SAAF still waiting on A-Darter missiles

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The South African Air Force (SAAF) has only received a few practice A-Darter missiles from Denel Dynamics, and will not be getting combat capable missiles any time soon due to the ‘complete stop’ of production at Denel Dynamics.

The SAAF has only received eight inert practice missiles from Denel Dynamics, and manufacture of the full complement of trainer and operational missiles is still outstanding. This is according to Defence and Military Veterans Minister Thandi Modise, who answered a written question posed by Democratic Alliance shadow defence minister Kobus Marais. He asked her what the status of the A-Darter missile is and if Denel Dynamics can deliver missiles to the SA Air Force.

She replied that Denel was in March 2015 contracted to industrialise and manufacture the A-Darter fifth-generation air-to-air missile for the SAAF. All missiles were supposed to be delivered by October 2017, but development and qualification was only completed by November 2019.

“Primarily due to reasons of liquidity and subsequent resignation of key personnel, execution of the programme came to a complete stop for the past three years,” Modise explained.

She went on to state that “A new manufacturing baseline audit by Armscor indicates that sufficient production personnel are still employed by Denel to manufacture the required missiles. Denel has however lost most critical design expertise which are required to sign off on the missile subsections as designated Design Authorities. Denel also doesn’t possess the technical expertise to render obsolescence engineering during production.

“As a fallback plan, Armscor has developed a collaborative model by means of which missile sub-sections can be manufactured and signed off by other entities in the domestic defence industry who are currently employing the requisite experts previously responsible for development of the A-Darter missile. In terms of the proposed model, relevant missile subsections can be manufactured and signed off by appropriate entities in industry, and Denel will assume responsibility for final integration of the subsections into the all-up missile. The proposed new approach and all associated implications, however, still needs to be considered and sanctioned by the SAAF,” Modise concluded.

The A-Darter was developed jointly with Brazil under Project Assegai, with Denel Dynamics to deliver eight practice missiles, 21 trainer missiles, and 41 operational missiles to the SAAF. Continued delays mean the A-Darter, which should have been completed in 2015, is already seeing some obsolescence in certain areas. Limited re-engineering will be required before production can commence.

In the meantime, the South African Air Force continues to use the interim IRIS-T missile, which was acquired from Germany in 2009.

The A-Darter, under development since 2006, features a two-colour seeker and advanced decoy rejection software. Using the pilot’s helmet sight, the A-Darter can engage targets off to the side of the launch aircraft, and it can also be used in an “over the shoulder” mode, pulling extremely high Gs – more than 80 – to engage an aircraft that is behind the launching fighter. The missile has a range of around 20 km.

The weapon is intended to arm the SAAF’s Gripen C/Ds, ultimately replacing the interim IRIS-T short range infrared guided missile. Brazil intended to acquire A-Darters for its own Gripen E/F fighters.

Since the retirement of the R-Darter, the SAAF does not have a beyond visual range air-to-air missile. This would have been addressed by the Denel Dynamics Marlin, which the company began testing in 2016. This new active radar-guided air-to-air missile will have a range of 100 km and will also be developed into an all-weather surface-to-air missile. However, with Denel’s liquidity and capacity problems and the SANDF’s declining budget, it is not clear how far this project will proceed.