SAAF in crisis as aircraft serviceability drops to less than 20%

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The continued emasculation of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) was vividly brought to the fore by Defence and Military Veterans Minister Thandi Modise when answering a Parliamentary question.

Her undated response to Kobus Marais, the Democratic Alliance (DA) shadow minister for her portfolio, is specific to the SA Air Force (SAAF) and reveals crisis level rates of serviceability.

As Marais notes in his response yesterday (18 October), “most concerning” is that “a staggering 85% of the SAAF’s aircraft fleet is currently out of action, leaving the nation vulnerable to security threats.”

The majority of the SAAF fleet is grounded due to “a lack of spares or budget constraints to conduct the necessary repairs”. Modise’s reply also informs him unavailability of aircraft implies SAAF defence readiness is “compromised” with aircrew having to regain currency and “the lack of aircraft availability poses a challenge”.

She goes further stating: “The challenge is the severe unavailability of funds to place contracts and it’s not as a result of non-performance by Armscor or SAAF. Armscor had to engage with contractors within limited available funds and, in numerous instances, has not yielded positive results”.

An Armscor presentation to Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans last month revealed there are maintenance and repair contracts in place for most SAAF types, but almost all of these are only partially funded.

Marais’ reaction to Modise’s reply is scathing, pointing the finger at government mismanagement and “lack of political will and neglect” as severely compromising SANDF capabilities. He goes as far as calling it “a national crisis” with the “diminishing strength” of South Africa’s military capability posing “a severe risk”.

That South Africa’s air defence capability, vested in Lieutenant General Wiseman Mbambo’s SAAF, cannot put more than half its aircraft into the air leaves the country “exposed and vulnerable”.

As examples, Modise’s response has it that of the SAAF’s 11 Rooivalk combat support helicopters, three are serviceable with the remaining eight in need of “major repairs/rebuilds” with an ROM (rough order of magnitude) for spares to make six airworthy R1 billion.

One of four Super Lynx maritime helicopters is serviceable with “three awaiting various spare parts by June 2024”. (The most updated information defenceWeb has is that two are serviceable.)

There are five SAAF rotary-wing workhorse Oryx serviceable with two “beyond economic repair”, 10 needing major rebuilds, two more on the major rebuild list following accident damage and 22 “grounded at squadrons awaiting critical parts”. An estimated R2.5 billion is needed to make the 39-strong Oryx fleet airworthy.

Other types in service are in much the same situation with, in one instance, the venerable C-47TP used by Air Force Base (AFB) Ysterplaat-based 35 Squadron for maritime patrol and reconnaissance work at high risk of not flying again. This because no maintenance or repair contract can be placed as there is “no OEM (original equipment manufacturer) for this platform in industry”.

The primary SAAF training aircraft – Pilatus PC-7 Mk II – based at AFB Langebaanweg, is another type to suffer – with aspirant pilots not doing the training hours they should. Six of a fleet of 35 are serviceable with Modise’s response noting “specification for a new contract with Pilatus AG was not acceptable”. It appears the door has not completely closed as “negotiations are ongoing to resolve the impasse”.

R1 billion has been made available from National Treasury to get the C-130BZ fleet airworthy, but there are no maintenance contracts in place for the C-47TP, Cessna Caravan or King Air, although Armscor is in the process of appointing a King Air maintenance contractor.

Defence expert Dean Wingrin pointed out that no air force has a 100% serviceability rate, but around 15% for the SAAF “is shocking.” The major cause, he said, is an insufficient defence budget, ineffectual and inefficient procurement process and a lack of political will and support. “I suppose the lack of understanding by Treasury of the unique defence environment does not help either,” he added.

While South Africa’s poor economy is largely to blame, “the Government has been warned about this for a long time. It comes as no surprise. The effects of a reduced (aviation) capability have been felt throughout the SANDF and it has already led to fatal consequences,” he said. “Talk of an updated defence policy/review/White Paper is too late. The Government needs to do better.”

Darren Olivier, Director at African Defence Review, pointed out that it’s important to note Modise’s statistics are a point in time measurement that does change from day to day, “so what we really need are average rates across each quarter and year. For instance, two Super Lynxes are serviceable now, not just one. Even so, these are bad numbers.”

The following table, compiled from numerous sources including Modise’s written reply, summarises the approximate state of the SAAF’s fleet and indicates a serviceability rate of 17%:

Aircraft Fleet size Status
Boeing Business Jet 1 Serviceable
Falcon 50 2 1 serviceable

1 under repair

Falcon 900 1 Undergoing service
C-130BZ 6 1 serviceable

3 awaiting spares

1 undergoing maintenance

1 awaiting rebuilt

C212 3 1 serviceable

2 under repair

King Air 4 4 unserviceable
Cessna Caravan 8 8 unserviceable
PC-12 1 Undergoing maintenance
C-47TP 8 8 unserviceable
Rooivalk 11 3 serviceable

8 unserviceable

Oryx 39 5 serviceable

12 awaiting major rebuilds

22 unserviceable

A109 24 6 serviceable

18 unserviceable/written off

Super Lynx 300 4 2 serviceable

2 unserviceable awaiting spares

BK 117 8 1 serviceable
Gripen 26 2 serviceable

23 unserviceable

1 written off

Hawk Mk 120 24 3 serviceable

21 unserviceable

PC-7 Mk II 35 6 serviceable

29 unserviceable

Total 205 31 serviceable

174 unserviceable/undergoing repair/written off