Trying to do the best they can with the little they have. This was the general theme of the Chief of the South African Navy presentation to the media on Thursday morning.
Despite highlighting the successes and achievements of the SA Navy over the past year, the word ‘challenges’ was frequently used, as were quotes such as that of Dr Martin Luther King: “the solution of one problem brings us face to face with (yet) another problem.”
Hence, Chief of the South African Navy Vice Admiral Mosuwa Hlongwane’s statement that: “We try to do the best that we can with the little that we have.”
The Navy is facing many challenges due to staffing and maintenance issues, all as a result of the economic challenges facing the country, leading to a reduced maritime defence budget as the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has had its budget reduced by R5 billion. This has had a direct impact on the Navy, with Hlongwane saying: “I think (the decreased budget) will surely affect the maintenance of the vessels.”
The man tasked with command and control of all vessels and units of the Navy is Rear Admiral Bubele Mhlana, Flag Officer Fleet. He has to deal with the implications of the budget cuts.
Being faced with an ever diminishing budget is not a new phenomenon for the Navy or Mhlana, who says that “as we embark on each and every financial year, the budget we receive is getting less and less.”
The Navy is not just about ships and other maritime platforms, for they would be nothing without the men and women who staff and maintain them.
Rear Admiral Asiel Kubu, Chief of Naval Staff, says that the Navy’s personnel levels are determined by the allocated budget, which defines how many people can serve at any one time.
The SA Navy has approximately 9 400 active posts, of which 7 280 are currently staffed. Kubu notes that this 77% staffing level “indicates to you the gap that we’ve already had in terms of the capacity to staff the Navy to the level we want.”
However, “with the 7 280 people we have, we are still be able to function as a navy, but not to the level that we’d want to have been staffed at,” Kubu continued. “But the gap already is a challenge for us. So it will continue being a challenge because the budget is still not working for us.”
As if that was not bad enough, the incoming 2017/18 financial year will bring in a 6.9% cut in Human Resource (HR) costs. “We are already over R150 million short of what we used to have in the last financial year. In the subsequent year, we are at a 10.6% cut on the HR budget. We are talking over R250 million short of HR budget,” he lamented.
So it appears that the staffing levels will not be improving in the short term. Foreseeing a further reduction of staff personnel to about 6 900 (73.4% of the desired level) due to the reduced budget allocated to the Navy, Kubu says that “we have to live with what we’ve got.”
Despite the reduced staffing levels, the Navy is managing to retain their scarce skills.
“We are actually doing better now compared to the last seven years,” Kubu was pleased to say, “We are managing to retain our scarce skills that are already in the system because we have some initiatives that we put in place to retain our people.”
Apart from improving service conditions, the retention of skilled personal has largely been accomplished by improved communication between the Navy and the private sector, who used to ‘poach’ the highly trained naval members.
“We cannot say we’re not challenged in terms of HR, but the retention level has improved.”
Other issues affecting manpower is that the Navy used to utilise a lot of people via the Reserve Force to augment some of the shortages in skills experienced in the Navy. This option is also presenting dual challenges.
Firstly, the new financial year will bring in a cut in calling up Reserve Force members, meaning a reduction of approximately 32% in man days available. This, Kubu says, “talks to operational readiness of the Navy.”
The Navy has been using the Military Skills Development System (MSDS) to target only those personnel that meet their unique predetermined requirements. The Navy has also been fortunate in that they are in a position to retain all the MSDS that are recruited “because they have been to our requirement.”
Kubu says that “we cannot say that the feeder that’s coming in addresses all our requirements because we have to take less than what we could have taken before. We used to take approximately 650 to 700 MSDS in the last few years, but in the last two years the MSDS program has reduced where we take 200 to 250.”
This gap between intake numbers and requirement to staff critical posts is linked to the budget.
“We don’t just get them out of the system, we retain them,” Kubu explains, “But the danger of it is that it is also a killer to your Reserve Force. The MSDS was there to be used as a tool to feed the Reserve Force. But now we retain all of them and don’t have the feeder system to the Reserves. It is the challenge we are facing.”
Being forever positive, Hlongwane says that “despite the challenges we are faced with we, the South African Navy, are doing our part because the people of South Africa have placed their trust in us. We must therefore work harder and smarter - doing more with less, and now more than ever, we need to challenge traditional constructs, employing innovation to propel our Navy into the future.”
“In the meantime,” says Mhlana, “we service with what we have and we are managing the situation as best as we can. The results are showing in terms of our ability to deploy ships overseas and also for internal deployments.”
This weekend (March 17 to 19) sees the SA Navy open its doors as well as its bulkheads and hatches to the public when the annual Navy Festival takes place in Simon’s Town. Visitors to the east dockyard will be able to tour the naval vessels, view multi-capability anti-piracy demonstrations by the Maritime Reaction Squadron (MRS) and “get wet” on tug boat rides. Entrance is free.