The first five Denel Aviation Rooivalk Mark 1 combat support helicopters are now in service with 16 Squadron of the South African Air Force following the conclusion of a development and manufacturing programme dating back 27 years to March 1984. The cost of the programme, Project Impose, remains elusive but is said to have been over R8 billion by 2006.
Since February 2007 an additional R234 378 820.99 is known to have been spent. This is much less than the R962 667 346 that then-Minister of Defence Mosiuoa Lekota said had been budgeted for the financial years of FY07/08 to FY10/11. He announced the figure in answer to a Parliamentary question asked by Democratic Alliance member of Parliament Hendrik Schmidt in November 2007.
Denel says in handing over the aircraft, South Africa becomes one of only nine countries in the world to have developed and engineered its own combat support helicopter. Denel last year said it took 130 modifications per aircraft to turn the current fleet into a “Block 1F” deployment baseline standard aircraft and a further nine modifications to the aircraft’s ground support equipment. A major feature of the work is upgrading the sighting system on the Rooivalk for improved reliability.
The programme included “the significant remanufacturing of certain gearbox mounting components that were found to be out of specification on a number of aircraft.” The troublesome F2 20mm cannon has also reportedly been cured of overheating and reliability problems.
Denel group CE Talib Sadik said the handover was the culmination of 25 years of research, development and high-technology manufacturing. “This is a product that the South African public can be proud of – locally designed, locally manufactured and, now, ready for deployment by our local Air Force.”
The handover at the Denel Aviation campus in Kempton Park followed a rigorous testing and evaluation programme by the SAAF. Speaking at the hand-over ceremony on Friday Sadik said the upgraded Rooivalk had been tested at the Air Force’s Test Flight and Development Centre (TFDC) since the beginning of November 2010. The evaluation included day and night flight operations, target identification and tracking, cannon firing, and evaluation of the secure communications modes and self-protection features.
Denel Aviation CE Mike Kgobe added he has “received very positive reports from both the flying and ground support crews. “Our upgrade programme for the Rooivalk was completed on track and on schedule.” Denel’s Group Executive Technical, Major General Otto Schür (SAAF, Retd), in September last year said the helicopter would be released to operational service “within the next eight months” when the first five fully-certified locally-designed and manufactured combat support helicopters would be handed over to the SAAF. He said the Block 1F Rooivalk will be handed over for operational duties to 16 Squadron by no later than the “end of March” – Thursday last week. “The remaining six aircraft will be completed and ready for deployment soon after,” said Schür.
The announcement follows similar news from Brigadier General Norman Minne, the Director Air Force Acquisition in the Defence Materiel Division of the Defence Secretariat in July. The air force acquisitions director said the Rooivalk fleet was grounded in November 2009 “due to some specific issues regarding the engineering support of the aircraft”. The aircraft was notably absent from the massive air defence effort to safeguard the June-July soccer World Cup and did not feature in this February’s SA Army airborne capability Exercise Young Eagle, as is usually the case. It did return to the public skies at September’s Africa Aerospace and Defence show.
In comments in a Denel media release attributed to Chief of the SAAF, Lieutenant General Carlo Gagiano said the Rooivalk will contribute significantly to the ability of the SAAF to fulfil its mandate in peacekeeping operations and to support the future deployment of South African soldiers.
“This is a great moment for the SAAF,” Gagiano said.
Kgobe says the recent evaluation included the testing on Rooivalk of the upgraded Mokopa precision-guided missile developed by Denel Dynamics. Live firing of the upgraded missile from Rooivalk was done in January this year at the Denel Overberg Test Range. The missile scored direct hits on targets, both at the long- and short range limits of the missile, demonstrating successful weapons carriage and release from the aircraft, missile target lock-on and missile flight characteristics, he said. As far as is known, the SAAF has yet to buy any of the missiles and for the moment the attack helicopter is armed with a chin-mounted 20mm turreted cannon and under-wing pods firing Forge Zeebrugge 70mm unguided rockets. Also available now are new Denel Saab Aerostructures designed and developed external fuel tanks that increase the Rooivalk’s self-deployment range by 50%.
The original Rooivalk was designed as “an attack helicopter and tank killer” to meet the needs of SA Defence Force as it existed in the 1980s, said Sadik. The changing role of the SANDF, which is now primarily engaged in mandated peacekeeping missions, meant that aircraft systems had to be adapted to meet the new requirements effectively. “Rooivalk is now a modern, sophisticated, combat support helicopter, ready to be used by the SANDF in any of its potential deployed operations,” he avered.
