Sad and sorry state of the SAAF


Twenty-eight years ago the SA Air Force (SAAF) earned the accolade “Pride of the Nation” for an impressive flypast over the Union Buildings to mark the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as president.

That accolade is now effectively consigned to the dustbin of history as the SAAF of 2022 bears little resemblance to the one which proudly carried the then new South African national flag and the flags of the then also new SA National Defence Force (SANDF) and its four services over the administrative capital of the country.

Just how far the SAAF has gone down the road toward becoming an air wing was brutally brought home to one of Parliament’s two defence oversight committees this week. Armscor told the Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans (PCDMV) just 46 of the total SAAF fleet of 217 fixed-wing, rotorcraft and jet fighters are serviceable.

Going by type, some capabilities are worse affected. For example, a lone C-130BZ Hercules is able to meet the medium-lift requirements of a national defence force which currently has elements deployed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Mozambique. These soldiers, airmen, medics and support personnel have to be assured a logistic chain is in place and properly operational. A lone and veteran Lockheed Martin Hercules transport isn’t exactly confidence inspiring in this scenario.

It’s common knowledge that 2 Squadron’s Gripens are grounded with expiry and re-negotiation of maintenance contracts given as the reason. Similarly with other types in service, maintenance contracts appear not to be timeously renewed.

Part of the issue are the massive budget cuts affecting the SANDF as a whole. According to the 2021 Department of Defence Annual Performance Plan for 2021/22, a total of R5.969 billion is allocated to the Air Defence programme (essentially the SAAF in its entirety), against a requirement of R7.8 billion, leaving a shortfall of R1.8 billion. That adversely impacts on preparation and provision of combat-ready air defence capabilities, aircraft maintenance, maintenance of other capabilities and aviation safety.

The budget cuts are compounded by a dysfunctional relationship between the SAAF and Armscor made worse by poor contract management. Armscor blames the COVID-19 pandemic for some disruptions to aircraft maintenance, but this may be overstated.

With much of the SAAF fleet unserviceable, Armscor warns there is no money for mid-life upgrades that are required for much of the fleet up to 80 years old, in the case of the C-47TPs.

The crisis in the SAAF has been a long time coming and alarms have sounded for close on a decade over the lack of budget to keep aircraft flying, prompting “rotational storage” of platforms like the Hawk and Gripen.

This leaves the SAAF closer than ever to becoming an air wing,  acceptable if it did not have major responsibilities. The SAAF is tasked with search and rescue, supporting external operations in Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), firefighting, COVID-19 relief and a myriad other tasks that show no sign of diminishing. With the July 2021 unrest still fresh in people’s memories, it is more important than ever to have a strong and well-funded military. This is especially true given the country’s porous borders and terrorism in northern Mozambique.

Strong political intervention is needed to turn the situation around. Defence Minister Thandi Modise needs to step up and lobby for more funding, especially in light of events such as the July 2021 unrest that required military intervention. Government needs to see defence as a vital investment. Modise maintains politicians aren’t united in looking out for the defence force, but this is in her power to change.