Archive: Is SA defenceless against air attack?


The arrival of the third and fourth Saab JAS39 Gripen D aircraft in SA follows a series of reports in the mass media that the premature retirement of the Cheetah fighter due to budget cuts had left SA defenceless against air attack.

Is SA defenceless against air attack?

August 17, 2008

The arrival of the third and fourth Saab JAS39 Gripen D aircraft in SA follows a series of reports in the mass media that the premature retirement of the Cheetah fighter due to budget cuts had left SA defenceless against air attack.

Last month, an anonymous author argued in, a sister to the Engineering News, that the retirement of the Denel Cheetah C & D on April 2 had left SA to face “the most severe crisis in Southern Africa in some 20 years – the Zimbabwe situation – without any fighter cover.”

The writer goes on to warn that “Zimbabwe has operational fighters and pilots of proven quality and relatively recent combat experience (in the Democratic Republic of Congo).”

Until recently it was thought the Cheetah would serve until at least 2010, when a drawdown would begin. The aircraft was to have been phased out in 2012, when the full Gripen fleet (26) would have been scheduled to have arrived. then quotes defence analyst and South African correspondent for Jane`s Defence Weekly Helmoed Heitman as saying the premature retirement of the Cheetahs was the result of a combination of a funding crunch and a shortage of air crew and ground crew.
“The SAAF asked for a threat assessment and intelligence told them there was no threat and it would be safe to retire the Cheetahs. Ultimately, the fault must lie with Cabinet, because they must have approved the decision.”

SA`s air defences currently rely on a handful of Thales Starstreak short-range air defence missiles and a few dozen 35mm anti-aircraft cannon – one of which suffered a mechanical fault last year that left nine soldiers dead and several more severely injured.

The Polity writer argues the SAAF`s only currently operational high-performance jets are its 24 Hawks. Other countries (including Zimbabwe) have successfully used Hawks in combat as fighter-bombers and, during the Cold War, both the Royal Air Force and the Finnish Air Force fitted their Hawks with infrared homing AAM as backup, ‘point defence` interceptors.
“But the Hawk is transonic, not supersonic, and has no radar, so it cannot carry long-range radar-guided AAMs. Moreover, the only weapon so far integrated onto the SAAF Hawks is a 30-mm cannon gun pod, and the current weapons integration programme is concerned with air-to-ground weapons, not air-to-air. So the Hawk cannot fill the gap.”


The Business Day had a similar report earlier this month. Writer Julius Baumann reported that not only were the two Gripens in SA not operational, but there were “no pilots qualified to fly the new aircraft.”
“Preparatory training for aircrew is due to begin only this month in Sweden, where the aircraft are manufactured. Flight training will begin in October this year with completion only in April next year,” Baumann added.

Better news was that Brigadier General Pierre du Plessis, the SAAF`s director of combat services, had confirmed to Business Day that “the air force did have enough pilots and technicians, though limited, to begin flying operations.”

Du Plessis also added that the Hawk trainer aircraft, “could be used in an operational capacity”, albeit only in the subsonic role and in low-threat scenarios. He declined to disclose the number of pilots rated to fly the Hawks.

Another worry articulated by Baumann was Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota confirming a continuing skills drain from the SAAF. In response to a question in Parliament by Freedom Front Plus MP Pieter Groenewald, Lekota confirmed “that overall the SAAF had lost 91 pilots and 822 technicians in the past three years.”

Groenewald is then quoted from a press release, also received by defenceTHINK that it was “clear that the air force is busy collapsing.” Groenewald is the conservative, pro-Afrikaner party`s defence spokesman and was for many years also a senior officer in the Reserve Force.  
“Apart from the concern about the pilots, the true crisis is the huge number of technicians which have been lost. Without technicians, aeroplanes cannot be maintained or flown. This is also one of the main reasons why the Cheetah fighter jets were phased out four years earlier than originally planned,” Groenewald says.


The Cape Argus and Pretoria News – both titles in the Independent group of newspapers yesterday picked up a similar refrain, concentrating on the SAAF budget, and amplifying earlier worries.  


It said that Lekota, in reply to parliamentary questions, “admitted that the budget allocated for the operating costs of the Hawk and the Gripen for the 2008/2009 financial year fell short by more than R75-million.”

To operate the Hawks and the Gripens the air force requires R254.4-million, but to date it has only received R178.5-million, the report – published without a byline – added. 

“The operating costs include those of operating the squadrons, fuel, maintenance, repair, ammunition and survival requirements. Added to this is the fact that of the 243 air and ground crew positions available for the aircraft programs, only 149 have been filled, with the Gripen programme being the worst affected. Twelve of its 19 pilot posts are vacant as are nearly half of its 111 ground crew positions.”

The report adds that the “admission” comes a week after the SAAF “admitted that a cash crisis had forced it to decommission the Cheetah fighter jets four years too early, rendering the air force nearly powerless to defend the country from an aerial attack.”

“SAAF chief Lieutenant-General Carlos [sic, Carlo] Gagiano last week said that because of funding “we had to close the Cheetah programme so that we could start the Gripen programme”.

