Cuban mechanics refurbishing Olifant tanks


Eyebrows were raised in some defence and military circles following an Operation Thusano presentation to the Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans (PCDMV).

Piquing the interest of at least some serious South African defence observers was the number of tanks said to have been repaired by Cuban military mechanics and technicians deployed in South Africa under the Project Thusano flag.

Rear Admiral (JG) OB Mthethwa’s presentation, among others, indicated the Cuban contingent repaired seven Olifant Mk 2 tanks and 84 of the older Mk 1 versions.

A reliable source told defenceWeb the SA Army’s current active tank inventory is 24 Olifant Mk 2s with 133 Olifant Mk 1A/1Bs in storage, giving the junior flag officer’s statement a ring of truth. The majority of those mothballed are Mk 1As, in all probability, housed at Tempe military base in Free State.

Open source information shows the only active tank unit in the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) – 1 SA Tank Regiment – has about 30 tanks operational and available. The unit is based in Tempe, unofficial armour headquarters of the SA Army and, again according to open source information, consists of three tank squadrons each with 12 main battle tanks (MBTs).

Another keen watcher of South African defence – government broadly in the form of the SANDF, Defence Ministry, Armscor and Denel as well as the private sector defence industry – asked bluntly why should so many Mk 1A tanks be brought back to operational level.

Answering his own question and asking for anonymity because of close ties, he said: “In theory they would equip the reserve tank regiments but those units are in effect defunct, not having been trained on prime mission equipment or for their main roles in many years and being under-strength”.

He maintains future utilisation of the 1A is open to question. “Given cuts in the defence budget the SANDF might have to bite the bullet, close the tank regiment and accept the Army will have to do without”.

The inference drawn is Cuban military mechanics are, in addition to working on refurbishing wheeled vehicles including Rooikat armoured cars and Samil trucks, now doing the same for tracked vehicles. “These will, in all probability, not see active service with the possible exception of training,” defenceWeb was told.

Expanding on the number of tanks quoted by the junior grade admiral, a defenceWeb commenter indicated he knows 1 SA Tank Regiment has “about” 26 Mk 2s and five or six Mk 1Bs, adding the presentation listed preserved tanks separately.

defenceWeb was told with regard to the Cuban military mechanics and the work they are doing it only goes as far as bringing vehicles back to so-called baseline status.

“This makes them useless except for rear area work as it will be impossible for them to be supported on deployment.”

defenceWeb’s informant asks why foreigners should be in South Africa working on “our vehicles”.

“They are not familiar with the various systems which could be maintained and repaired either in-house or by original equipment manufacturers (OEMs),” he said, adding the “real effect of the decision to import Cubans is non-employment of South Africans and giving the Cubans insight into some technologies, Rooikat and Olifant are examples, beyond their ken”.