The South African Air Force currently musters 23 operational fighter aircrew. The Ministry of Defence says the flying service musters 10 Gripen aircrew (eight pilots, two navigators) and 13 Hawk aircrew, all pilots.
Last November Sisulu stated the SAAF had 60 posts for combat pilots, of which 34 were filled at the time and 26 were vacant. The number relates to the total of fighters the SAAF should operate by 2012: 24 BAE Systems Mk120 Hawk lead-in fighter trainers and 26 SAAB Gripen advanced light fighter aircraft, the former with 85 Combat Flying School and the latter with 2 Squadron, both co-located at Air Force Base Makhado in Limpopo. This amounts to 50 aircraft. To date, all 24 Hawk have been delivered and 15 of the Gripen.
To solo on the Gripen should typically take new pilots five years, 2 Squadron’s operations officer, Lt Col Musa “Midnite” Mbhokota told journalists in October. This includes basic military training (three months), officers forming course (a further three months), the Military Academy (one year) and basic pilot training (one year). The latter includes 180 hours on the Pilatus PC7 MkII. Next follows some 390 hours on the Hawk at 85 CFS before posting to 2 Squadron where conversion to the Gripen takes place, starting with six weeks in the classroom followed by 70 hours on the Squadron Level Mission Trainer (a flight simulator) and a further 70 hours on the aircraft. Both periods include 30 hours of conversion training, 20 hours of air warfare training and 20 hours of surface warfare training. It then takes a further six sorties to solo.
At the same briefing, to mark the graduation of the first locally qualified Gripen fighter pilots, officers told reporters the squadron mustered three locally qualified pilots and six qualified in Sweden, making for nine. Three more were expected to qualify next year.
In response to a question by Freedom Front Plus MP Pieter Groenewald, tabled in Parliament yesterday, the military added two of the current Gripen pilot cadre are black men, one is an Indian male, one a white female and the remaining six are white males. The Hawk aircrew comprises 11 white men and two black males.
In addition, 21 Hawk aircrew are under training – 17 as pilots and four as navigators. The racial breakdown is given as nine black males, one Indian male, one Coloured male, nine white males and 1 white female.
Groenewald asked the question last month after South African Air Force director air capability planning Brigadier General Wiseman Mbambo told the Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans he could not tell them the current number of qualified combat pilots as this would compromise national security. In the briefing, Mbambo reportedly told MPs that “inadequate funding” of the Hawk and Gripen combat systems had placed these “in the balance”, and the SAAF “has not been able to generate the required number of flying hours and re-provision the systems adequately”.
According to SAPA Mbambo said that to save on costs, pilots were training on Pilatus aircraft rather than the Hawks, because these were cheaper to operate. This prompted at least two MPs to inquire on the number of qualified combat pilots available for the Hawks and Gripens. Mbambo then called on then-committee chairman Mnyamezeli Booi to advise him whether or not to answer this question. “I would like to get some advice on that one because it touches exactly on the… security of the country in terms of what we have currently for combat readiness.”
Mbambo had earlier been cautioned by the chairman not to venture into areas that touched on national security. His call for advice prompted an objection from Groenewald. “That is nonsense, I have asked for this information before and it has always been supplied,” Business Day quoted him as saying. “That can’t be a threat (to national security). I’ve asked this question in Parliament a couple of times,” the South African Press Association had him say. “What is the threat? To know how many combat pilots we have? Let us know!” he said. Booi then asked Mbambo if he was saying that divulging this information was a threat to national security, SAPA added.
Mbambo responded: “It’s digging into the actual capability that we have. Another thing… the combat readiness of pilots will differ from time to time. I can give you an answer now, but as I walk out of this room, the answer is not perfect anymore.” Booi then ruled that the question was “bordering on national security”, that Mbambo was not in a position, as a serving officer, to answer it, and would have to consult Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu before providing an answer. He further suggested the question could be “posed through the parliamentary system to the minister herself”. This has now happened.
Groenewald, in response to the latest information, expressed concern that the SAAF only mustered eight operational Gripen fighter pilots (down one from October) and two navigators. “It is encouraging that the minister did provide an answer to my question. What is worrying is that according to similar questions of mine in the past, South Africa had thirty fighter pilots in 2005 and twenty fighter pilots in 2008. Now we only have eight.
“The crisis of the loss of pilots and technicians has been known since 2008. The previous Minister of Defence, Mosiuoa Lekota, acknowledged at the time in his reply to my question that poor salaries and a perception that white people have restricted career opportunities in the Air Force, are some of the main reasons as to why members had left the Air Force. Clearly the government did not give any attention to this problem and the taxpayers have to fork out taxes for under-utilised weaponry,” Groenewald said.
South Africa ordered 28 Gripen C & D advanced light fighter aircraft in 1999 as part of a “strategic defence package”. The order was later trimmed to 26. The Gripen were acquired as a package with 24 Hawk. At the time Treasury put the figure for the two types combined at R15.772 billion. Only in 2007 did separate figures emerge: R7.2 billion for the Hawk and R19.908 billion for Gripen, making for a combined R27.01 billion, a considerable increase over the original figure.
In his briefing last month Mbambo sketched a picture of an Air Force that was desperately short of funds. The SAAF’s budget allocation for 2009/10 had been R3.1 billion, of which R1.6 billion was for personnel and R1.5 billion for operations out of a total defence budget of R30.7 billion. “In the year under review, the SAAF was under-funded to the tune of R132 million, specifically on operations,” he said.
Reporting on the SAAF’s air combat capability, he said it had been planned to fly 950 training hours, but only 715 were achieved. “The reasons include: substantial underfunding of the systems, long lead times on spares, the Gripen support package has not been fully delivered (during the year under review), and a software upgrade on the Hawks which affected availability,” Mbambo said.
He said the strategic objective of flying 11 920 hours in helicopters was not achieved due to low levels of experience of ground crew and low availability of systems. In the transport and maritime surveillance category, the 11 825 hours were not achieved because of financial constraints and the age of many of the aircraft.
The air combat objective of 950 hours (for Gripen and Hawk aircraft) was not achieved because of substantial underfunding. He said a “fair balance” had to be found between the air forces mandate and the funding allocated to achieve it. This prompted Maynier to observe that “one can only infer that the SAAF is in deep crisis”.
MPs also heard the SAAF had been forced to dig into its severely strained operations budget to fund capital equipment. “If we do not take operational funds to buy spares, we will not be able to fly the aircraft,” an unnamed official told the committee.