Navy responds to personnel shortage claims

Jan 07, 2008
Author: Shaun Benton

SAS CHARLOTTE MAXEKE (S102) on her arrival in False Bay from Germany in April last year. Picture Clinton Wyness

Navy say training programme offers matriculants hi-tech skills

With South Africa's batch of 2007 matriculants having last week received their results and now examining their future prospects, the South African Navy - laden with a raft of newly-acquired, high-tech equipment - is looking to recruit and train youngsters going forward, writes Shaun Benton (BuaNews).

Roland Shortt, the commander of the S102, the second of the three submarines ordered from Germany, told BuaNews that an ideal situation for the submarine service of the SA Navy would be the use of four crews to ‘man’ - or, rather, ‘person’ - the three submarines.

Commander Shortt was responding earlier in December to claims in local media that the Navy was looking at a very tight staffing complement, with reports that it would not have enough skilled submariners to keep all three of the new submarines in South African waters.

Defending the Navy's staffing predicament, Commander Shortt said that at any given time, most Navies would see a submarine dry-docked and undergoing routine maintenance, thus reducing the need for a full staff complement.

It was not unusual for a navy to keep a submarine out of the waters and under maintenance at any given time, Commander Shortt said, speaking as a commissioned officer with a staff wish-list while conceding that many skilled staffers left the Navy for financially greener pastures.

However, the commander did concede that the ideal situation would be one where the Navy had one extra crew to back up its existing three crews in the case of sickness or other reasons for absenteeism.

Four crews would be ideal to staff - in rotation - the three new submarines, the third of which is expected to arrive from Germany and be commissioned by the Navy in May 2008.

Commander Shortt said he was also forced to contemplate a skills depletion that has seen navy-trained, skilled artisans departing for the private sector, in South Africa and in off-shore business, such as the booming West African oil industry.

Ironically, the intensive training provided by the Navy, combined with the military discipline and strong sense of purpose imparted to youngsters, means that Navy-trained artisans are in high demand by private sector companies.

By the same token, this makes the Navy a desirable destination for youths - including those who may not be able to afford the costs of further education - who wish to pick up skills while serving in the country's defence forces.

Not a single of the 30-odd crew members on each of the submarines can operate without intensive training, said Commander Shortt, adding that all of his crew are well-trained electricians, mechanics, information technology specialists or have other artisan skills.

The new ‘turnkey’ submarines - meaning that they are all brand-new, straight-off-the-shelf submarines from their German manufacturers - are all diesel and battery-powered underwater vehicles equipped with the latest technology and which require highly-trained staff to operate them.

The three submarines are Class 209-Type 1400 MOD diesel-electric powered, and the full scope of the acquisition includes logistic support products, services, and equipment that includes simulators, test equipment, documentation and spares.

And, according to documents provided by the Navy, to ensure the effective transfer of technology and the ability for the local submarines to be locally supported, a resident in-country support team is to be based in Simon’s Town for five years.

The average mission duration of each of the 62-metre-long submarines is 45 days, while their total cruising range is around 10,000 nautical miles, with the navy arguing that they provide a ‘force-multiplier’, meaning that it would need many more surface ships to provide the same level of defence and deterrence that the subs provide.

At the same, the four new frigates acquired by the Navy, while not necessarily all requiring the same level of skill as that demanded of the submariners, also represent increased demand for disciplined Naval staffers.

Navy PR officer Lieutenant-Commander Prince Tshabalala himself grumbled to BuaNews about the high take-up by the private sector of the Navy's well-trained staff.

However, he shrugs off the Navy's ‘skills drain’ with the knowledge that at least, and for the most part, the Naval staffers leaving for the private sector go on to provide much-needed skills to the country's economy, thus boosting local productivity and efficiency and making South African a more competitive player in the global economy.

At the same time, Lieutenant-Commander Tshabalala says, there is space for a mechanism whereby the private sector could provide for some payback to the Navy, either financially or through apprenticeships or other forms or reciprocation.

In mid-December, the Chief of the Navy, Vice-Admiral Refiloe Mudimu officiated at a function at the deep water port of Saldanha on South Africa's west coast where over 300 young men and women graduated after successfully completing the Military Skills Development programme.

The graduation ceremony marked the completion of training for the 325 youngsters before they left for more specialised training by the navy, to prepare them for future utilisation in the Navy's fleets.

The naval training unit, known as SAS Saldanha, has trained more than 1,700 young South African men and women since its inception in 2003. And it is not only military skills that are taught but basic life skills as well.

The Military Skills Development (MSD) programme is a two-year voluntary training programme with the first six months focusing on the transition from civilian life to military culture. In the remaining 18 months, the MSD recruits are deployed in the Navy's fleets for further training enhanced by practical experience.

On top of this, and to provide youngsters with the opportunity to find employment at the end of their two-year contract, the Naval Gymnasium Programme, which falls under the MSD programme - which in turn forms part of the Department of Defence's ‘HR 210 rejuvenation sub-strategy’ - equips youngsters with enhanced life skills.

Overall, the programme includes training in ‘naval competencies’, which includes organisational studies, maritime practices and physical fitness.

The life skills component includes a focus on ‘financial health’ as well as computer literacy, maritime first aid, musketry, platform operator training and fire-fighting.

The ‘platform operator training’ component includes occupational health and safety as well as training in electrics, mechanics and internal combustion systems for ships, with all the elements combining to enable recruits to confidently enter the private sector job market should they not wish to extend their career in the Navy.

The Navy itself, however, has incentives to retain recruits, including officers' courses enabling recruits to reach command level should they make the grade.



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