Airborne maritime surveillance will cost even if aircraft come for free – retired general


Last month members of the SA Air Force’s (SAAF) lone maritime patrol and reconnaissance squadron – 35 based at AFB Ysterplaat – had the opportunity to experience the capabilities of the Dornier 328, a modern maritime surveillance aircraft.

The squadron currently operates 70-year-old C-47 TP turbo Dakota aircraft which, although modernised from the original C-47 type, has maintenance related issues. The squadron also does not have the specialised maritime equipment or systems to be able to effectively perform its tasking, assisting with maritime protection in spheres such as piracy, illegal fishing and trafficking of arms, drugs and people among others.

The SAAF has a requirement for both maritime patrol and surveillance aircraft and this is made even more important when the Presidential Operation Phakisa initiative with its blue economy sector is taken into account. But, as with the majority of defence issues in South Africa, funding is the major obstacle.

Following the demonstration flight of the Dornier 328-100 and an offer by AeroRescue of Australia to operate five similar aircraft, all specialist maritime surveillance fitted, as an interim measure until the Department of Defence (DoD) finds funding for Project Metsi.

According to defenceWeb Cape Town correspondent, Dean Wingrin, the Dorniers can be operational in South Africa in a short period and, importantly, without capital budget costs.

When taken in the light of a retired SAAF general’s thinking on acquisition, operation and maintenance of specialist maritime patrol and/or reconnaissance aircraft it the Australian offer deserves a closer look.

He maintains buying the aircraft is not the problem – operating them is as he indicated on the Unofficial SAAF Website.
“To get a reasonable idea of what happens around the coast, the barest minimum would be to operate one aircraft on the west coast and one on the east coast at least every three days with an absolute minimum of four hours per aircraft per day. In a month that would be 10x2x4=80 hours per month or about a thousand hours a year.
“The $2 500/hour operating cost needs to be broken down to do a more scientific appreciation, but for the sake of argument let’s convert at R14 to the US Dollar, which would give R35 000/hour or an operating budget for one type of aircraft of R35 million per annum.
“This is the issue and as pointed out it is only for two aircraft every three days. If training of air and technical crews (including simulator training), squadron logistic infrastructure, deployment cost and various other cost line items are added, the squadron of five Dorniers could have an annual operating budget of about R50 million.
“35 Squadron has been running at less than R10 million a year for a significant number of years, so to up that budget with another R40 million, funds would have to be reallocated from the existing budgets of the Combat or Helicopter System Groups or out of the Transport and Maritime System Group. The latter would mean either less C130 or VIP hours.”

He points out air force strategic planners have been battling with exactly this issue for “many, many years” with the current bottom line being “there is no money in the operating budget to do maritime surveillance for at least R40 million a year, even if platforms are given to the SAAF for free”.