A million rand a shot


The SA Army will make history next week when its air defence artillery lets fly with missiles.Barely two weeks after a shooting disaster left nine trainee soldiers dead and 15 more maimed, the SA Army`s Air Defence Artillery Corps will make history when its gunners fire an anti-aircraft missile for the first time.

The Thales Starstreak costs about R1 million per missile and forms part of an R801 million contract placed with state arms maker Denel in 2002.

The Starstreak is a shoulder-launched missile that forms part of the Sable ground-based air defence system that consists of missiles, cannon and radar connected to each other via a computer-based wireless command-and-control system.

The air defence artillery has, to date, relied on cannon, one of which malfunctioned during a shooting exercise earlier this month. In the aftermath of the incident, it was suggested the accident may have been caused, at least in part, by a software glitch. Later comments by defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota seemingly discounted that possibility. The causes of the disaster are still under investigation.

While the Army`s air defence guns` controls have only recently become software-enabled, Starstreak and Sable are entirely software-driven.

The missile firings at Denel`s Overberg test range will start next Monday and end on Wednesday. They will serve to operationally qualify the Army`s first eight Starstreak operators and prepare them for the Sable`s final operational test and evaluation in 2009.

Overshooting deadlines

The missile age started 60 years ago, but an international arms embargo and other priorities combined to delay its advent in ground-based air defence.

Starstreak was designed to counter low-flying high-performance aircraft and helicopters. It employs semi-automatic command line of sight guidance consisting of a stabilised tracking system and an automatic guidance system.

While the operator tracks the target using the stabilised tracking system, a laser beam for missile guidance is transmitted along the target sight line. The system compensates for crosswinds and low-level targets and a lead-angle is automatically generated to launch the missile ahead of crossing targets.

In its simplest form, Starburst is a man-portable, shoulder-launched system consisting of an aiming unit and a missile. The missile is contained in a canister that acts as a recoilless launcher when firing takes place. The aiming unit is clipped on to the canister and together they provide the firing and guidance control for the missile. At the end of the engagement, the aiming unit is quickly detached, the used canister discarded and a new canister fitted for the next engagement. The system can be operated by a single person. However, a second person reduces reaction time.

The Army`s arms acquisitions agency, Armscor, in March told Parliament that when finally delivered at the end of November 2009, the project would be 54 months over deadline.

Armscor told MPs the project was extensively delayed by problems with subcontracts with local suppliers, by challenges in translating systems specifications and by design shortcomings affecting the thermal imager, radar power supply and radio interface module. As a result, Denel would have to pay a R80 million penalty.

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