Aviation holds huge potential for the South African defence industry


The aviation sector is one of four potential clusters in the South African Aerospace & Defence (A&D) industry that can be used to revive the whole sector and using the A&D sector to align with the current government’s Strategic Framework Priority “Economic Transformation and Job Creation”.

There is an opportunity to use the A&D sector to reignite industrial capabilities for a lagging economy. The 1980s defence industry stimulated a generation of skilled professionals and tradesmen that later distributed into multiple facets of industry. Many of these people went on to lead local and international initiatives. The next generation of professional and trade experts can be created through the correct application of defence capability.

Past South African governments have invested capital to create a key national asset within the commercial and defence aviation industry (note: I have used the aviation sector as example, but the other three segments of Land, Naval and C4I [command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence] have similar histories). The core of this national asset is still alive in South Africa, which has an advanced aerostructures manufacturing capability. The country has maintained a structured aerospace sector including scientific research (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research), industry and academia with global accreditations and credentials. The National Aerospace Centre is one such initiative of collaboration between academic research and industry. A quick look at the membership list of the Commercial Aerospace Manufacturing Association of South Africa (CAMASA) shows established entities capable of innovative solutions. This can be used as a conduit and/or catalyst to lead local aerospace industry leaders in a range of flagship programmes with the potential creation of sustainable industrial and high technology benefits linked to international sales opportunities.

We need a first discussion on how we make this capability a reality. An input I received from Mr David van der Merwe: What the state defines as military capability should be decoupled. The state is a consumer of the defence industry’s products and technologies, not the custodian of it. State involvement does not ensure an enterprise’s commercial viability; market and competitiveness is the key factor. The state through the SA Air Force (SAAF) has a major role in guiding developments. The state also assists defence industry capabilities if the solutions are deployed by the local defence force with a related acquisition and support programme. Local, commercially focused custodians are required to make defence industry capabilities a reality.

The ultimate goal should be to re-establish South Africa as an innovative force capable of providing global arms solutions. The Aerospace & Defence Masterplan is a plan build around this approach. A second discussion should be the need to reduce/eliminate trade restrictions and thus the need for the practice of offshoring by SA defence industry entities. Job creation and international commercial success in the defence sector depends on this element.

Why Aviation as a Stimulus?

South Africa has extensive aerospace experience. This is built on the SAAF acquisitions of the early to late 1960s. The 1980s was an exciting time in the SA aerospace sector. Experience grew from maintenance and support activities to full system design capabilities as shown in a range of indigenous aircraft. The SAAF guided industry research and development in five key areas that if expanded from the 1990s onwards would have placed the SA defence industry well above 1% of global arms supply spend through rotary wing developments, combat fixed wing aircraft, training aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles and aerospace/ballistic developments. These areas still look viable when the historic projects are examined.

Just look at the aviation segment of 40 years back. South Africa was ahead of the likes of Brazil, Turkey & South Korea in total capabilities. Here are some developments that show what is possible with a strategic focus:

Rotary Wing Development

Two indigenous solutions are still in operation with the SAAF and form the backbone of SAAF rotary wing operations:The Oryx first flew on 18 September 1987, and deliveries commenced in May 1989. Denel Aviation assembled 51 aircraft of which 39 remain in the fleet. The 39 airframes received an avionics upgrade in 2016.

The Rooivalk platform is a success. South Africa enlisted technical experience from international resources. Many remained in SA when the project was completed. It is still receiving international interest, especially based on experience from operational deployment. What of Rooivalk MkII? There is a need for an avionics and weapons system upgrade. SA needs a partner, and this could still be reality.

The platform is a stimulus for linked technologies: avionics and mission system development (ATE – now part of Paramount), helmet mounted technology (Denel Optronics – now part of Hensoldt), missile warning systems (SAAB Grintek Defence), air-to-ground missile (Denel Dynamics), guided rocket, potential cannon development (Ansys – now Etion Create).

Many companies were established that were linked to this project and form the backbone of the SA defence industry.

Combat Fixed Wing Aircraft Development

The SAAF was ambitious in the development sphere in the past. They would sometimes run two concurrent developments in parallel. One high tech and risky, and one that was less risky and of lower technology. The fighter development environment had one such development approach.

The Cheetah is the known solution that was implemented. It was a low-risk solution. It was a capable solution with a modern weapon system. A 3.5th Generation fighter that could hold its own in the air battle space.

Then there was Project Carver for a 4th generation fighter. A high-risk project that provided single and twin-engine concepts. With the cancellation of the Israeli Lavi, SA had access to its design team. The engine was always a problem, but the Russian engine evaluations provided some performance improvements. The time, cost and energy were just not worth it in terms of the rapidly diminishing threat (end of the war in Angola), and the soon to end arms embargo. This would have taken the SA defence industry stratospheric. South Africa was ahead of the likes of South Korea, Pakistan, India and China that have now entered this domain.

Linked technologies: guided bombs, short range missile, beyond visual range missile (All Denel Dynamics solutions).

Training Aircraft Development

I hope that people still remember the Ovid, or All Composite Evaluator (ACE). This was a world first all composite turboprop training aircraft. The prototype flew in 1991. Let this sink in. World first. This project could have had significant impact on the total SA aerospace industry. Look at how Pilatus and Tucano are performing in the market. Interestingly, the Ovid scored highest in evaluations when the SAAF measured Ovid against two other solutions.

There was a higher engine power ACE II solution that had the potential of fulfilling a close air support role. The design was ready when the prototype crashed, and the project was stopped. Think where the SA defence industry could have been if we moved forward with this. The industry now has the Mwari, but the Ovid solution was a platform designed to do the same roles, and it was there 30 years ago.Linked technology: composite manufacturing (SAAB Aerostructures), close air support weapon solutions (ATE – Paramount), reconnaissance pods, weapon simulation development (air combat manoeuvring instrumentation pods), ground based training system, computer based training. Note: An Existing Integrated Training solution was the real driving force behind not selecting the Ovid/ACE. The current strength of the SA simulator supplier base shows that this could have been solved.

There is potential to spin off this capability into a light utility aircraft solution.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Development

South Africa has a stellar history in the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) segment.

The early 1980s delivered the Seeker UAV prototype. Denel is at the Seeker 4 variant. There were many other solutions:
1988 – Delta wing UAS demonstrator.
1991 – SkyHeye RPH (Aerosud) – Very similar to the Raphael Spike Firefly
1992 – Skyfly target drone prototype
1993 – Keen Eye UAV
1994 – UAOS/Vulture prototype (Now with Paramount)
2005 – Indiza mini hand-launches UAS

Then there was the Bateleur Medium-Altitude Long-Range Surveillance UAV concept solution. This can be seen as the very early concept that has inspired the Milkor MA380.


Is it possible to get the SA defence industry categorised as a strategic industry? There is currently a gap from proof of feasibility to industrialised capability. This needs urgent attention. The funding element gets thrown around, but ultimately it is understanding the roadmaps to market penetration that South Africa has a problem with. Private industry is taking the R&D lead and focusing on the international market needs. This can present a fragmented approach.

Thus, the call for an overarching SA defence industry strategy to achieve aligned commitment. We have done it before. We can do it again.

Written by James Kerr, Orion Consulting CC, which provides Market Entry Strategy and Bid & Proposal services to the Aerospace & Defence related industry and assists international SME mission system product suppliers to gain traction in South Africa.