OTT Solutions advancing Ratel Service Life Extension Programme

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OTT Solutions is forging ahead with the development and testing of its Ratel Service Life Extension Programme (SLEP) infantry fighting vehicle, which is being offered to the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) as well as foreign Ratel users.

Late last month OTT Solutions demonstrated the prototype to members of the SANDF, defence attaches, industry and other representatives at the Gerotek vehicle testing facility outside Pretoria, just over a year since the project was initiative in March 2022 and then officially launched at the September Africa Aerospace and Defence (AAD) exhibition. The visitors had a chance to drive inside the Ratel SLEP and get a first-hand look at the upgrades made to it.

Retired Brigadier General Mbulelo Fihla, a non-executive director of OTT Solutions and current Treasury General of the SA National Military Veterans Association (SANMVA), told attendees that the Ratel is one of the best armoured vehicles South Africa has produced and although it is nearly 50 years old, its service life can be extended 30-40 years in a cost effective manner as only the internals need to be brought up to modern standards – the hull is still solid.

The SANDF has around 300 Ratels remaining in its inventory, although many are not serviceable. As the SANDF is suffering from a lack of funding, it should make use of what it has and improve the capacity of the defence force by upgrading vehicles – this would also create jobs and capacitate the industry, Fihla said, with upgraded Ratels at least as good as new vehicles.

The Ratel SLEP came about in part because of the stagnation of Project Hoefyster, for the development and production of the Badger infantry fighting vehicle, which was meant to replace some Ratels in SA Army service. However, Denel has made little progress on this project in recent years and its future is in doubt. OTT Solutions does not see the Ratel SLEP as a replacement for the Badger: Andre Olivier, Managing Director at OTT Solutions, said that if Hoefyster goes ahead or not, Ratels will remain in service and need to be upgraded.

Sandile Ndlovu, Interim Executive Director of the South African Aerospace, Maritime and Defence Industries Association (AMD), said that that the powers that be are ready to listen to proposals such as those offered by OTT. Defence Minister Thandi Modise has urged the defence industry to come up with suggestions to help the SANDF at an industry lekgotla that will take place in June or July, he said, adding that the minister would like the defence industry to generate ideas to support it in a time of severe budgetary constraints.

Fihla stated that “the SANDF needs new or upgraded vehicles. The same applies to other African countries,” noting that of the 1 300 Ratels manufactured, around 600 have been exported. OTT Solutions has interacted with other countries that use the Ratel – other users include Ghana, Cameroon, and Jordan. Fihla added that exporting the upgraded Ratel will not be an issue as there are no BAFA (German) or ITAR (United States) restrictions on the upgrade.

If a customer wants to upgrade Ratels in their home country, OTT Solutions can supply knockdown kits. A customer can easily install the new engine and gearbox as these are ‘drop in’. In addition to upgrading client vehicles, OTT Solutions has 20 to 30 Ratels of its own it can supply.

Upgraded internals

Dr Stefan Nell, Group Managing Director at the OTT Group, noted that the concept of upgrading the Ratel is not a new one: in 1996 Armscor initiated Project Lobo, which resulted in Denel producing a prototype fitted with a new 30 mm turret. This did not lead to production, however.

Today, OTT’s Ratel upgrade is focusing on a new sighting system and engine and transmission. The latter can be dropped in with relative ease and will be supportable for at least 20 years. The new Cummins engine weighs half as much (586 kg) as the original (a 1 230 kg Bussing) and is 25% more efficient while developing more power (270 kW rather than 210 kW). It also features a manually activated fire suppression system, as does the crew compartment (the compartment also has an engine stop control). The new Allison SP3000 six-speed automatic gearbox and Katsa transfer case weigh a combined 707 kg, compared with the 806 kg of the original Renk HSV 106, and are much smaller.

As the engine and gearbox are now smaller and lighter, OTT Solutions was able to add more armour so the whole vehicle is now protected to NATO STANAG Level 2 (7.62×39 mm armour piercing incendiary) all round (at present not even Level 1). Frontal protection remains against 12.7 mm armour piercing from 50 metres.

OTT Solutions did not want to make major changes to the hull or the way crews operate the vehicle: performance is the same or better than the original Ratel (60% incline, 110 km/h top speed, 60 cm step). One big change, however, is the new sighting system, provided by Vision 24 Technologies, that gives a full day/night capability. The stabilised commander’s sight incorporates a day camera, thermal imager, and laser rangefinder while the gunner’s sight comprises a day camera, thermal camera, and laser rangefinder. The turret is electrically actuated rather than using a mechanical system. OTT Solutions is exploring the addition of a fully stabilised turret.

The vehicle can be fitted with the CheetahNav navigation system and Chaka command and control system provided by Etion Create and Global Command and Control Technologies.

Another change is replacing the pneumatic system with a commercially available pneumatic system that eliminates the problem on the current Ratel of losing air when static. Mavtech Automation supplies a central tyre inflation system (CTIS) that allows the tyre pressure to be changed when driving, replacing the current system which only allows changing tyre pressures when static.

Although the Ratel SLEP prototype uses a Ratel 20 mm variant as the baseline, and OTT Solutions found that most customers are happy with the existing cannon, the company can also upgrade the Ratel 90 variant (fitted with a 90 mm gun). It is looking at converting a Ratel 90 after completing the Ratel 20 version as the Ratel 90 has great export potential. OTT Solutions is also examining putting a 30 mm cannon into the Ratel.

Since the Ratel SLEP project was initiative, the prototype has done 1 000 km of testing (90% on dirt roads) with no problems. Performance testing has covered cooling, handling, speed, acceleration, braking, hill climbing etc. Future work will cover engine airflow optimisation, air conditioning, another 4 000 km of reliability testing, and gun and fire control system evaluation.

Fihla said OTT Solutions aims to upgrade the vehicle even further and can adapt it to user requirements. “Our ambition is to make this a modern vehicle,” he stated.

Numerous companies in the South African defence industry are collaborating with OTT Solutions on the self-funded Ratel SLEP upgrade, with some of these providing their systems at no cost (including Global Command and Control Technologies, Etion Create, Mavtech Automation, Vision24 Technologies, and Reutech Communications).

OTT is no stranger to upgrading vehicles, having years of experience remanufacturing Ratels as well as upgraded RG12 Nyalas. It is busy with some Nyala conversions at present and can perform upgrades on various different platforms.