The arms deal commission of inquiry could hold its first in-camera session next week, presumably around the utilisation of purchased submarines.
This evidence could be around the utilisation of the three submarines purchased by South Africa in the 1999 arms deal.
The submarines’ "operational challenges" are "highly classified", the commission heard on Friday.
Rear-admiral Phillip Schoultz, from the South African Navy, is scheduled to finish giving evidence at the commission on Monday. Schoultz commands the navy’s fleet.
On Friday evidence leader advocate Simmy Lebala SC said most of Schoultz’ evidence would be given publicly, and the commission did not want to exclude anyone from its proceedings.
But this particular section of Schoultz’ evidence was based on information that was "highly classified". Commission chair, Willie Seriti, suggested that Schoultz should submit an affidavit about the classified information, instead of holding an in-camera session.
But the practicality of this depends on whether or not anyone wishes to cross-examine Schoultz on the classified evidence, Seriti said. Lebala indicated that there were no current applications to cross-examine Schoultz, but this could change in the immediate future.
The start of the commission’s public hearings was controversially stalled earlier this month when the commission adjourned, specifically to deal with the issue of classified documents. At the time, Seriti said this would "always be a nightmare".
At the time, Andrew Feinstein, author of After the Party and global campaigner against the arms trade, expressed concern that the classification issue had not been resolved prior to the commission’s commencement.
While Lebala did not elaborate on the classification of the information in Schoultz’ testimony, he said that it was "highly classified" because of a "legitimate national security issue".
So far, Schoultz has told the commission about the use of the four frigates purchased by the navy as part of the arms deal, and the immense costs involved in operating the war ships.
The frigates are among the most advanced in the world and have "unique" features never before encountered by the navy, the commission has heard. At 120m in length, the ships are capable of conducting air strikes, and features gas turbines and a water jet.
The frigates are complex, Schoultz said, with highly sophisticated technology that will take the navy years to master. But this is apparently not out of the ordinary: Schoultz said that when the navy first purchased similar ships, in 1977, it had taken a decade before they knew how to use all the features the ships offered.
"Even now the SA Navy is still in the process of developing a detailed understanding of many of the frigates’ systems," he said.
Schoultz explained that in November 2002, the navy realised it would be too expensive to operate the four frigates purchased during the 1999 arms deal as initially envisioned. And so a new operating plan was drawn up, which heavily reduced the amount of time the ships would spend at sea.
Initially, the frigates were to spend 180 days at sea each, the commission heard. But this plan would have cost the navy a minimum of R100-million extra per year. To save costs, the ships spend between 100 and 50 days at sea each – but that is still only on paper, and the actual time spent at sea could be less.
Nevertheless, the ships are "well-utilised", Schoultz said. On Thursday, Rear-admiral Robert Higgs, also a witness at the commission, said the ships were actually "over-used".
Schoultz said the frigates have spent 1932 days operationally deployed since their arrival in South Africa. The last frigate to arrive docked in 2007. This is excluding the number of days spent in trials or independent exercises, he said.
The frigates have been involved in 24 operations, 25 joint and multinational exercises and 5 "other ordered commitments".
These range from "goodwill visits" to nine countries, including China and Brazil, to anti-piracy patrols off the coast of Mozambique. The frigates have also assisted with a rescue mission near Tristan da Cunha, assisted in "safeguarding the 2010 Soccer World Cup", inderdicted drug runners, and once escorted a vessel carrying nuclear waste, Schoultz said.
'To good use'
The navy has presented a case to the commission that aims to deal with two elements of the commission’s terms of reference – the rationale behind the arms deal and the utilisation of the arms purchased.
The witnesses representing the navy thus far have all sung from the same hymn sheet, and maintain that the navy is putting the four war ships and three state-of-the-art submarines to good use. The witnesses all say the navy would be unable to execute its "constitutional mandate to defend and protect the Republic" without the ships and submarines.
Schoultz’ statement also revealed a failed attempt by the South African government to acquire submarines in 1996 – a year before the arms deal tender went out, and at a time when the acquisition was on hold pending the outcome of the White Paper on Defence and the Defence Review.
"It is my understanding that around 1996, efforts were made to acquire three Upholder class submarines from the United Kingdom," Schoultz said. He did not elaborate.