SA investment in advanced defence technology can safeguard soldiers’ lives – Saab

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The South African defence industry faces tough decisions amid continuous reductions in government funding for product acquisition and development, coupled with limited support for crucial activities like trials and facility availability.

With Treasury allocating just under R52 billion for defence in the latest National Budget, less than 1% of GDP, the nation risks falling behind global military powers in deploying effective modern defence solutions, South Africa’s Saab Grintek Defence has warned.

The shrinking budget not only threatens operational capabilities, but also places soldiers’ lives at risk, as seen in incidents like the loss of three naval crew members aboard the SAS Manthatisi submarine in the Western Cape, and six SA Army soldiers in Lohatla in the Northern Cape during training exercises last year.

In 2021, a Special Forces soldier operating deep behind enemy lines in Mozambique during Operation Vikela was killed by insurgents, with South African troops reportedly lacking air support while under attack.

More recently, two South African soldiers were killed by M23 rebel mortar fire in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on 14 February and another three injured. Earlier in the year, an Oryx helicopter crew member in the DRC was injured when rebels hit his helicopter with over 40 rounds of small arms fire.

Experts have cited military budget constraints as a contributing factor in many of these cases, with a lack of air support, logistics and firepower contributing to these casualties.

Jan Widerström, managing director at Saab Grintek Defence, said countries worldwide are allocating larger budgets to bolster their defence capabilities, driven by geopolitical tensions and evolving security threats.

South Africa, on the other hand, is not, in spite of an ever-growing slew of commitments ranging from international peacekeeping missions (notably in the DRC) to border security, disaster relief, and humanitarian assistance.

The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) needs to do more with less, and can achieve this with technology as a force multiplier. Similarly, the South African defence industry (SADI) can use advances in technology to supply better equipment and more efficiently.

Widerström advises South Africa to invest in artificial intelligence (AI) and advanced defence technology capabilities to save lives as these offer good return on investment and are relatively cost effective interventions.

He said that Saab is heading in this direction with the 2023 acquisition of BlueBear, a provider of AI-enabled autonomous swarm systems, reflects its strategic bid to boost capabilities. “South Africa should invest into artificial intelligence and advance defence technology capabilities that help save lives,” he urged.

“The combination of Saab’s world-leading products, services and solutions with BlueBear’s experience as an agile integrator of autonomous systems will be a powerful driver of future capabilities,” he said. “We have identified many synergies between BlueBear and all of Saab’s business areas in relation to autonomy, uncrewed aerial systems (UAS), counter UAS, Command and Control (C2) for swarms and integration of payloads,” Widerström added.

Aircraft self-protection

On several occasions, South African Air Force Oryx and Rooivalk helicopters serving with the United Nations mission in the DRC have been hit by enemy fire, resulting in one death and several injuries: on 5 February 2023, Sergeant Vusimusi Mabena was killed when hit by a single sniper’s round which also hit and wounded pilot in command, Major Omolemo Matlapeng.

While SAAF aircraft have only been hit by small arms fire up until now, the United Nations earlier this year provided evidence that Rwanda had supplied M23 rebels with mobile surface-to-air missile systems, mounted on WZ551 vehicles.

Saab has supplied its defensive aids solutions to the SAAF, namely its Integrated Defensive Aids Suite (IDAS), which should keep its Oryx and Rooivalks safe from surface-to-air missiles in the DRC and any other theatre they operate in.

A Rooivalk attack helicopter firing flares.

IDAS is one of Saab Grintek Defence’s core products, having been fitted on Sukhoi-30 fighters, the AgustaWestland Super Lynx shipboard helicopter, the Indian Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter, the Boeing CH-47 Chinook heavy-lift helicopter, Denel Rooivalk, Tornado SPS, Agusta Westland (now Leonardo) A109 Light Utility Helicopter, NH Industries NH90 helicopter, Airbus Helicopters H225M Caracal multirole utility helicopter, Puma and Super Puma transport helicopters, BAE Systems Hawk trainer, Mil Mi-17 helicopter, Embraer 120, Saab 2000 AEW&C, Bombardier Dash-8 and Lockheed Martin Hercules transport aircraft.
In mid-2023 Saab Grintek Defence launched the latest version, the IDAS 310, incorporating the newest warning systems including MAW 400 missile approach warning sensor. IDAS 310 features advanced digital signal processing, allowing for real-time detection and analysis of threats, and rapid deployment of neutralising countermeasures. It also provides situational awareness to the aircraft pilot, allowing for better decision-making in high-pressure situations, and can be integrated with the aircraft’s mission systems, providing a seamless flow of information.

“With IDAS, users are well prepared for the most challenging missions, in the most demanding threat environments,” said Harry Schultz, Saab Airborne EW Product Manager. “The system’s flexibility and adaptability are a key feature, as it can be installed quickly and easily, minimising aircraft downtime and reducing costs.”

Saab’s MAW 400 missile approach warning sensors are advanced detection systems designed to provide early warning and threat detection against approaching missiles, to allow the deployment of decoys with timing to maximise platform protection against these missiles.

These sensors allow airborne military platforms, in particular helicopters, to enhance survivability in combat situations. MAW 400 development was based on the experience of working with many users who collectively operate a few hundred aircraft equipped with MAW 300, the previous version of the sensor.

The increased use of unmanned vehicles has also triggered the development of a new generation of lightweight EW systems, such as the Compact Sirius. This trend of deploying more systems on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs/drones) poses a challenge in the processing of data from a greater array of sensors, Saab said. Networking of sensors, and data processing in cooperation with advanced threat database resources are becoming more of a requirement in general.

Saab South Africa, through its local footprint Saab Grintek Defence, manufactures and develops integrated electronic warfare self-protection systems for customers around the world. The company offers electronic warfare, sensor technology, laser warning, and training systems, as well as avionics and security and support solutions.

Saab has been successful in the field of naval EW, supplying submarine radar warning receivers for submarines of the Greek, Portuguese, South African, Colombian, Egyptian and South Korean navies, and laser warning systems for surface ships of the UAE, New Zealand and Finnish navies, as well as integrated radar and laser warning systems for the German Navy’s mine-hunters, and Bulgarian vessels. Saab’s South African operation has exported to nearly 20 countries.

The Baynunah class corvette is fitted with Saab’s Naval Laser Warning System.

Saab has also done well with its Land Electronic Defence System (LEDS), which has been exported. This provides vehicles with self-protection against laser threats with its laser warning sensors. This technology offers increased survivability for the crew and their platforms, while also indirectly supporting battlefield intelligence through networked applications.

On a similar note, Saab Grintek Defence and Rheinmetall jointly developed the MASS_ISS multispectral protection suite for surface ships. The MASS_ISS provides a sensor suite capable of detecting all laser threats, and frequency coverage in the radar spectrum from 0.5 to 40 GHz. The integrated sensor suite comprises the Saab Naval Laser Warning System, as well as the SME-150, SME-250 or the SME-400 family of radar ESM (electronic support measures) systems, integrated into the Rheinmetall MASS decoy launching system.