Mariepskop SAAF radar site proving its worth 50 years on

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Mariepskop is a prime SA Air Force (SAAF) installation in Mpumalanga, formerly Eastern Transvaal, monitoring airspace for effective protection and utilisation which continues today 56 years after it was taken into service as 1 Satellite Radar Station.

The history and some of Mairiepskop’s highlights are set out by the SAAF Museum in its continuing efforts to appraise South Africans of what the airborne service of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) has achieved in more than 100 years of existence.

The Museum writes: “In November 1965, 1 Satellite Radar Station was officially opened and declared operational by then Prime Minister Dr Hendrik Verwoerd. He was flanked by the ministers of Defence, Jim Fouché; posts and communications, Albert Hertzog; Secretary for Defence, Vladimyr Steyn; Head of the SABC, Piet Meyer; Commandant-General of the SA Defence Force (SADF), General Rudolph Hiemstra and Chief of the air force, Lieutenant General Henry “Kalfie” Martin.

“Although the official operational date is recorded as November 1965, the country’s utilisation of airspace control radar system received closer attention in the aftermath of World War Two. In 1964, the Northern Air Defence Sector in Devon started testing an air defence system using mobile units at sites including Mariepskop, before permanent structures were erected. Prior to this, the focus was mostly on the defence or security of the country’s coastal economy.

“Following determination of national security requirements at the time, it was deduced radar systems would provide much needed security for the gold mines and the rich industrial complex in the triangle formed by Johannesburg, Vereeniging and Pretoria. Thus an effective air defence system was recognised as being essential to the defence of the country. Furthermore, it was a consensus that as a deterrent to a country’s potential or would-be enemies, radar systems would protect valuable investments and assets for the future.

“Geopolitics of the time, influenced mostly by the apartheid policies of the nationalist government, placed the country in a vulnerable state and possible surprise air attack from states to the north. Influenced by these and other future threats a decision was taken by the General Staff (today’s Defence Force Command Structure) “’to install a chain of radar stations along the common border of Transvaal and the countries of Mozambique, Rhodesia and Bechuanaland to provide early warning of aircraft penetrating Transvaal airspace’. This was code-named Project Natsec.

“Successful operation of the radars required suitable sites and the erection of communication networks to allow linkage between the radar site with Air Force Station (now Base) Waterkloof and each other. Following a map study and site selection, Mariepskop was identified as a suitable position to implement Project Natsec. Mariepskop presented a clear and uninterrupted radar view to the north and east of the Drakensberg.

“Mariepskop existed long before the SAAF navigated its way to the mountain top. There is a probability indigenous people lived there before the SAAF thought of building a domestic area. The name, Mariepskop, could have been influenced or informed by activities of the Chief of the Mapulana tribe, Chief Maripe Mashile who is believed to have used the mountain’s fastness for his defence. It could also be argued the SAAF chose the mountain for similar reasons as Chief Maripe. Whether Mariepskop, as we know it today, was named after Chief Maripe or not, poses as an interesting research study on its own.

“The map study was followed by a physical survey of the area. Major General (Captain at the time) Tom Cockbain and Corporal Bill Franke successfully negotiated their way to the tableland of the mountain. ‘We had to hack our way through indigenous forest choked with undergrowth to reach the rugged tableland on top of the mountain by a route which could accommodate a future road’. Two challenges were immediately identified. Firstly, ‘more modern radar technology than the SAAF possessed would have to be employed to meet the stringent conditions imposed by the strength of the reflections expected from the surrounding terrain’. Secondly and equally important, ‘a suitable all-weather access road to the site would have to be constructed”’

“Construction of the Rohrbeck road was a no mean feat. Provincial and civilian contractors declared the proposed construction to be unfeasible.

“Convinced it would work in November 1955, 1 Mobile Construction Flight from 100 Aerodrome Maintenance Squadron at AFB Waterkloof, under the stewardship of Warrant Officer 1 W.P.C. Rohrbeck started work. In February 1957, a 5km gravel road was completed and declared ready to accommodate a mobile radar and other communication equipment to be deployed on Mariepskop. A year into the construction of the road, Rohrbeck suffered a stroke and died in January 1959. In recognition of his efforts, leadership and willingness to see the job through the road was named after him. Rohrbeck road stretches 5km from the Mariepskop domestic area to the radar site.

“Mariepskop or GE/2, as the site then known, was purely a VHF site. After several tests and terrain trials with assistance from the CSIR team, permanent repeater stations were erected in the early 1960s. The geopolitics of the time demanded the SAAF source a radar capable of long range coverage with appropriate moving target indication capabilities.

“In late 1961, Rohrbeck road was extended to accommodate long vehicles and tankers providing logistical support. Soon after the SABC (SA Broadcasting Corporation) erected a TV broadcast station. 1 Air Defence Unit Detachment was the first to move in and man the station. Members lived in tents and occasionally made use of Department of Forestry buildings. Later, Public Works Department built a domestic area. By this time personnel stationed at the station numbered over 450, comprising permanent force, citizen force, national service, Atlas and civilians serving as fighter controllers, radar operators, technicians, weather, security, administration, messing, stores and medical personnel. Housing was mess accommodation, married quarters and houses.

“It was upgraded to a Sector Control Centre (SCC) in 1981 and renamed Lowveld Airspace Control Sector in August 1984. Colonel E.J. McCloskey was appointed as Officer Commanding in January 1989 and that August the unit moved to a new complex at AFB Hoedspruit with Mariepskop radar station becoming a reporting post for the SCC. AFB Hoedspruit complex was officially opened on 30 November 1990.

“On many occasions, unit objectives were realised with a number of unknown aircraft in the country’s airspace identified including the incidents of 1981 and 1986.

“On 8 July 1981, Lieutenant Adriano Bomba of the Mozambique Air Force flew his MiG 17 from Maputo to South Africa and was intercepted over the Kruger National Park by two Mirage F1AZs from 1 Squadron on a training exercise and instructed to land at AFB Hoedspruit. He requested political asylum and his aircraft was later returned to Mozambique.

“During the night of 19/20 October 1986, a duty radar operator detected an aircraft in the Lusaka/Maputo corridor and tracked it. North of Komatipoort, the contact disappeared from radar presumed to have descended before landing. Early in the morning, the unit was informed of an aircraft crash and helicopters were requested for casevac. The tragic truth was President Machel of Mozambique was on board. That same morning the unit compiled a preliminary report with the track datasheet for the Air Force Command Post (AFCP). The unit was subsequently instructed to compile track statistics for the previous year of all flights which had flown the same route.

“Another milestone for the Unit was the SAAF’s first Exercise Golden Eagle in August 1985, the first of many in which the air defence capabilities of the air force were tested.

“The historical mandate of Mariepskop has always been about providing ‘effective protection and policing of airspace, improved air safety by monitoring of airspace because of increased flying activity and an efficient use of the country’s airspace for military as well as civilian use. Accordingly, Mariepskop remains true and steadfast to its roots and is receptive to contemporary air defence monitoring.”