Rooivalk Mk II development stalled

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Discussions on development of a Rooivalk Mk II combat support helicopter remain at a technical level between Denel and Armscor with little progress since a 2016 avionics and weapons obsolescence study for the current Rooivalk.

This is according to Denel, which informed the Minister of Public Enterprises (Pravin Gordhan) earlier this year it investigated with the SA Air Force (SAAF) through Armscor potential to upgrade and/or replace the current baseline Rooivalk.

In the 2015/16 financial year, Denel was commissioned by Armscor to develop a weapons and avionics obsolescence study of Rooivalk, to form the basis for a Project Definition (PD) by the Department of Defence (DoD) to map a path for an upgraded Rooivalk. R10 million was allocated for the study by DoD and it was completed in 2016 with expectation of a further tasking for other major systems of the aircraft, the Public Enterprises ministry said in response to a Parliamentary question by the Democratic Alliance (DA).

In response to another question by the DA earlier this year, the Department of Public Enterprises (DPE) said it “is not playing a direct role in the development process of the new generation Rooivalk combat helicopter (MK II). The discussions are still at a technical level between Denel and Armscor.”

No budget provision has been made by the Department for the development of Rooivalk Mk II, the response read, indicating the project has stalled.

Denel has not given up on Rooivalk Mk II as there is reportedly continued international interest in the helicopter, but funding limitations mean the project cannot advance.

The company hoped to make incremental improvements to the aircraft and already made incremental changes, such as new long-range drop tanks for ferry flights, while others are planned – Denel recently issued a tender for new windshields for the helicopter, for example.

Denel has for some time been looking at a new helmet-mounted sight and display and replacement of the main sight. It previously fitted a Hensoldt Optronics Argos II gimbal to the helicopter as a proof-of-concept. As the Argos II is made in South Africa, this guarantees better supportability as well.

Other upgrades would cover avionics, radios (currently not part of the Link-ZA network), flight data recorders and mission computers. Regarding weaponry, Rooivalk is currently fitted with 70 mm FZ rockets and a 20 mm cannon. Although specifically designed for the helicopter, the Mokopa anti-tank missile was never ordered by the SAAF for Rooivalk due to funding limitations. Denel was completing qualifications with live missile firings but this was been deferred due to funding constraints.

Denel was looking at lower cost laser-guided rockets as a precision guided option for Rooivalk and had good results from tests. In 2015 an FZ laser-guided rocket was fired from Rooivalk, giving accuracy of less than a metre from target centre at 4 to 5 km distances.

A major issue with Rooivalk is reliability of its cannon, with pilots complaining of frequent failures during combat in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). As a result, Denel, the SAAF and Armscor initiated a cannon reliability improvement project,  implemented with Denel Land Systems (the cannon manufacturer) and partners including Armscor division Flamengro, for simulation and modelling work.

Late last year Mike Kgobe, Denel Aeronautics chief executive, told defenceWeb although the SAAF has little money due to the small defence budget allocation, there are “pockets of activity” with the Rooivalk platform, including the Argos II sight installation (showcased in 2018 to demonstrate what is possible) and cannon reliability upgrade which would benefit an upgraded Rooivalk or life extension programme. “There isn’t a huge budget but we do see pockets of activity. Some funds have been allocated,” Kgobe said.