy (sleeves) OF-5.svg British Royal Navy (sleeves) OF-4.svg British Royal Navy (sleeves) OF-3.svg British Royal Navy (sleeves) OF-2.svg British Royal Navy (sleeves) OF-1b.svg Turkey-Navy-OF-1a.svg 07.RNO-MIDN.svg
Admiral Vice admiral Rear admiral Rear admiral
(junior grade)
Captain Commander Lieutenant
Lieutenant Sub lieutenant Ensign Midshipman
Warrant officers and other ranks
NATO rank
WO-5 WO-4 WO-3 WO-2 WO-1
 South African Navy
SAA-WO-1.svg SAA-WO-2.svg SAA-WO-3.svg SAA-WO-4.svg SAA-WO-5.svg
Senior warrant officer Master warrant officer Chief warrant officer Senior chief warrant officer Master chief warrant officer

The warrant officer ranks were expanded in 2008,[109] with ranks that had been substantive based on the post now becoming a rank that the person maintained.

Rank group Senior NCOs Junior NCOs Enlisted
 South African Navy[108]
SAA-OR-9.svg SAA-OR-8.svg SAN-Navy-OR-7.svg SAN-Navy-OR-6.svg British Royal Navy OR-4.svg Trinidad and Tobago-Navy-OR-2.svg Blank.svg
Warrant officer class 1 Warrant officer class 2 Chief petty officer Petty officer Leading seaman Able seaman Seaman
Naval ensign

Ships and weapons


Combat fleet

Image Class/name Type Number Entered service
SAS Charlotte Maxeke (S-102).jpg
Heroine class Submarine 3 2005[110]
South African Navy frigate SAS Amatola (F 145).jpg
Valour class Frigate 4 2004[111]
US Navy 100315-N-4774B-200 The Chilean navy Sa'ar 4-class fast-attack craft Angamos and Casma perform tactical maneuvering exercises in the Strait Of Magellan.jpg
Warrior class Offshore patrol vessel 2[112] 1979[113]
River class minesweeper.jpg
River-class minehunter Mine counter measures vessels/ Offshore Patrol Vessel 2[114][115] 1981[116]
Damen Stan patrol vessel 6211 Inshore Patrol Vessel 3 Under construction, entry into service 2021 – 2025
T class Inshore patrol vessel 3 1992[113]
Namacurra harbour patrol boat.jpg
Namacurra class Harbour patrol boat 21 1981[113]

Support fleet

Image Class/name Type Number Entered service
SAS Drakensberg A301 c.jpg
SAS Drakensberg Replenishment vessel 1 1987[117]
SAS Protea.jpg
SAS Protea Hecla-class survey vessel 1 1972[117] (replacement under construction)
SA Navy Tug Ndlovu.JPG
Tugboat Coastal & Harbour tugs 5 1995–2016[118]
Lima-class utility landing craft Landing Craft Utility 6 1990[119]

Air force maritime aircraft

Although the SA Navy does not operate any aircraft itself, aircraft used on ships or supporting are operated by 22 Squadron SAAF:

There is a planned programme to equip the frigates with UAVs to supplement the helicopters. Previously before its retirement, the SAAF operated the Westland Wasp for the SA Navy in the anti-submarine warfare role.

Naval weapons systems

Weapon systems of the South African Navy
Type Manufacturer Model Platform
Anti-ship missile MBDA Exocet MM40 Block 2[121] Valour-class frigate (8 missiles in 2 quad-packed launchers)
Surface-to-air missile Denel Dynamics Umkhonto IR Block 2[122] Valour-class frigate (16/32 missiles in a vertical launching system)
Torpedo Atlas Elektronik 533mm (21") Atlas Elektronik SUT 264 heavyweight torpedo Heroine-class submarine (8 bow tubes with 14 torpedoes)
Naval gun Oto Melara/Otobreda OTO Melara 76mm/62 compact Valour-class frigate (1 foredeck gun), Warrior-class Offshore Patrol Vessel (1 foredeck gun)
Close-in weapon system Denel Land Systems Denel 35mm Dual Purpose Gun Valour-class frigate (2 GA35 rapid-fire automatic cannons mounted side by side in an unmanned low radar observable turret)
Autocannon Oerlikon Oerlikon 20 mm cannon Valour-class frigate (2 guns), Warrior-class Offshore Patrol Vessel (2 guns), SAS Drakensberg (4 guns), River-class minehunter (1 gun)
12.7mm Heavy machine gun General Dynamics, FN Herstal, U.S. Ordnance or Manroy Engineering (UK) M2 Browning Valour-class frigate (2 Reutech Rogue turrets), Warrior-class Offshore Patrol Vessel (2 guns), SAS Drakensberg (6 guns), River-class minehunter (2 guns), T Craft-class inshore patrol vessel (1 gun), Namacurra-class harbour patrol boat (1 gun)
7.62mm General purpose machine gun Browning Arms Company, FN Herstal or Denel Land Systems Browning M1919, FN MAG or Vektor SS-77 Namacurra-class harbour patrol boat (2 guns)


See also



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