Less than a quarter of the South African Air Force’s (SAAF’s) fleet of aircraft is serviceable as budget cuts, COVID-19 disruptions and problems at Denel erode its capabilities.
This emerged during a Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans (PCDMV) briefing that, amongst others, looked at the status of the maintenance of the SAAF fleet by Denel and other service providers. In its presentation, Armscor revealed that only 46 of the SAAF’s 217 aircraft are currently serviceable.
Of the helicopter fleet, four out of 11 Rooivalks are serviceable and 17 out of 39 Oryx helicopters are, as well as three out of six BK 117s (one BK 117 is beyond economical repair). Out of the 30 A109 Light Utility Helicopters, five are beyond economical repair and just three are serviceable. None of the four Lynx naval helicopters are airworthy.
Regarding the VIP fleet, the Boeing Business Jet (BBJ) is not serviceable while the single PC-12 is, and one of the three Falcon business jets.
On transport aircraft, just one of six C-130BZ Hercules is serviceable and one beyond economical repair. Five out of eight Caravans are serviceable and two are in long-term storage. Two out of three C212s are airworthy, as is one King Air out of three King Air 200s (one King Air 300 is in storage).
Of the C-47TP fleet, three are serviceable, five are unserviceable, four are in long-term storage and seven beyond economical repair, according to Armscor (defenceWeb records nine airframes total).
Regarding the sharp end of the SAAF fleet, none of the 26 Gripens are airworthy (two are beyond economical repair and 11 are in long-term storage). Out of the 24 Hawk lead-in fighter-trainers, just three are serviceable while three are beyond economical repair and 12 are in long-term storage.
The majority of the trainer fleet is grounded or in storage – of the SAAF’s 35 PC-7 Mk IIs, just two are serviceable while 16 are in long-term storage. 14 are undergoing maintenance and awaiting spares. The remaining three are unserviceable.
The lack of serviceable aircraft was attributed by Armscor to several factors, including the liquidity crisis at Denel, which is the original equipment manufacturer of the Oryx and Rooivalk and which also does maintenance on other SAAF types, including the C-130 Hercules fleet.
The other major factor is the SAAF’s reduced budget, with the lack of funds negatively impacting aircraft availability. Limited maintenance capacity within the SAAF, ageing aircraft that require more maintenance, and COVID-19-related disruptions are also adding to the serviceability crisis.
Lieutenant General Wiseman Mbambo, Chief of the SAAF, told the PCDMV that the situation within the SAAF “is not where it’s supposed to be as far as combat readiness is concerned and also the required hours of flying.” At present, around 5 000 hours are flown annually, which is far from the required number.
Mbambo said the lack of serviceable aircraft is affecting pilot training, as not enough trainers are airworthy. He added that the SAAF needs new patrol aircraft to support the Navy and lots of illegal activity is occurring in South African waters because “we don’t have the required capacity to monitor.” Pointing out that the C-47TP fleet is more than 60 years old, he said “we cannot hope to patrol properly and have a deterrent if you have such a weak capability.”
From the SAAF’s perspective, the situations “is very dire,” Mbambo said, with one of the biggest risks to the SAAF the decline of Denel. “Denel is the original equipment manufacture of most of our aircraft systems, specifically the rotary capability…Denel is the original equipment manufacturer of the Rooivalk and also they are supporting us in terms of C-130 for servicing. What we are watching on the horizon is a great worry for us. If Denel actually goes under, we have thin opportunities, or manoeuvring space, to continue doing business…This compounds the challenges we are facing at the moment.”
Democratic Alliance (DA) shadow defence minister Kobus Marais said the poor serviceability is a sad feeling, and “shows we are so vulnerable by any onslaught by anyone. It looks like our capabilities are just gone. That’s what we feared for in the past, that our Air Force would be reduced to an Air Wing and the same to the Navy – of becoming a Water Wing not a Navy. It shows we need to do something very quickly.”
Committee Chair Cyril Xaba said South Africa needs to invest in the defence force, especially as there are security challenges the country is facing. “Any country maintains its core defence capability because the future is unknown. Ten years ago we did not have the challenges we are experiencing north of South Africa.”
Defence Minister Thandi Modise suggested diverting funds towards maintenance and suggested drawing up a funding plan that is palatable to National Treasury. This would involve self-generation of funds as little money can be expected to be forthcoming from the government due to South Africa’s sluggish economy.