South Africa’s aerospace and defence industry (SADI) is widely seen as the “NASA” of Africa, a key incubator of intellectual property and a knowledge creator that cross leverages other industries, often adding value to everyday applications, says Denel CE Talib Sadik.
He notes a robust defence industry not only supports the government in protecting South Africa’s national sovereignty and ensuring security of supply to the National Defence Force (SANDF), but also builds advanced manufacturing capacity in the country, contributing to skills development and foreign-exchange earnings. South Africa’s defence industry, which showcased itself to the world at the Africa Aerospace and Defence (AAD) show held in Cape Town recently, is alive with innovation and visionary technology — an industry that is of strategic importance to the country and its economy.
As a developing nation, South Africa has broken the mould — producing its own world class customised precision defence solutions and competing against the best globally, he notes in an opinion article distributed by Denel’s public relations agency, Meropa. “For example, South Africa’s first electric car, the Joule, was built by a design and development team, almost all of whom had started their careers at Denel. We continuously draw on our bank of knowledge and available resources to solve everyday problems for example, of aircraft bird strikes as well as those of national concern such as rhino poaching or keeping fans safe during the World Cup.
“We have a range of solutions to counter this poaching scourge such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) which provide ‘eye in the sky’ technology, aircraft with technology that can be used to combat rhino poaching – presently being showcased to national parks around Africa – and our own world first in contraband detection using sniffer dogs – the Mechem Explosives and Drug Detection System (MEDDS) – a vacuum system designed to draw air from suspected containers or vehicles which makes detection easier and more efficient, Sadik adds.
“At AAD we showcased a breakthrough in anti-bird strike technology. The design of the Wing to Fuselage Fairing (WFF) – a complex metal and composite aerostructure – will prevent damage caused by a collision with birds. Denel Aviation also played a critical role in South Africa’s successful hosting of the 2010 Soccer World Cup by providing maintenance support to the deployed SAAF aircraft which patrolled the skies during the tournament.
Defence-inspired products can be found in the commercial and industrial sectors including the mining and automotive industries, law enforcement, civil aviation and retail sectors.
This industry also offers fertile ground for nurturing engineers, technicians and artisans, many of whom later add value to other industries in the commercial or industrial sector. Only a handful of nations can boast South Africa’s wind tunnel and mathematical modelling capabilities, and in-flight testing/certification with satellite launch telemetry-support capabilities, he says. Through these competencies and technologies the industry provides a measure of strategic independence for South Africa and directly ensures cost-effective lifecycle support of SANDF equipment and niche systems.
“Increasingly our products and services are winning global acclaim, and in a recent breakthrough we joined the international space community when subsidiary OTB concluded a five-year frame contract with the French Space Agency, CNES (Center National d’ Etides Spatiales) for the provision of telemetry launch-tracking support to future European space launches.
“Commanding one of the most cutting-edge technology domains in the world is something that South Africans can be proud of. Our Casspirs are the benchmark for the safe transportation of military personnel worldwide and the United Nation’s preferred mine protection vehicle while Denel subsidiary Mechem is the only UN-accredited agency in Africa for mine detection.
“We are also one of the only countries in the southern hemisphere with the technological know-how to build world-class missile systems such as the Umkhonto range of surface-to-air-missiles, the Mokopa air-to-ground missile and the Ingwe anti-tank guided missile as well as the ground-breaking R1-billion A-Darter air-to-air missile.
“South African technology is keeping some of the world’s top aircraft in the skies – we manufacture vital components for the Agusta, the helicopter of choice for, amongst others, the US Coast Guard and New York Police department and also manufacture vital components for the Gripen, one of the most sophisticated multi-role fighter aircraft flying anywhere in the world today.
“One of the biggest challenges in the industry is the skills shortage. We have adopted a cradle-to-grave approach to attract and retain skills within the group, in which bursaries, internships, Saturday schools and mentorship programmes are implemented. Through youth development programmes and open days, we are demonstrating to a much broader audience the contribution the defence sector is making to areas of primary concern to all South Africans such as job creation, quality education, economic investment and the utilisation of technology to improve the quality of life for all our people, Sadik says.