Twelve of the South African Air Force’s 26 Gripen fighter jets are in long-term storage, according to defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, as the Air Force does not have the funding to fly them.
This emerged yesterday in reply to a parliamentary question posed by the opposition Democratic Alliance party’s Shadow Minister of Defence and Military Veterans David Maynier.
“The South African Air Force (SAAF) has 12 Gripen Fighter Aircraft placed in long-term storage. These aircraft are placed in a storage as a planned activity in line with their utilization and budget expenditure patterns/flow of SAAF,” Mapisa-Nqakula said.
“The Gripen fighter jets are supposed to provide the air combat capability for the South African Air Force (SAAF). However, the Gripen fighter jets are effectively grounded because the operating budget has been stripped to the bone and the SAAF cannot afford to operate the ‘Gripen system’,” Maynier said.
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. The Department of Defence annual report released in 2010 warned that “Combined with the recent funding cuts for the medium-term expenditure framework period, the air force will only be able to sustain the Hawk system.
“Without adequate funding levels being provided, the air force will not be able to meet its mandate in terms of defence or its support of government initiatives in the medium and longer term. The unwanted reality is portions of aircraft fleets may have to be placed in long-term storage, and certain capabilities, units or bases may have to be closed down.”
The lack of money for the Gripens has also affected flying hours and pilot training. In April 2011 then-chief of the Air Force Lieutenant General Carlo Gagiano said the Air Force was not going to fly the required number of hours due to a lack of funding and 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.
At present the SAAF can only muster six qualified Gripen pilots who only have 150 flying hours available across the whole Gripen squadron this year, according to Maynier. The annual target for fighter flying hours was 250 for the 2011/2012 period, according to the Department of Defence’s most recent Annual Report.
Chief of the Air Force Lieutenant General Zakes Msimang when asked about Gripen flying hours earlier this year, said that the Air Force had never failed to deliver what was asked of it.
Defence analyst Helmoed-Römer Heitman noted the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) requires fighter pilots to log at least 20 flight hours per month (240 flight hours per year per fighter pilot) to remain qualified.
“One of the biggest scandals of the Arms Deal is that we bought military equipment we could not afford to operate. And there is no better illustration of the point than the Gripen fighter jets in long-term storage,” Maynier said. “It is imperative that the Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, reviews the allocation of the operating funding to the “Gripen system” in the SAAF.”
In 2007 it emerged that the Gripens cost R19.08 billion, up from the original R17.8 billion estimate for both 26 Gripens and 24 Hawks.
It is unlikely that the Gripen situation will improve anytime soon, as the defence budget for the 2013/14 financial year stands at R40.2 billion, just R1.8 billion more than the previous year’s.
South Africa bought 26 Gripens (17 single-seat Gripen Cs and nine two-seat Gripen Ds) as part of the Strategic Defence Procurement Package (in 2005 reduced to 26), becoming the Gripen’s first export customer. Deliveries concluded in September last year. The Gripens replaced the Cheetah fleet, which was withdrawn four years early due to funding constraints.