Exactly half the South African Air Force’s fleet of26 Gripen fighter jets is actively flying while the other half is in rotational storage due to a lack of funding.
This is according to Defence and Military Veterans minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, who was responding to a parliamentary question on 6 June.
The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party’s shadow defence minister Sarel Jacobus Francois Marais asked the Minister of Defence and Military Veterans:
(1) Whether, with reference to her comments reported in 2013 that 12 out of the SA Air Force’s 26 Gripen fighter jets were in long-term storage due to lack of funding to fly them, the specified aircraft are still in storage; if not, (a) why not and (b)(i) how and (ii) where are they being utilised; if so, (aa) what are the relevant details and (bb) why are these aircraft not being utilised to train our pilots at active SA Air Force pilot training facilities, such as Langebaan, instead of sending them for training to the Russian Federation and the Republic of Cuba;
(2) (a) what are the full reasons for training our SA Air Force pilots in (i) Russia and in (ii) Cuba instead of at active pilot training bases in the country and (b) what are the cost-benefits of training the specified pilots in (i) Russia and (ii) Cuba instead of in South Africa?
In her response, Mapisa-Nqakula stated that 13 fighter aircraft are in the Rotational Preventative Maintenance programme out of a fleet of 26 aircraft “which are maintained throughout the aircraft life cycle as prescribed by the Designing Authority”, which is Swedish manufacturer Saab.
She stated the Gripen fleet is under continuous maintenance while in the Rotational Preventative Maintenance programme while 13 Gripens are operationally active at their home bases. “The Gripen aircraft are operationally utilised and used for force preparation of Gripen specific pilots and also for force employment,” the Minister said in her reply.
News of Gripens in rotational storage first emerged in March 2013 when the minister said 12 were in storage. The South African Air Force later said the South African Air Force’s (SAAF’s) 2 Squadron at Air Force Base Makhado would fly the Gripen fleet in rotation, with some aircraft being put in short-term storage between flying cycles in order to minimise the risk of corrosion. Flying hours would thus be spread evenly across the entire Gripen fleet.
Military analyst Darren Olivier noted that “Rotational Preventative Maintenance (RPM) is a smart and effective approach to take when an air force is under severe budgetary pressure, as the SAAF has been for a number of years. It’s based on the best engineering and logistical principles and, unlike mothballing or long-term storage, it means that aircraft are kept semi-active and flown every 60 days, are maintained and upgraded to the same level as active aircraft and can return to the active flight line within no more than two days. Most importantly, the aircraft in the RPM programme are periodically rotated out with the aircraft on the active flight line, so that all aircraft are used and the flying hours remain even across the fleet.
“It is of course disastrous that the SAAF has had to adopt such severe austerity measures, that it’s forced to limit the number of active pilots and aircraft to stay within its extremely low number of allocated flying hours and that the government still refuses to fund it to a level that matches the demands placed on it. But given the prevailing conditions, adopting the RPM approach was the best possible option the SAAF could have taken to ensure that it does not lose important capabilities over the longer term.
“RPM is not an effective long-term strategy, it’s meant only as a short-term (1-3 year) intervention. But given the low probability of a suitable increase in the SAAF’s operating budget, it’s likely that the RPM programme will have to be continued for longer than initially thought.
“Unless the SAAF’s budget is increased significantly within the next couple of years, the organisation will be forced to continue scaling back its level of flying and the number of aircraft available for day-to-day missions and may, in a few years, even be forced to close squadrons and retire certain types. It’s time the government stops dithering and either re-allocates money from other departments to the SAAF or dramatically reduces the level of operational commitments, including VIP flights, that the organisation is expected to fulfil.”
Already in 2010 there was great concern that a lack of money would ground the Gripen. Then-defence minister Lindiwe Sisulu warned that the Gripens could be mothballed if the military failed to get hold of extra funding. In its 2010/2011 report, the Department of Defence said that due to underfunding, the number of flight hours per Gripen aircrew member was reduced from 224 to 110 per year.
“The persistent and continued downward trend in real terms of the funding allocation to defence has reached a point where the DoD [Department of Defence] runs the risk of losing some of its current capabilities in addition to previous losses thereby compromising national security to defend and protect the Republic,” the Department of Defence said in a presentation to Parliament in May this year.
Mapisa-Nqakula in her May budget vote said the lack of funding will have serious implications on the defence function of the Republic of South Africa. The R5.5 billion reduction in the defence budget over the MTEF (Medium Term Expenditure Framework) period will have negative consequences, she said, regarding the ability of the DoD to rejuvenate the South African National Defence Force, the compensation of employees, the ageing of the force, in increase in the skills gap, a growing loss of expertise and an insufficient number of members to sustain operations.
It is unlikely that the Gripen situation will improve anytime soon, as the SAAF budget has been cut. Its budget for the 2016/17 financial year is just R6 883 million, which is R284 million less than it was granted by National Treasury for the previous financial cycle. Force employment flying hours are on the decrease and are expected to drop to 5 000 for the 2016/17 financial year, from 6 500 for the current year.
South Africa bought 26 Gripens (17 single-seat Gripen Cs and nine two-seat Gripen Ds) as part of the Strategic Defence Procurement Package, becoming the Gripen’s first export customer. Deliveries concluded in September 2012.
In September 2013 South African Air Force Director of Combat Systems, Brigadier General John Bayne told the Seriti Commission that the Gripen fleet had flown 3 500 hours since 2008 while the 24-strong Hawk fleet had flown over 10 000 major accident-free hours since 2005. According to testimony at the arms deal commission more than two years ago, 18 Gripen aircrew (navigators and pilots) had been trained up to operational status and 52 Hawk aircrew had been trained.
The Hawks have flown more hours as it is much cheaper to fly them than the Gripens. According to Bayne, it cost approximately R135 400 an hour to fly a Gripen, and R82 900 an hour to fly a Hawk. He said the “dry costs” (without fuel) for a Gripen were R104 600 per flying hour and fuel cost R30 800, giving a total “wet cost” of R135 400. Hawks fly at a dry cost of R67 500.
In her response to the DA’s parliamentary question, the minister said that with regard to the matter of training pilots in Russia and Cuba, “technically, we do not have any pilots training in Russia or Cuba. What we have in these countries are members identified to become student pilots.”
In October last year it was reported that ten pilots from 2 Squadron had been selected for further training in Russia while four pilots were already in Cuba. Five SAAF members are receiving air traffic control training; eight are receiving aviation engineering training and seven are doing aviation technical course training in Cuba.