South Africa’s Rooivalk deployment with the United Nations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the blue eyed boy of the mission due to its unrivalled effectiveness, according to an SA Air Force (SAAF) official.
Lieutenant Colonel Danie Bellingan, OC of 16 Squadron, said the Rooivalk is highly respected in the DRC as it is an effective and well utilised weapon, being preferential to the Mi-24 attack helicopters there.
The three Rooivalk attack helicopters deployed to the DRC since the end of October 2013 have flown around 1 500 hours and taken part in more than two dozen combat air support missions, including several at night. From 2013 to 2015, the Rooivalk flew 1 163 hours in the DRC, according to the SAAF. Three aircraft are deployed along with four aircrew and 15 technicians, with two aircraft available 24/7.
Barely a week after being deployed to the DRC, the Rooivalks flew their first ever combat mission on 4 November when they attacked an M23 rebel base. They fired multiple 70 mm rocket salvos against M23 bunkers near the mountainous Chanzu region, close to the Rwandan border, scoring a direct hit on an ammunition bunker. They managed to avoid 14.5 mm heavy machinegun and small arms fire and destroyed one of the 14.5 mm positions. Shortly afterwards the M23 agreed to cease fighting. “We believe M23 had to retreat because of the Rooivalk,” defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said at the time.
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 304 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 456 rockets.
The average Rooivalk mission in the DRC lasts around two hours, with aircraft typically being armed with 550 cannon rounds (high explosive and armour piercing incendiary) and 20 rockets. Bellingan said the Rooivalks typically do three passes on target, firing salvoes of four rockets while shifting aim across the target zone. Due to the thick jungle in the DRC, climbing and diving steeply is best to penetrate the foliage. The 70 mm FZ rockets have an eight kilometre range, but they are usually fired between 1.5 and 4 km away.
Around 80% of Rooivalk missions in the DRC are intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR), especially reconnaissance of high threat areas where UN aircraft were previously reluctant to operate. Other common missions for the Rooivalk are convoy escort and aircraft escort – Belligan said convoys are never attacked when they are escorted by Rooivalks.
Only one Rooivalk has been hit by enemy fire in the DRC, with a bullet passing through a horizontal stabiliser. Aircraft usually only face small arms fire in the dense jungle, although heavy weapons can be found closer to the border where they are easier to transport. Although the risk of guided weapons is almost non-existent, the Rooivalks carry flares and fire them prior to engaging a target just in case.
After the defeat of the M23, the Rooivalks are primarily tasked with neutralising Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and Patriotic Alliance for a Free and Sovereign Congo (APCLS) rebels, with more of a focus on the ADF as the DRC government is not actively supporting attacks on APCLS rebels.
Bellingan said that with the Rooivalk’s Night Owl main sight the United Nations for the first time had a night operations capability due to the thermal imaging camera, but Rooivalk pilots also fly with night vision goggles at night. As rebels don’t move at night, strikes are often carried out before first light. He said when people put out fires it’s suspicious and an indication of rebel activity.
The Rooivalk is better regarded in the DRC than the other attack helicopter in service with the UN, the Mi-24, partly as a result of pilot training and partly because of the Rooivalk’s superior range and endurance. Rooivalks usually attack a target first, followed by Mi-24s after a target has been marked. Bellingan said the Mi-24 crews regularly ask South African pilots for advice, which means “we are doing something right. It’s quite a feather in the cap for us.” He said Mi-8 helicopters request to be escorted specifically by the Rooivalk.
After its success in the DRC, Denel is in discussions with various government departments including the South African Air Force on upgrading the Rooivalk and developing a next generation Rooivalk Mk 2, which is being marketed to potential foreign clients. Denel said the present Mk 1 will require a midlife upgrade within the next five years as a result of known obsolescence afflicting the current baseline.
Upgrades would focus on the sighting system, firepower, improved payload, and better survivability amongst other improvements. The cannon requires some work as not all the reliability issues were fixed with the Mk 1 upgrade, and the weapon regularly jams, suffers from broken springs, poor welds, solenoid and other issues.