Denel Dynamics has been unable to deliver any production A-Darter air-to-air missiles to the South African Air Force (SAAF), forcing Armscor to contemplate contracting other companies to complete development and production.
This is according to a presentation by Armscor to the Joint Standing Committee on Defence on 24 February, giving an update on the commercialisation of the A-Darter and the impact on the SA Air Force, amongst other topics.
Armscor noted that the fifth-generation air-to-air missile (AAM) was developed jointly with Brazil under Project Assegai, with deliveries supposed to have been completed by March 2018. However, development was only completed in November 2019 – four years late.
Denel Dynamics was in March 2015 contracted to deliver eight practice (inert) missiles; 21 trainer missiles; and 41 operational missiles. However, to date only 16 practice/trainer missiles have been ‘substantially completed’ but they cannot be used because the missile hangers (the interface between the missile and the aircraft wing) have yet to be qualified. Denel discovered a safety issue with the hangers and is investigating different materials to meet requirements. Armscor said that once the hangars have been qualified, the SAAF can potentially take delivery of the first 16 missiles.
There is no progress to date on the balance of A-Darter missiles, including all operational missiles, “due to challenges faced by Denel.” This includes its liquidity crisis that has seen it unable to receive components due to the non-payment of suppliers, and a lack of capacity due to an exodus of skilled staff.
The delays have meant that 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. Armscor is engaging with Diehl Defence on extending the IRIS-T’s service life for another two years.
On the way forward, Armscor is looking at partnering with other local entities on completing the industrialisation and production of the A-Darter and has had several engagements with entities that has revealed a willingness and sufficient capacity to execute missile production. This would be by means of a partnering arrangement with Armscor and Denel. “To continue with A-Darter production is the only viable way forward,” Armscor said.
The A-Darter, under development since 2006, features a two-colour seeker and decoy rejection software. Using the helmet sight, the A-Darter can engage targets off to the side of the fighter, 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 AAM. 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.