Air Force goes mum on combat pilot numbers

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The SA Air Force (SAAF) yesterday invoked “national security” to avoid telling Members of Parliament and the public how many fully-trained combat pilots it had to fly its fleet of Saab Gripen fighter and BAE Systems Hawk fighter-trainer aircraft.

Business Day and the South African Press Association reports the SAAF’s director air capability planning Brigadier General Wiseman Mbambo told the Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans he could not tell them the current number of qualified combat pilots as this would compromise national security. In a briefing, Mbambo reportedly told MPs that “inadequate funding” of the Hawk and Gripen combat systems had placed these “in the balance”, and the SAAF “has not been able to generate the required number of flying hours and re-provision the systems adequately”.

According to SAPA Mbambo said that to save on costs, pilots were training on Pilatus PC7 Mk II Astra aircraft rather than the Hawks, because these were cheaper to operate. This prompted at least two MPs to inquire on the number of qualified combat pilots available for the Hawks and Gripens, operated by 85 Combat Flying School and 2 Squadron, both at Makhado, respectively. Mbambo then called on committee chairman Mnyamezeli Booi to advise him whether or not to answer this question. “I would like to get some advice on that one because it touches exactly on the… security of the country in terms of what we have currently for combat readiness.”

Mbambo had earlier been cautioned by the chairman not to venture into areas that touched on national security. His call for advice prompted an objection from Freedom Front Plus MP Pieter Groenewald. “That is nonsense, I have asked for this information before and it has always been supplied,” Business Day quoted him as saying. “That can’t be a threat (to national security). I’ve asked this question in Parliament a couple of times,” SAPA had him say. “What is the threat? To know how many combat pilots we have? Let us know!” he said. Booi then asked Mbambo if he was saying that divulging this information was a threat to national security, SAPA added.

Mbambo responded: “It’s digging into the actual capability that we have. Another thing… the combat readiness of pilots will differ from time to time. I can give you an answer now, but as I walk out of this room, the answer is not perfect anymore.” Booi then ruled that the question was “bordering on national security”, that Mbambo was not in a position, as a serving officer, to answer it, and would have to consult Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu before providing an answer. He further suggested the question could be “posed through the parliamentary system to the minister herself”.

Democratic Alliance shadow defence minister David Maynier said the questions should be answered and he had asked similar ones, but said perhaps deciding whether to answer them was not a decision Mbambo could take and the minister should authorise him to answer them. The head of human resources at the Department of Defence, Mary Ledwaba, said the details being sought on “scarce musterings” had been put in a written reply to a parliamentary question which was en route to Parliament. She said the reply gave details of retention allowances and the levels of technicians and pilots in the air force. It was assumed that the reply was waiting for the minister to sign it off, Business Day said.

Last November Sisulu stated the SAAF had 60 posts for combat pilots, of which 34 were filled at the time and 26 were vacant. The SAAF currently operates 24 Hawk and 15 Gripen. Sisulu, in reply to a Parliamentary question from Democratic Alliance David Maynier added that a third of all helicopter and transport pilot posts were then vacant.

Description

Total number of posts

Total number of employees

Total vacant posts

Combat Pilots

60

34

26

Helicopter Pilots

167

109

58

Transport Pilots

156

108

48

Additional Posts

187

137

50

VIP Pilots

12

Maritime Pilots

7

ATC

77

48

29

Tech Support Crew

1630

763

867

Engineers

122

52

70

Source: MoD, November 2009

The Parliamentary answers as well as comments by Air Force chief Lieutenant General Carlo Gagiano showed the flying service had a substantial pilot as well as air traffic controller and technical crew shortfall, despite efforts to correct the deficit. In August last year, responding to a similar question, Sisulu promised a special recruitment drive worth R20 million to fill the vacancies. At the time, the DA MP said the vacancy rate effectively wiped out the combat readiness of the force. The August reply noted 29 combat pilot vacancies, suggesting three had been filled by November. It takes at least seventeen months to train up a combat pilot.

In September last year Gagiano reported that in the first nine months of 2009 the air force had lost 13 pilots and 74 technical staff to the private sector. Part of the problem was that budget cuts meant there were fewer hours flown and this proved to be a disincentive to pilots remaining with the air force. Also, technical staff were leaving for better-paid positions in the private sector, Business Day quoted Gagiano saying. Gagiano that month awarded 19 pupil pilots their wings, but it will take time for them to graduate as operational pilots. Twenty-five more gained wings in May.

Sisulu’s answers however only reflects the permanent establishment. “It should be borne in mind that Reserve Force members of the SAAF provide the necessary back-up service to the SAAF, but these are not reflected on the permanent establishment,” Sisulu’s answer noted.

Mbambo yesterday also sketched a picture of an Air Force that was desperately short of funds. The SAAF’s budget allocation for 2009/10 had been R3.1 billion, of which R1.6 billion was for personnel and R1.5 billion for operations out of a total defence budget of R30.7 billion. “In the year under review, the SAAF was under-funded to the tune of R132 million, specifically on operations,” he said.

Reporting on the SAAF’s air combat capability, he said it had been planned to fly 950 training hours, but only 715 were achieved. “The reasons include: substantial underfunding of the systems, long lead times on spares, the Gripen support package has not been fully delivered (during the year under review), and a software upgrade on the Hawks which affected availability,” Mbambo said.

He said the strategic objective of flying 11 920 hours in helicopters was not achieved due to low levels of experience of ground crew and low availability of systems. In the transport and maritime surveillance category, the 11 825 hours were not achieved because of financial constraints and the age of many of the aircraft.

The air combat objective of 950 hours (for Gripen and Hawk aircraft) was not achieved because of substantial underfunding. He said a “fair balance” had to be found between the air forces mandate and the funding allocated to achieve it. This prompted Maynier to observe that “one can only infer that the SAAF is in deep crisis”.

MPs also heard the SAAF had been forced to dig into its severely strained operations budget to fund capital equipment. “If we do not take operational funds to buy spares, we will not be able to fly the aircraft,” an unnamed official told the committee.



Business Day noted Mbambo’s resort to secrecy follows Sisulu ‘s refusal to provide Parliament and the public with details of President Jacob Zuma ‘s aircraft flights and associated costs on the grounds that the information was “classified”. Maynier noted this information had previously been published but Sisulu responded that this had been a mistake. The development also comes as MPs in another committee are struggling to process the Protection of Information Bill, which provides for a system of keeping information secret on the grounds of national security.