The Rooivalk combat helicopters deployed to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are flying more than 40 hours a month with the United Nations (UN) mission there, and have fired 200 rockets and more than 600 rounds of cannon ammunition during a number of live engagements.
The South African Air Force (SAAF) told defenceWeb that the Rooivalk has done a sterling job and has conducted mostly reconnaissance missions (day and night) in the DRC, but also a number of actual combat missions in support of own and other UN troops.
“In fact, the UN is so pleased with the operations conducted by the Rooivalk that it is the helicopter of choice for reconnaissance and combat missions (particularly at night). They are currently still involved in actual combat missions,” the SAAF told defenceWeb.
From 2013 to 2015, the Rooivalk flew 1 163.3 hours in the DRC. Three Rooivalks were painted white and were deployed to the DRC at the end of October 2013 in support of the United Nations Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) comprising South African, Tanzanian and Malawian forces. Two are used for combat missions while the third is kept in reserve.
Several days after they arrived in the DRC, Rooivalks engaged in their first ever combat mission, against M23 rebels, using 70 mm rockets and 20 mm cannon. The following day, the M23 group called an end to its 20-month rebellion, saying it would disarm and pursue peace talks. “We believe M23 had to retreat because of the Rooivalk,” defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said at the time.
The Rooivalk has, according to SAAF figures, flown a dozen combat sorties that resulted in live engagements, during which the helicopters fired 199 70 mm rockets and 610 rounds of 20 mm ammunition.
In 2013, two live engagement sorties were flown, totalling 2.8 hours, during which the two helicopters fired 55 70 mm rockets. Four sorties, totalling 4.8 hours, were flown in 2014 which resulted in live engagements. During these, 355 rounds of 20 mm ammunition and 76 rockets were fired at rebel targets in the DRC. The most combat hours were flown in 2015, with 17.2 hours in six live engagement sorties, during which the two Rooivalks on combat duty fired 255 rounds of 20 mm ammunition and 68 rockets. Apparently the Rooivalk has been very active in the DRC in January this year, especially after the UN and Congolese government forces renewed action against rebel groups.
Unsurprisingly, the Rooivalk has been shot at by rebels during engagements in the DRC, but has not sustained serious damage. Apparently the worst that has happened was a small arms calibre bullet passing through the horizontal stabiliser of one aircraft.
Captain Tlhalefo Ronald Moroole, who has flown Rooivalks in the DRC, said that the Rooivalk is primarily tasked with escorting Oryx and Mi-8 transport helicopters in areas the United Nations deems to have a high threat level (the SAAF has around five Oryx medium transport helicopters deployed to the DRC). Rooivalks are also used to escort vehicles on the ground in medium to high threat level areas. Other missions the Rooivalk is tasked with include close air support, armed reconnaissance and shows of force.
Moroole said that the terrain in the DRC poses quite a challenge to pilots, with thick jungle and mountains, making it easy for rebels to hide. He said that identifying targets is challenging in the tropical terrain, which also makes ordnance delivery a challenge – this often requires steep approaches to get cannon and rocket rounds through the foliage. Some of the other challenges he highlighted include bad weather, especially at night.
In 2013, Rooivalks flew 128.2 hours in the DRC and 740.1 in 2014, its busiest year there. 295 hours were flown in 2015, but the lower total was due to near unavailability as a result of issues transporting them back to South Africa for heavy maintenance.
Defence expert Helmoed Heitman has said that the DRC deployment has demonstrated the Rooivalk as having significantly better availability and easier maintainability than the Mi-25s/35s in the theatre – that despite old 286 computers etc. “There are only two things wrong with the Rooivalk – we do not have enough of them, and we do not yet have any precision weapons (Mokopa is now in production; laser-homing rockets we can buy in).” Denel is in the process of qualifying the Mokopa on the Rooivalk, and late last year fired laser-guided rockets from the helicopter.
After the enthusiastic response following its successful combat debut in the DRC, Denel is in discussions with the South African Air Force and Department of Defence on upgrading the Rooivalk combat helicopter and developing a next generation Rooivalk Mk 2, which is being marketed to potential foreign clients.