Ongoing conflicts and natural disasters are increasing demand for South African Air Force (SAAF) assets, but a lack of funding is hampering operations and requires the SAAF to work more efficiently with what it has.
This is according to Lieutenant General Wiseman Mbambo, who was speaking at the SAAF Prestige Parade at Mobile Deployment Wing (formerly Air Force Base Swartkop) on Thursday, when he also marked the 104th anniversary of the Air Force.
In the SAAF’s long history, it has “passed through tribulations and storms but is still standing,” Mbambo said in his parade address. The SAAF is in the midst of another storm, with the world punctuated by conflicts and instability. The eagerness to move towards the negotiating table is no longer there, Mbambo said, with international bodies proving weak in resolving conflicts and a growing appetite to resolve conflicts through the barrel of a gun. The Israel/Palestine and Ukraine conflicts are stark examples.
“Closer to home, the embers of Cabo Delgado and the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have not died down yet and are flaring up,” Mbambo said, while humanitarian disasters are increasing, including wildfires and floods, meaning SAAF assets are in high demand. “With lack of strategic lift capability our people around the world are sitting ducks,” he added.
Continentally, SAAF assets are committed to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Mozambique. There are currently five Oryx helicopters in the DRC, serving with the UN peacekeeping mission there (Monusco), as well as several Rooivalk attack helicopters. The Rooivalks are expected to return home as the UN mission winds down this year. However, assets may be sent to support the new Southern African Development Community Mission in the DRC (SAMIDRC), which is currently being stood up. “As SAMIDRC tasks become clearer, we’ll take it a step at a time,” Mbambo said of asset deployment to the DRC.
As for the Southern African Development Community Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM), Mbambo said SAAF assets there (Oryx and A109 helicopters) will be returned as stipulated as SAMIM’s mandate expires in July.
“The price tag to maintain SAAF assets is very high,” Mbambo cautioned, with the reality being a lack of adequate funding for defence. “Parliament’s comments on defence and the ministers of defence have presented the funding case but we are optimistic and hopeful this storm shall pass away.”
“The defence mandate funding should not be at the bottom of the priority list,” Mbambo emphasised. He explained the SAAF is meanwhile working diligently with what it has, and is looking at, for example, sweating assets, even though this “remains unpalatable in some sectors.” Efforts are being made to collaborate with the industry as well as carry out more maintenance and repair in-house.
With an eye on the future, Mbambo told the audience at Mobile Deployment Wing that the SAAF has completed its Air and Space Power Strategy guiding document, which although it “sounds like a far-fetched dream given the SAAF’s challenges, will allow the SAAF to sustain itself in-house.” Although results won’t be achieved overnight and the road to the desired future is not without risk, “the best way to predict the future is to create it,” Mbambo said.
Mbambo functioned as the Review Officer for Thursday’s parade, which also saw sizeable participation from active and retired SAAF aircraft. This included flypasts by helicopters (Rooivalk, Puma, Alouette II, Alouette III, and BK 117), trainers (five PC-7 Mk IIs), VIP jets (Falcon 50 and Boeing Business Jet), jet trainers (four Hawks), and fighters (three Gripens). One of the Hawks then gave a solo display.