At least three companies in the running to boost SAAF airlift, maritime and transport capacity


The mainstays of the SA Air Force’s (SAAF) airlift and multi-role maritime aircraft have been in service for 50 and 60 years plus respectively, making planning for replacements a priority.

Both Airbus Military and Lockheed Martin have been maintaining close contact and dialogue with Armscor, the SAAF and other policy and decision makers in the defence sector. Another major player, in the form of Boeing Defence, is set to do the same. Chris Chadwick, president of the military arm of the American aerospace giant, said in Cape Town last month they had begun to engage with government and industry leaders to “better understand the fabric” in South Africa” so that relationships could be started.

The SAAF is reportedly currently busy with a project to determine the feasibility of bringing probably used Ilyushin Il-76s into its aircraft inventory. At the same time Lockheed Martin wants to know “exactly what the SAAF’s airlift requirements are” so it can assist, according to Dennys Plessas, Vice President Business Development initiatives of the Marietta, Georgia, based aerospace and defence company.

Spain-headquartered Airbus Military is another aerospace company wanting to see at least some of its product range in SAAF livery. Last year it brought the twin-engined C295 transport to South Africa for evaluation by the SAAF. This after former Defence and Military Veterans Minister Lindiwe Sisulu opted to take South Africa out of the A400M programme which the country previously bought into as a risk taking partner. This would have seen the new generation A400M airlifter come into SAAF service alongside the ageing C-130BZs.

Airbus sub-Sahara spokesman Linden Birns points out South Africa was able to cancel its order because the first A400M had not flown by October 31, 2009. “As it happened the maiden flight was six weeks later – in hindsight an inconsequential delay considering an air force will probably keep aircraft like the A400M in service for 30 to 40 years”.

Industry insiders point out there is another option for the SAAF, apart from those currently on offer or being investigated. Reports indicate both Germany and Spain will not be taking the original quota of A400Ms ordered. These aircraft are part of the first production run of the new generation airlifter and could be acquired by way of government to government negotiations.

Speaking last year after 35 Squadron’s “Blue Bird”, the C-47TP painted in Silver Falcons colours to indicate its affiliation to the crack aerobatics team, crashed in the Drakensberg killing all aboard, Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula expressed her unhappiness at the use of an aircraft more than 60 years old.

This along with 50 years of service from the backbone of the SAAF’s airlift capability at 28 Squadron has not gone unnoticed by SAAF top management with the Il-76 investigation currently underway.

Airbus Military can supply C295s relatively quickly, important for particularly the maritime patrol and surveillance function as well as boosting air transport capacity. Lockheed has indicated it is prepared to speak with its major client, the US Air Force, if South Africa decides on the C-130J for a multi-role aircraft.

With more and more demands being placed on airlift and maritime capabilities of the SAAF, decisions have to be made sooner rather than later to support continental deployments, patrol own maritime economic exclusion zones (EEZ) as well as waters off the west coast in terms of a tri-nation Benguela Current protection agreement between South Africa, Namibia, and Angola.