Work is underway on a retracting mechanism for the Rooivalk attack helicopter’s chin mounted 20 mm cannon as part of efforts to make the weapon more reliable.
The home-grown helicopter was originally developed as a tank buster and then modified somewhat to its current combat support role. It is an integral component of the SA Air Force (SAAF) composite helicopter unit (CHU) deployed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as part of the MONUSCO Force Intervention Brigade (FIB).
In its latest annual report Armscor explains Rooivalk’s main rotor blades kick up a lot of dust as a result of downwash during take-off and landing.
“Some dust is then ingested into the chin-mounted cannon. As a result, the cannon has proven unreliable due to dust particle ingestion during take-off and landing. This has caused the gun to stop functioning, which could result in a loss of personnel and aircraft during battle.
“A solution is the ability to retract the cannon during take-off and landing so as to protect the gun mechanism from dust particles. As a result, a retractable gun turret system technology demonstrator is being developed to retract and cover the gun mechanism during take-off and landing,” according to the report which notes the mechanism was successfully demonstrated in the year under review (2018/19).
No further detail on manufacture or fitting to the 11-strong SAAF Rooivalk fleet is given.
The Rooivalk’s F2 cannon has an effective range of 2 000 metres (max 4 000 m) and can fire two different types of ammunition as it is fed by two ‘cheeks’ on each side of the nose containing 478 rounds. The pilot can slave the cannon through 220° in azimuth and 70° in elevation but such a wide range has caused problems and the cannon has been affected by reliability, accuracy and overheating issues. Many of these problems were solved with the Block 1F upgrades that made the aircraft fully operational in 2011, but the aircraft continued to suffer from regular jams due to broken springs, poor welds, broken links, solenoid issues and trouble switching between ammunition, amongst others. Some of the cannons are more reliable than others. Nevertheless, pilots are confident enough to fire the cannon 50-60 metres from friendly forces in DRC.
Apart from the retractable turret, Denel, as the original equipment manufacturer, has been making efforts to improve the cannon’s reliability. According to the latest Denel annual report, for 2018/19, Denel Aeronautics completed the first phase of the Rooivalk cannon reliability improvement study in conjunction with other Denel divisions and subsidiaries (Denel Vehicle Systems and Denel Land Systems).
With less work for it in the DRC from the FIB, there were indications last year the 16 Squadron Rooivalk component of the CHU could be withdrawn from the FIB. At the same time it was reported the armed, rotary-wing aircraft would remain in the central African country and work only in support of South African troops. There has been no recent indication from either the national defence force or the SAAF of Rooivalk utilisation in DRC. In the past, the Rooivalks in the DRC have used their cannons extensively in spite of reliability issues. For instance, in 2015 they fired 610 rounds of cannon ammunition between 2013 (when they were deployed) and 2015, and 11 000 rounds in 2016.