Parliament hears of parlous state of the Air Force


The South African Air Force (SAAF) is in dire straits and operating in survival mode. With less than 49% of the required budget funded, it is in a state of perpetual decline due to chronic underfunding and poor industry performance.

In an emotional and impassioned presentation to the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee (JSCD) on Defence last Thursday, Air Force chief Lieutenant General Fabian Msimang said that the 2019/20 Air Defence budget allocation was almost 60% shy of what was required, negatively impacting the Air Force’s ability to carry out its constitutional mandate to ensure the security and protection of the territorial integrity of the South Africa and compliance with international obligations.

Briefing the JSCD on its flying hours and capacity constraints for effective utilisation of Air Force assets, the country’s senior airman acknowledged that the budget allocation was made “with the understanding that under difficult economic conditions, we must make every cent count.”

However, he said, “this budget allocation is not near the figure required of us to ensure that we are also building for the future, which is key for us.”

Whilst the full requirement to run the Air Force in terms of its mandate and responsibilities is close to R13 billion per annum, the current budget is only R7.358 billion, with 50% (R3.679 billion) of that going to human resources (HR), 35% (R2.561 billion) to operating costs and the remaining 15% (R1.118 billion) allocated to maintenance and acquisitions. Should the latter figure reduce to zero, the Air Force will have very little future.

Msimang said that the high figure for HR must be seen in context, as the SAAF has no control over the HR budget (except for allowances). Although the footprint remains the same over the years, the budget allocations to the other budget constituents continues to be reduced with no change to the mandate.

Ideally, the ratio should be 30/30/40, but the Annual Performance Plans are compiled on an “as resourced” basis instead of as per Joint Force Employment Requirements.

This, explained Msimang, is the short-term plan to ensure that the SAAF “retains its core and enabling air capabilities as a foundation on which to project future long-term growth.”

The key performance indicator of the SAAF is the number of flying hours per year. This number was changed during the 2018/19 financial year, from ‘Number of force employment hours flown’ to ‘Number of hours flown per year.’ This makes comparisons to previous years difficult.

The target for 2018/19 was 25 000 flying hours, but only 17 870 hours were flown. For 2019/20, the target is reduced to 17 100 hours.

If the Air Force received its full budget required, Msimang says that up to 60 000 hours per annum could be generated.

This reduction in flying hours is a deep cause of concern as it impacts on aviation safety as air and ground crew are unable to maintain their competencies at the rate required.

Another unintended consequence of the SAAF’s dwindling budget is the impact it is having on the local defence industry.

Whilst the Air Force is responsible for the User Requirements Specification (URS) for servicing the aircraft, Armscor is the contracting agency to both local and foreign service providers.

In terms of the Medium-Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF), the SAAF should be planning its maintenance expenditure on a rolling three-year period. But without having the necessary funds secured for three years, the Air Force cannot commit to a multi-year maintenance period and thus has to resort to an unsustainable year-to-year approach.

Compounding this is the decline in the operating budget by R3.471 billion since 2012/13 due to National Treasury and Cabinet decisions. As an example, during the 2018/19 year, the allocated budget was cut by R755 million and the 2019/20 budget has already been reduced by R310 million. This, Msimang noted, “is devastating to our environment.”

It also impacts the profitability and capabilities of the service providers as they cannot plan for future work, whilst the provision of planned long-lead time spare parts “makes life very interesting.”

“It is not sustainable,” Msimang lamented. “It’s a problem and has a serious effect on support.”

Other issues the SAAF has had to grapple with is general inflation, aviation inflation, the rand/dollar exchange rate, increases in operations but receiving budget cuts and industry decay as a result of less spending capacity.

An ageing fleet facing obsolescence and airworthiness challenges are not helping either.

As the budget decreases, the maintenance backlog increases. “It means that we are not procuring sufficient spares, which results in cannibalization, it results in obsolescence and so forth,” Msimang observed.

The equation is quite simple: as the budget declines, so does spares and aircraft availability, leading to a limited number of hours flown.

“Unless urgent intervention is initiated at the national strategic level, taking account of a complex operating environment in an unpredictable international system and the decline of capabilities is not arrested,” he said, answering a Committee question, “this country will have no Air Force, but an Air Wing in the near future.”

Despite the depressing assessment, Msimang had high praise for his personnel: “I really commend members of the South African Air Force that despite this difficult situation we are able to keep the Air Force flying, keep it safe and are also able to deliver on our mandate. Right now, we are surviving on the integrity, the patriotism of the men and women in uniform.”

“We are doing everything possible within our limited scope to fulfil our mandate and that is the mandate of our people.”