“The bottom line is that our funding does not allow two systems to be operated simultaneous,” he said.


Assuming the above reports accurate, SA is indeed in potentially grave trouble. Gagiano has confirmed there is not enough money to operate the Gripen and Cheetah systems simultaneously, while many of the air and ground crew positions at 2 Squadron are vacant. This hardly matters, because there are only three aircraft and they will apparently not be operational until next year.  

The same may apply at 85 Combat Flying School that operate the Hawk. In any case, the Hawk should not be deployed in the air-to-air role       

Thus, to continue the refrain, SA will have to continue bending to the will of Zimbabwean bully Robert Mugabe or face Pretoria or Johannesburg being bombed by hardened veterans of his adventure in the DRC.


But hold a moment. To what extent is Zimbabwe a military threat to SA? What is meant by “pilots of proven quality and relatively recent combat experience”? Because of poor media access, the conflict in the DRC was equally badly reported. But as memory serves, the Zimbabwean Air Force (ZAF) flew bombing and other ground support missions. No air-to-air combat was ever reported. The ZAF`s skill at air combat is frankly not known, neither is their degree of training for what is a taxing business on both man and machine, as a reading of the US Air Force`s Red Flag and US Navy`s Top Gun programmes will show.

The Polity article seems to suggest that SA`s posture towards Zimbabwe, which has included favouritism to Mugabe at all levels for many years, is based on a form of aerial blackmail. No reading of public reports and documentation supports this view. Firstly, SA had the Cheetah in service until April. Were we undefended then? Secondly, SA`s behaviour seems based on the affinity its President, Thabo Mbeki, has for Mugabe, not fear.     

Then there are Heitman`s comments. If there is no objective military threat against the Republic, is there a need for fighter cover? Yes, and no. As argued elsewhere on these pages, there is always a possible military threat against SA.

It is our good fortune that the probability of any of these materialising any time soon are very low. But that is no excuse to be unprepared. SA has been caught with its pants down before. And the country has previously suffered from “guns or bread” debates of the type that has so soured discussion around the acquisition of the Gripen and Hawk.

Ironically, it was SA`s defence minister who in September 1938 argued that it should be bread rather than guns. Oswald Pirow argued in a debate on defence that in “spite of all its potential wealth, South Africa has much poverty and there is a definite upper limit to what the country is prepared to spend on defence.”

True. However exactly a year later a benign threat situation had turned decidedly malign. SA had declared war on Nazi Germany and had done so with a poorly armed Army, no Navy at all and an Air Force that had not one aircraft capable of besting the enemy`s standard fighter. Pirow had presumed if war came he would have six months to set things right. He was wrong. Within a month of September 1939 a German battleship was in SA waters and submarines too. And Britain was unable to sell SA fighters, needing all for her own defence. Ditto France, while the US, then neutral, could not sell to belligerents.            

Do we ever want to be in that position again?

The SAAF budget – as the defence budget – is clearly not enough. SA`s total annual military expenditure roughly equals last years` salary increase for teachers. But budget is a function of priority and Mbeki, like General Barry Hertzog, whom Pirow served, has other priorities. The military threat is low and so is Gagiano`s claim on the fiscus.

The figures in the Cape Argus/Pretoria News are also more alarming than they look. It is difficult to see why 2 Squadron should be fully staffed when they only have three aircraft or why the Gripen programme should have a full budget.

Is Gagiano making an unnecessary fuss? Well, no service chief is ever satisfied with his budget. In addition, tight budgets have bedevilled a range of air force development programmes, projects and attempts at skills retention. But this is always the case and is by no means a new problem or one limited to the SAAF at this time.              

Let us imagine, for a moment, a real threat suddenly arises. What can be done? Firstly, government would immediately make money available.

Secondly, the Gripen in the country can be rapidly operationalised. The aircraft comes with an internal cannon and the type is certified to fire the IRIS-T short-range AAM ordered by the SAAF. In an emergency other weapons already in the SAAF inventory may also be fitted. The SAAF has also been training Gripen pilots and ground crew since at least 2003. In addition, many technicians at the state owned Denel group have been schooled on the aircraft. Denel employs at least one Gripen-qualified test pilot and one of the Gripen`s design parameters is that it is both low maintenance and modular so that field maintenance is a semi-skilled activity. (In Sweden it is done by a skilled officer assisted by short-term conscripts.)

Then there is the Cheetah. Arms deal gadfly Richard Young makes much of the fact that the Cheetah C & D only entered service in 1997 and is therefore just “middle aged” at “11 to 15”. He argues the 38 aircraft has many years of life left. Assuming that is so and remembering that the aircraft were withdrawn from service, not handed to scrap merchants, in April, they remain available and can be brought back into service.

Ditto the pilots and ground crew. Many of them would have joined the Reserves or may have some form of residual obligation to return to the colours if summoned in an emergency. It is difficult to believe most would not do so voluntarily if their country, homes and families were threatened by a hostile force.     

It can thus be concluded that SA is not as vulnerable to an air threat – real or imagined – as may first appear. Unlike 1938, the basics are in place. Everything else can fall in place as the need arises.
Stilus Gladius Meus Est