Interim product support for the South African Air Force’s 29 AgustaWestland A109M light utility helicopters acquired for R2.451 billion as part of the 1999 strategic defence package (SDP) stands at R10.5 million for the first seven months of 2010.
Armscor awarded the original equipment manufacturer a R3.5 million contract on July 21 for “interim product support”. In March a similar contract for R7 million was awarded.
Project Flange – the A109M light utility helicopter acquisition – was the black sheep of the 1999 Strategic Defence Package and has been beset with difficulties and delays: By 2008 deliveries were four years late, leading to the imposition of a R90 million penalty, the only one imposed under the “arms deal”; offsets were tardy, and the platorm has failed to live up to expectation – or specification.
The A109 that replaced the Sud Aviation (later Aerospatiale, Eurocopter) Alouette III was, from the start a controversial choice, selected in favour of the Bell 427 (Canada), and the Franco/German Eurocopter Cougar as well as the Eurocopter EC635. Thirty were ordered with an option for ten more. Tellingly, this was not exercised. Air Force chief Lt Gen Carlo Gagiano has said the SAAF requires the type to take pressure off the Denel M1 Oryx medium utility fleet. The service has long had the need for a platform more capable than the Alouette III but less expensive and more efficient than the Oryx for the bulk of taskings. The A109 was expected to fill that niche.
The Chief of the Air Force in March 2007 said the rotorcraft was cleared for command-and-control, Casevac, trooping and cargo-slinging duties. However, operational reports suggest the type is – depending on one’s point of view underpowered or alternatively too heavy to with too low a payload to fully fulfil these tasks. The rotorcraft can neither carry operational loads in high heat conditions nor fly in strong wind. At the April 2009 Air Power Capability demonstration at Roodewal, near Makhado, the type only carried two troops in battle order. The Alouette III, by contrast was certified to carry a pilot and six equipped troops. (The SAAF and Zimbabwean Air Force usually carried a pilot, flight engineer/gunner and five soldiers).
In February 2010 it emerged AgustaWestland had made an offer to offset the fine by offering a US$45 million deal to construct more of the helicopters in SA for export. Denel Saab Aerosructures CE Lana Kinley reputedly resigned when government turned down the offer. Her company, which posted a R452 million loss in the financial year to March 2009, would have been a major beneficiary. Armscor CE Sipho Thomo was reportedly also in favour of the move, a step that allegedly helped in his downfall. He was sacked in December 2009.