“Always watchful” is the motto of the SA Air Force’s (SAAF) Snake Valley-based 140 Squadron, responsible for airspace surveillance 24/7.
The unit on the eastern side of the oldest base in the SAAF – AFB Swartkop – sees itself as a radar policing operation according to Major Ntokozo Ntshangase. Using a widespread radar system the unit conducts air offensive and defensive duties using primary and secondar radar systems to identify and track/trace aircraft activities in and outside South African airspace. They include mono-pulse secondary surveillance radar (MSSR) and Umlindi, which provide a real-time air picture display with 3D multi-purpose functions.
The radar systems are strategically sited in Mpumalanga with air picture information relayed to Lowveld Air Sector at AFB Hoedspruit, Bushveld Airspace Control Sector and Air Force Command Post, both at SAAF Headquarters, and the National Joint Operational Centre (NatJoints). The radar system is used in conjunction with fighter aircraft. Once rogue, enemy or unknown aircraft, whether military or civilian, are detected, fighter aircraft are dispatched to conduct air intercepts and force down intruders.
Other units in the airspace surveillance “business” are 130 Squadron (Mariepskop) and 514 Squadron (AFB Hoedspruit).
514 Squadron’s Corporal Phetole Modjadji sees Mariepskop as a National Key Point and serving there as an opportunity to contribute to the broader national security. “Uninterrupted functioning of systems here means the SAAF has clear air space visibility and can provide early warning and detection, timeously.”
Defence expert and Director at African Defence Review, Darren Olivier, notes that South Africa has too few radars and all are badly outdated, having meant to have been replaced under Project Chutney years ago were it not for budget cuts.