Denel Aviation will be responsible for the deeper-level support capabilities to sustain flying operations. This includes all maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) work done on the Rooivalk fleet. “As design authority and original equipment manufacturer we will ensure that the Rooivalk remains fully operational throughout its assigned life,” said Kgobe.
It has been asked if the Rooivalk is an eagle or a turkey. But without Rooivalk much of today’s South African aviation industry would not exist. Further developing the local aviation industry was as much a strategic objective of the greater Rooivalk programme as developing a helicopter that could smash Cuban-crewed Soviet tanks on the Angolan savannah. The Rooivalk was indeed conceived in the 1980s as a tank-buster operating in a high-threat, high-intensity environment of the type the SA Defence Force imagined for Cold War southern Africa in the 1990s. That world never materialised as a consequence of the end of the Soviet Union and South Africa’s transition to nonracial democracy.
The programme was approved in March 1984 and followed an earlier project study that in 1976 culminated in the development of the “Alpha XH1” prototype based on the Alouette III light utility helicopter. An experimental development model flew for the first time on February 11, 1990 and an
Engineering Development Model on February 17, 1997.
In addition to destroying enemy tanks and other armoured vehicles, tasks for the planned fleet of 36 – three squadrons – included escorting and supporting heliborne raiding forces, assisting ground forces, conducting counterinsurgency, engaging in air-to-air combat, anti-shipping attack and reconnaissance tasks in addition to carrying out interdiction work against convoys, personnel, logistics and command sites in the enemy rear area.
Questions have also been asked about the continued need for the system. Gagiano himself has on a number of occasions confirmed the low status of the Rooivalk programme, notably in April 2005 and March 2007. On the latter occasion he said the UN had no immediate need for the helicopter in the DRC, Burundi or Sudan “and as a result operationalising the helicopter was no longer a priority”. This runs counter to continued Denel – and occasional government – insistence that the system is urgently required for peacekeeping duty and that its operationalisation is a priority.
Several myths surround the programme; principally that it is an indigenous design. It is not. As should be clear from a cursory examination, the type is essentially a gunship version of the Oryx, itself a Eurocopter Puma-Cougar hybrid. Although SA may not be keen to admit this for reasons of pride and the French may be equally reluctant – as their involvement up to 1994 was in violation of a UN arms embargo, it is known that Eurocopter and Turbomeca engineers did extensive development work on the design.
Another myth, propagated as recently as December 2005, is the so-called cost advantage of the platform relative to its peers. A defence journal wrote: “It seems likely that, benefiting from low labour rates in South Africa, the Rooivalk can be sold for less than its US and European competitors.” But this contrasts with repeated complaints from Denel and other “hi-tech” manufacturers over the fickleness of technical staff that have to be paid international rates to keep them in SA.
Turkey short listed the Rooivalk for its ATAK (armed reconnaissance and attack helicopter) programme in late June 2006, in what Denel said was an US$2 billion contract for up to 91 helicopters but which the country’s defence minister, Vecdi Gonul said was an initial purchase of 30 followed by an option for 20 more. The Rooivalk was short listed alongside AgustaWestland A129 Mangusta International. Gonul told The Associated Press that American bidders withdrew over concerns about technology transfer. By comparison, Denel’s bid included full transfer of equipment and technology, leading some to compare the deal to a fire sale. “The goal is to co-produce the helicopters, not buy them off-the-shelf.”
In the meantime, its 16 Squadron crews in 2006 began working up on the helicopter to achieve day and night operational capability with cannon and rockets. The helicopter was, however, not entirely up to the regimen, one making a hard landing in September 2006 apparently after the loss of power to an engine. As a result, the fleet was grounded and only one Rooivalk flew at AAD2006 at AFB Ysterplaat that month. It afterwards emerged that the type suffers of a gearbox not suitable to its flight profile. The problem has reportedly been long in running and as long concealed.
In May 2007, Business Day newspaper quoted Denel as deciding that the Rooivalk was not commercially viable and that it would not spend any new money on the helicopters. “Armscor and the defence department will now have to decide whether to subsidise the maintenance of Denel’s Rooivalk capability so that it can continue servicing the 12 helicopters bought by the South African Air Force over their 25-year lifespan,” the paper said. “The other option would be for the air force to mothball the helicopters and for the costs to be written off entirely.”
