SAAF to review ageing transport fleet


The South African Air Force (SAAF) is reconsidering its fixed wing mobility capability in its entirety. This is as a result of the November 2009 decision by the South African government to terminate the contract to purchase eight Airbus Military A400M large transport aircraft and the mature age of the existing transport fleet.

Air Force chief Lt Gen Carlo Gagiano, says that this has “obliged us to reconsider our fixed wing mobility capability in its entirety, from VIP, strategic airlift, medium range transport down to battlefield air transport.” The review also includes aircraft to perform the maritime patrol and surveillance tasks.

Although the SAAF has a nominal fleet of nine upgraded Lockheed Martin C-130BZ Hercules in the medium transport category, at least two have been removed from service, while a further aircraft is damaged, having recently suffered a nose undercarriage collapse. Also in the medium ategory is a single CASA CN235.

The light transport fleet consists of approximately four upgraded C-47TP Dakotas in the transport role, three CASA 212 Aviocars and eleven Cessna 208 Caravans. A further four or five C-47TP Dakotas operate in a limited maritime surveillance and electronic warfare roles.

The average age of these transport aircraft is 42 years, ranging from 75 years for the C-47TP Dakota, through 47 years for the C-130BZ Hercules to the youngest, the Cessna 208 Caravan which itself has been in SAAF service for 21 years.

The SAAF has a small but diverse VVIP (Very Very Important Person) and VIP (Very Important Person) fleet. The flagship is the presidential Boeing BBJ VVIP jet that was delivered in 2001. Other VIP aircraft in the fleet consist of one Dassault Falcon 900 and two Falcon 50 jets, two Cessna Citation jets, three Beech Super King Airs and one PC-12M turboprop aircraft. The average age of this fleet is 20 years.

Gagiano acknowledges that it is an ageing fleet and that the SAAF was reviewing the air mobility fleet as a whole before coming up with options. “This is quite a priority for us,” he says. Although the acquisition of a new fleet of transport aircraft is a high priority, Gagiano recognises that South Africa has many priorities. The fleet may not be replaced all at once and an innovative solution must be found if the Air Force is to meet its future commitments.
“Definitely the air mobility priority is just one of those many priorities. So my view is that we should have the total picture of what we need and then we buy piecemeal in order to satisfy some of the most urgent needs, which could be strategic airlift, but also the VVIP requirement because, as South Africa emerges as a bigger role player in the world, our politicians and leaders must be able to fly to where they are required to represent this country.”

The initial plan for the refurbishment of the Waterkloof airbase included the construction of new hangers for the A400M. Says Gaginao: “The hangers, for the moment, are on hold, until there is detailed decision on which way we go.”

Brig Gen Tsoku Khumalo (Director Air Transport and Maritime Systems) clearly has an important task ahead of him, as the transport fleet is vital for the support and resupply of the SANDF peace-keeping missions in Africa and elsewhere. Khumalo told the defenceWeb Maritime Security Conference last year that the SAAF had a requirement for five specialised Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) and eight cheaper general-purpose Maritime Surveillance Aircraft (MSA).

The MPA, while having a maritime role, also needed to have a transport function and would also replace the C-47 and Casa aircraft; Khumalo being keen to reduce the number of platform types in use in the SAAF transport environment.

While at pains to avoid mentioning manufacturers or aircraft models for fear of creating perceptions, Khumalo did acknowledge that to have the range for maritime operations (the SA SAR region is some 17.2 million square kilometres in size) and to have a useful cargo capacity the aircraft would have to be of the size and capability of the CASA 295. The MSA would be of a similar size to the Beech 350ER.

The A400M strategic transport, unlike the Hercules, would have been capable of carrying the Oryx helicopter without dismantling the main rotor gearbox, as well as providing an air-to-air refuelling (AAR) capability to the Gripen fighter. There is no direct competitor to the A400M and purchasing a larger and more capable aircraft, such as the American C-17, may be prohibitively too expensive, whilst still leaving a gap in the AAR mission.

Pic: Part of the SAAF light transport stable on display: Top to bottom: Cessna C208 Caravan, CASA C212 Aviocar abd the venerable Douglas C47TP Dakota.