The South African Air Force will soon be bringing home its Rooivalk attack helicopters from the peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) at the United Nations’ request.
As first reported by African Defence Review, the contingent of three helicopters will be returning to South Africa later this year. According to defenceWeb sources, some of the helicopters painted in UN white are being returned to their camouflage colour schemes ahead of the move, which will likely happen around May this year.
The Rooivalk’s return is at the UN’s request as it attempts to cut costs on what is the world’s largest peacekeeping mission. It is understood that the Rooivalk is relatively expensive to operate, especially as it is deployed in pairs in accordance with South African Air Force (SAAF) doctrine, and since the defeat of the M23 rebel group it is mainly used to provide escort for ground vehicles and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and has not engaged in much combat recently.
A UN response to African Defence Review stated that, “The Department of Peacekeeping Operations conducted a thorough strategic review of Monusco last year to ensure that the Mission is adequately positioned and equipped to respond to the changing threats and challenges. Some of the recommendations of the review are addressed to the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), of which South Africa and other SADC countries are key contributors. We are discussing with SADC countries as well as with all troop contributing countries, on how best to translate these important recommendations into concrete actions.
“At the same time, following a review of the United Nations air assets initiated by the Secretary-General and aimed at improving efficiency and make savings in an increasingly constrained financial context of the Organization, it was determined that Monusco would need to give up its Rooivalk helicopters. At this stage, it is considered that the Mission is in position to implement its mandate without additional attack helicopters.”
The Rooivalk was first deployed to the DRC in late 2013, when it almost immediately went into action against M23 rebels and was instrumental in halting their campaign against government forces. Three aircraft are deployed on rotation to the DRC, with two flying and one in reserve.
As noted by Darren Olivier at African Defence Review, the cost of operating the Rooivalk “was easily justifiable when Monusco was going up against semi-conventional and well-equipped forces like the M23 insurgency in 2013, but it has become increasingly difficult to justify as the mission has begun to receive sharp cuts to its budget. This is despite a more challenging security environment, in which most of the remaining irregular forces in the eastern DRC comprise less well-equipped militias that are not as susceptible to airstrikes.”
This has been compounded by the United States’ reduction in funding to the UN, which has resulted in Monusco’s budget being reduced by $100 million in 2017.
In addition to over a thousand troops, South Africa has also deployed five Oryx transport helicopters to the DRC and these are set to continue with Monusco along with the SA Army contingent.
Update: The South African National Defence Force confirmed to defenceWeb that “there are deliberations on the withdrawal of Rooivalk due to
financial constraints within the UN. SADC is still busy with talks with the UN to decide what the implications will be and the way forward.”