Then-Public Enterprises Alec Erwin said in an interview that the departments of defence and public enterprises would have to decide the fate of the Rooivalk. A subsequent Denel annual report showed that Cabinet decided in favour of retaining the helicopter, albeit with a “revised functionality within the existing allocated financial resources.”
Engineering News’ Keith Campbell has noted the Rooivalk remains a legitimate requirement for a number of reasons: It is “the only vertical take-off and landing combat aircraft available to a country like South Africa. Unlike the SAAF’s fighters, they do not need good-quality surfaces to operate from, nor large spaces, and they will also be able to operate from the flight decks of the Navy’s planned amphibious ships,” he says. “Cancelling the Rooivalk will leave a gap which will, sooner or later, have to be filled by buying someone else’s attack helicopter.”
To establish a limited D-Level capability for the health utilisation and monitoring system for the Rooivalk combat support helicopter
EHEL/2008/522 22 Dec 2010 R5 195 416,00 Denel (Pty) Ltd t/a Denel Aviation
Five year maintenance cycle for the nightowl main sight system for the Rooivalk combat support helicopter
EHEL/2008/525 22 Dec 2010 R74 281 141,00 Denel (Pty) Ltd t/a Denel Aviation
Repair of line replaceable units required for the retrofit line for the Rooivalk combat support helicopter
EHEL/2010/235 22 Dec 2010 R10 598 500,00 Denel (Pty) Ltd t/a Denel Aviation
Establishment of a manufacturing capability for the crew escape system acrylic side windows with the associated removal and installation log pack for the Rooivalk combat support helicopter
EHEL/2010/236 22 Dec 2010 R5 534 131,00 Denel (Pty) Ltd t/a Denel Aviation
Operational product supply support for 11 Rooivalk aircraft
EHEL/2010/297 10 Dec 2010 R86 312 502,00 Denel (Pty) Ltd t/a Denel Aviation
Crew escape system integration to Rooivalk combat support helicopter windows (Development and qualification of the packaging for explosive/window assemblies
EDWU/2009/267 13 May 2010 R1 878 054,00 Denel (Pty) Ltd t/a Denel Aviation
SAL29 Actuator D-Level establishment for the Rooivalk combat support helicopter
EHEL/2008/478 3 Dec 2009 R6 419 954,00 Denel (Pty) Ltd t/a Denel Aviation
Upgrade of the turret test bench for the 20 mm cannon capability for the Rooivalk combat support helicopter
EHEL/2008/521 3 Dec 2009 R2 495 059,00 Denel (Pty) Ltd t/a Denel Aviation
Rooivalk combat support helicopter-integration of a counter measure dispensing system
HEL/S2009/0530 2 Jul 2009 R335 790,00 Denel (Pty) Ltd t/a Denel Aviation
Rooivalk crew escape system 5 and 10 year maintenance kits
EDWU/2008/67 24 Jul 2008 R635 284,00 Denel (Pty) Ltd t/a PMP
Interim activities on the integration of air to air missiles onto Rooivalk combat support helicopter
TMG/S2008/0892 13 Mar 2008 R4 832 500,00 Denel t/a Denel Aerospace Systems
Rooivalk combat support helicopter – deployment hangers and containers for the Rooivalk
HEL/S2007/0515 20 Sep 2007 R9 917 430,00 Denel t/a Denel Aerospace Systems
Rooivalk combat support helicopter – deployemnt harmonisation kit
HEL/S2007/0520 20 Sep 2007 R7 533 170,00 Denel t/a Denel Aerospace Systems
Rooivalk combat support helicopter D-Level establishment main sight system.
HEL/S2006/0507 28 Mar 2007 R16 990 600,00 Denel t/a Denel Aerospace Systems
Rooikat combat support helicopter vital parts renumbering
HEL/S2006/0503 1 Feb 2007 R565 710,00 Denel t/a Denel Aerospace Systems
Rooivalk combat support helicopter deployment capability equipment
HEL/S2006/0505 1 Feb 2007 R853 579,99 Denel t/a Denel Aerospace Systems
1 Roy Braybrook, Whirly Stingers: Not cheap, but nasty, armada INTERNATIONAL, 6/2005, December 2005/January 2006, p32.
2 Khulu Phasiwe, Rooivalk is Turkish delight for Denel, Business Day, July 4, 2006, http://www.businessday.co.za/articles/topstories.aspx?ID=BD4A226454
3 Linda Ensor, Denel gets R8bn shot in the arm, ditches Rooivalk, May 18, 2007, http://www.businessday.co.za/Articles/TarkArticle.aspx?ID=2779055.