South Africa is building and using sophisticated technology to combat maritime crimes and make its notoriously treacherous oceans safer for seafarers. A new Institute for Security Studies (ISS) report shows how a variety of measures are being implemented to improve the country’s overall Maritime Domain Awareness.
South Africa’s location at the meeting point of the Atlantic and Indian oceans and astride the globally important Cape shipping route, means that thousands of vessels constantly approach, transit or depart the country’s maritime domain. While most are innocently going about their business, some are involved in illegal fishing, poaching, smuggling and trafficking, and could pose a security threat if allowed to proceed.
The country’s approach allows authorities such as the South African Navy and the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries to remotely track and determine whether to intercept suspicious targets. It can help identify patterns of criminal behaviour at sea, highlighting areas where illegal activities are most likely to occur and compiling a database of culprits to monitor and take action.
Integrated Vessel Tracking technology is key to dealing with both the sheer number of vessels at sea, and the fact that some switch off the location transponders they’re legally obligated to carry. Location and identity data acquired from radar imagery, observations by coast watchers, patrol vessels and ship transponder signals picked up by satellites are fused with intelligence into a common operating picture.
Some of the vessel tracking technologies, such as Synthetic Aperture Radar, are stripping away the cloak that night and cloudy conditions provide to conceal suspicious vessels and crimes. This type of radar generates images of the sea no matter the weather or time, allowing the detection of so-called dark targets – vessels that illegally switch off their transponders.
Suspicious ships are identified and tracked, and analysts determine the risk they pose if left unattended. Automatic alerts are issued when a vessel enters a restricted zone or exhibits behaviour that could indicate criminal activity, such as transhipment of illegally caught fish between two vessels, at night and on the High Seas.
However South Africa faces two major problems regarding this kind of enhanced surveillance. First, the country’s maritime security capabilities are likely to shrink over the next couple of years, which will make it difficult to provide a constant and robust presence throughout its maritime area of jurisdiction.
For example the South African Navy has warned that it could lose some of its core capabilities from 2022 to 2023. By this time, it will lack the resources to adequately repair and maintain all its vessels, especially its submarines and frigates. While it expects to buy three new inshore patrol vessels by the end of 2023 to replace its antiquated offshore patrol vessels, these will be insufficient for the tasks required.
The inshore vessels are designed for coastal tasks such as inspections of small vessels, and won’t be able to undertake some of the sustained offshore operations that larger, offshore vessels provide. Also these might be the last vessels it receives for a while, as it will be unable to afford new capital acquisitions while the economy is in recession.
South Africa will also have to increasingly rely on technological innovations in surveillance and analysis. This is because its air force lacks maritime patrol aircraft, and the defence minister stated in 2019 (before COVID-19 and the recession) that no replacement aircraft would be purchased.
The second challenge for the country relates to budget cuts beyond the maritime security arena. The most likely economic consequence of COVID-19 will be reduced funds for operational expenditure across the whole of government.
Currently over 25 South African government departments and agencies are involved in maritime and ocean governance. They will all now be under pressure to demonstrate value for money and how they’re streamlining their efforts. This means that cooperation and coordination will be vital. Departments with a maritime mandate will be expected to do as much, if not more, with fewer resources.
The ISS report suggests South Africa’s government can alleviate some of these difficulties by establishing a National Maritime Information Centre under its future National Maritime Security Strategy. The strategy has taken shape throughout 2020, but the country cannot afford for it to be further delayed.
The centre would improve coordination and information sharing through joint risk analysis and decision making. While such a centre is meant to be established under the new Border Management Authority, a dedicated maritime centre is still needed, as the border authority will probably focus on land and air ports of entry not sea borders.
The strategy should also outline how available maritime security capabilities will be coordinated and eventually integrated into one operational centre. A framework will be needed for using existing patrol and surveillance resources that are currently dispersed among various government departments.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) Integrated Maritime Security Strategy currently being finalised provides a valuable opportunity to reignite discussions of both a SADC information sharing centre and joint maritime security operations among member states. Improving national and regional cooperation is key to unlocking the benefits of effective maritime awareness, and is the next step to improving South Africa’s security at sea.
Now, more than ever, governments should collaborate at regional and international levels. South Africa’s initial achievements are a good baseline for further developing its awareness capabilities and those of its partners in the interest of global maritime security.
Written by Timothy Walker, Senior Researcher and Denys Reva, Research Officer, Peace Operations and Peacebuilding Programme, ISS Pretoria