Will SAAF Gripens ever fly?

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The sharp end of the SA Air Force (SAAF) – its Gripen fighters – have been grounded for over a year and, despite encouraging words to the contrary, there appears to be only slow progress in bringing them and those who fly the single-engined Swedish-built combat jets back to any semblance of operational status.

Air Force Base (AFB) Makhado-based 2 Squadron has not been able to fly its Gripens since August last year. This sad state of affairs was brought about because budget cuts and disagreements over contract terms resulted in the support contracts with Saab and GKN being allowed to lapse.

African Defence Review (ADR) director Darren Olivier, writing in FlightCom, notes, tellingly: “Without support contracts in place, or adequately certified workarounds, the SAAF Military Airworthiness Board cannot issue or renew approvals for flight”.

The first inkling all was not well at the Limpopo base came in December when Department of Defence (DoD) Head of Communication (HoC) Siphiwe Dlamini indicated the SAAF Gripens were “temporarily grounded”. He neglected to say the same applied to the squadron level mission trainer (SqLMT) at Makhado, meaning pilots could not retain currency via simulator hours.

SA National Defence Force (SANDF) Chief General Rudzani Maphwanya when interviewed by the DStv actuality programme Carte Blanche in June indicated the situation was resolved and the Gripens would be flying soon.

Other input, slightly contrary, came from Democratic Alliance (DA) shadow defence and military veterans minister Kobus Marais. He told defenceWeb that Minister Thandi Modise had “high level discussions” with Saab in July at the Farnborough air show. “I was told – from the horse’s mouth – the discussions will see this disagreement end.”

An even vaguer response came from the Directorate: Corporate Communication (DCC) of the SANDF in response to a June defenceWeb enquiry.

“The negotiation has been concluded and the process has reached the final phase awaiting final contract placement. Maintenance work has been ongoing even during the times of not having a contract. After the final placement of the contract, certain spares will be ordered and following delivery from the contract, flights will resume,” the response read. In common with replies to Gripen flying it, like Maphwanya, avoids any indication of date.

Olivier calls the Gripen situation “disastrous” writing “there’s no way to put a positive spin or brave face on this situation”.

He explains: “For a year the country has been without any air defence capability whatsoever. And yet leadership complacently stood by with no apparent sense of urgency while a critical strategic capability acquired at great cost has fallen apart. One would have thought those in positions of power would have been moving heaven and earth to resolve the situation”.

“The SAAF and Armscor, as the procurement agency, haven’t been entirely idle and engaged in back and forth negotiations with both Saab and GKN (Gripen engine supplier) to find a workable solution that fits in with the SAAF’s pitiful budget allocation, yet provides the necessary level of support to keep these highly complex aircraft flying. Progress has been slow, suffocated by red tape and indecision at the highest levels and characterised by stop-start spurts of activity and waiting that wasted crucial time.

“Worse, negotiations have been taking place since early 2021, long before the contract was due to lapse and providing plenty of time to avoid the situation.

“At the most basic level, the cause is simple: The SAAF Combat Systems Directorate has an annual budget of just over R300 million, ludicrously inadequate to maintain even a single modern fighter squadron, let alone a squadron of Hawk Mk 120 fighter-trainers alongside it. Benchmarking against similar fighter squadrons around the world shows an annual budget of R1 billion is needed just to maintain a basic capability level, with R3 billion or so a year needed for full operational capability and utilisation.

“Expecting to work with just R300-400 million a year falls in the realm of fantasy and magical thinking, not sound governance. Add to that chronic indecision plaguing the SANDF and indeed South Africa as a whole of late, increasing red tape around procurement and misapplication of preferential procurement regulations to strategic defence contracts that clearly can’t support them and it’s no surprise things have reached this point.

“Absurdly, according to people familiar with the negotiations, much of the time was wasted by Armscor’s insistence on applying the 30% local content requirement from the preferential procurement regulations, even though there aren’t any local companies that could perform any of the work required. At best, it would mean some local company acting entirely as a rent seeker, placing orders with Saab and GKN for spare parts and adding its own mark up on top while adding no value and harming what’s already a low margin contract.

“This type of requirement is a problem that has increasingly crept into service and support contracts for key SANDF systems, even when the OEM is the only possible supplier. It makes maintenance costs much higher than they need to be and contributes to low availability of critical systems.

“Questions are being raised in SANDF HQ about whether Armscor continues to be an enabler of the SANDF or has become a harmful hindrance. Distrust apparently played a part in delaying negotiations.

“Despite these constraints, all sides finally reached a breakthrough earlier this month (August) and agreed, in principle and after a number of proposals and revisions, to a new three year support contract that almost fits the pre-defined budget and provides a limited return to service.

“It’s not perfect, for either side, but is at least a way forward and buys time. At the time of going to press, however, it seems neither the airframe contract with Saab nor the engine contract with GKN have yet been finalised, signed and paid for. This despite an assurance provided by military leadership to the news programme Carte Blanche in June that the situation had been resolved.

“Worse, even if all outstanding contracts are signed today, it will take many months for the first aircraft to return to the air after all the necessary maintenance and checks are completed. It will take just as long for air and ground crews to regain their currencies and qualifications, as none have been able to preserve them over a grounding this extensive. It hasn’t even been possible for pilots to continue training on the two simulators in the SqLMT at Makhado, because those fall under the same contract and have not been operational either. In any case they also need relatively substantial upgrades.”

In another telling implication of the SAAF, Olivier has it the airborne arm of the SANDF “will not have any real fighter capability before 2023 at the earliest and only for a handful of aircraft at first. There is now no hope of returning to capability levels and numbers 2 Squadron had before the grounding. At best only a token force can be restored by 2024/2025 under current funding levels”.

There is a small chance one or two Gripens may be flying at the Africa Aerospace and Defence (AAD) exhibition next month, as it is believed Saab has been helping the SAAF with Gripen serviceability while the contract renewal is being finalised.

Worse is coming on the horizon because key obsolescence issues haven’t been addressed.

“The SAAF is going to be faced with another budget crisis on the Gripens when it next needs to renew the contract. Then it may be impossible to resolve” is Olivier’s gloomy prognosis.