South Africa’s cadre of Gripen fighter pilots have grown and now number six, says Chief of the Air Force (CAF) Lt Gen Carlo Gagiano.
Gripen manufacturer Saab in September handed over the first four of 26 aircraft to Gagiano and then-defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota at a well-attended ceremony at Air Force Base Ysterplaat in Cape Town timed to coincide with the opening of the African Aerospace and Defence show.
Three of the aircraft are assigned to 2 Squadron at AFB Makhado and the fourth is a research and development platform attached to the SAAF Test Flight and Development Centre at AFB Overberg east of Cape Town.
Gagiano yesterday told journalists attending his annual State of the Air Force briefing that the first group of Gripen pilots currently under training went solo on 26 October. “This is a true milestone in our history,” he said. The course is being presented by Swedish instructors on the three aircraft available at Makhado.
The remainder of the aircraft will be delivered by the end of 2011, he added, with the closing down of Project Ukhozi and the handover of the programme to the air force scheduled for 2012.
“We are still busy with some infrastructure work [at Makhado], but the [Gripen] simulator is up and running. I`m confident as the numbers increase, so will our ability to fly the aircraft.”
In an exclusive interview Gagiano also expanded on the weapons choices for the aircraft. At present, the aircraft are only fitted with an internal 27mm cannon.
Next will follow the Diehl BGT Defence IRIS-T short range air-to-air missile (SRAAM), said to cost 400 000 euro each. The SAAF placed an order for the weapon earlier this year. It is not known how many missiles SA has bought.
The IRIS-T (Infra Red Imaging System Tail/Thrust Vector-Controlled) will arm the Gripen as an interim solution until a local missile, the Denel A-Darter, becomes available.
Diehl says the missiles will be fully operational “in the course of 2009.”
Gagiano says the SAAF is contemplating a beyond visual range AAM (BVRAAM) for Gripen, but adds that high integration costs and a tight budget will likely mean the choice of a weapon already integrated by the original equipment manufacturer.
Denel Dynamics, the state arsenal business unit developing the A-Darter with Brazil under a billion rand programme dubbed Project Assegai, had hoped to develop a local radar-guided BVRAAM for Gripen, provisionally called the T-Darter.
Air-to-ground weapons already include SA-designed Mark 80-series pre-fragmented “dumb” and guided bombs and in time may include air-to-ground missiles, although none are currently contemplated because of high cost.