The inaugural game of the 2010 Soccer World Cup kicks off in South Africa in about four months time and the South African Air Force is confident it, and the Gripen, is ready.
The SAAF is required to protect and safeguard the airspace around the 2010 Soccer World Cup venues. Under Operation Kgwele, the SANDF’s World Cup support plan, the SAAF will have an array of aircraft on duty for the event, including the missile and cannon armed Saab Gripen fighters, cannon-fitted BAE Systems Hawk Mk120 advanced trainers and gun-toting Denel CSH2A Rooivalk attack helicopters, supported by the Pilatus MkII Astra trainer and Denel M1 Oryx as well as Agusta A109M helicopters.
“The focus is on ensuring the airspace is safe”, Chief of the Air Force, Lt Gen Carlo Gagiano, has told defenceWeb. “We have a mix of aircraft because a helicopter cannot take on an airliner that’s diverting from its flight path. The light aircraft will intercept and order mavericks out of (no fly) areas, but if things look bad then you’ll have to send fighters.”
In order to prepare the SAAF and local civilian airspace users, the SAAF and the police held a number of exercises at each of the nine venues, under Exercise Shield. Gagiano says a further exercise is being planned. He adds “we must still negotiate for a little bit of additional funding because the air force will have the largest contingent (from the SANDF) deployed during the Soccer World Cup”.
The SAAF contingent, numbering around 2500 personnel, consist of aircrew, technicians, mobile radar mission controllers and many others who will be deployed to support the aircraft and radars. With respect to the various Shield exercises, Gagniano says: “A number of lessons were learnt in the process, not the least of these being how the Gripen, with its sophisticated radar system, adds a new dimension to Air Force operational strategy.”
“I think the Gripen has given us such a huge jump in capability, it’s almost unbelievable.”
The SAAF will be using various sensors throughout the country to compile the radar picture. As the SAAF will be deploying mobile radar units to only the inland soccer venues, the SA Navy will deploy their frigates to the coastal venues, being Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth. Gagiano says that the SAAF will “utilise the radar pictures from the navy ships – via Link ZA – for the total air picture around the stadiums close to the coast.”
“So all those sensors contribute to a recognised air picture and Gripen is one part of it, the ship radar is one part of it, our mobile radars, static radar, all these sensors are part and parcel of the input into one recognised air picture.”
Gagiano says that the SAAF was fortunate to have the World Cup when they were still testing and evaluating the Gripen. In fact, the Soccer World Cup has accelerated the deployment of the Gripen.
“We’ve learnt so much in terms of its capabilities which we never would have learnt if it was not for the World Cup. It accelerated our deployment of the aircraft, it accelerated the learning process and accelerated the aircrews ability to utilise the weapon system of the Gripen optimally,” says Gagiano.
The SAAF’s Director: Combat Systems, Brig Gen John Bayne, says “The Gripen, through the data link and other sensors, can control other resources, not only air, but on the ground and link with the ships (radar)”, creating a mobile picture in the air that can rapidly adapt and change to short term situations.
“I think working with all the other departments and agencies has just brought the whole team together on a national basis, with Gripen playing a role in that as well,” continued Bayne.
The Brazilian Air Force (Força Aérea Brasileira) had brought one of their Erieye-equipped Embraer EMB-145 AEW (Airborne Early Warning) aircraft to the 2008 African Aerospace and Defence (AAD) show in Cape Town and there was speculation that one or more of these aircraft would provide radar coverage during the Soccer World Cup. Gagiano confirmed that this is no longer on the cards.
Recent media reports have alluded to a “toothless” Gripen, referring to the lack of missiles and internal cannon on the dual-seat Gripen D. The newly delivered Diehl BGT Defence IRIS-T (Infra Red Imaging System – Tail control) short-range air-to-air missile was shown to the public for the first time at the SAAF Parade held at Swartkop airfield on January 29.
Says Gagiano: “It’s an incredibly capable missile, a missile connected with the helmet mounted display that can even lock onto a target in the rear quadrant of the aircraft and launch the missile. I think it is the best short-range air-to-air missile in the world. This young aircraft has grown long teeth very, very quickly.”
Gagiano says that both the missile-armed Gripen D and the missile and cannon-armed single-seat Gripen C fighter will be deployed to safeguard the soccer event. Nine Gripen D aircraft have already been delivered, with the first Gripen C expected to arrive within the next few days. At least four Gripen C fighters are likely to be in the country for the World Cup.
The SAAF has prepared for and trained hard for the upcoming Soccer World Cup, in conjunction with other security agencies. Perhaps the last word should belong to Gagiano: “From an air force point of view, I am satisfied that we have declared our crews and equipment sufficient, for any event.”
PIc: The Diehl BGT Defence IRIS-T SRIRAAM pictured on the wingtip of a Saab Gripen D on January 29.