Feature: SA Air Force facing tough times

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Earlier this month reports emerged that the majority of the South African Air Force’s (SAAF’s) C-130 Hercules transports are grounded due to maintenance problems. Maintenance is one of many issues facing the SAAF, and with the budget being tight this is not going to get better any time soon.

According to a Times Live report from early November, seven of the SAAF’s nine C-130s are grounded while the remaining two will only be able to keep flying for another couple of months before they require maintenance.

In addition to the grounding of the C-130s, Times Live reports that a technician recently dropped a C-130 engine onto test equipment and four refurbished engines have not been able to be refitted due to a lack of qualified technicians. Apparently Denel spent R50 million refurbishing the engines in the United States, which were redelivered to Air Force Base Waterkloof in March and May. Another problem exacerbating the C-130’s maintenance is that the Air Force’s engine testbed is not certified.

The SAAF’s maintenance, repair and overhaul capabilities were hit hard by the 2013 cancellation of the Denel Aero Manpower Group (AMG) maintenance contract. This saw hundreds of skilled technicians retrenched, as the contract was declared irregular by the Auditor General. Of the 530 technicians employed under the contract, 140 were retained to train their replacements but the last were laid off in April this year, forcing the SAAF to outsource a lot of its maintenance work.
28 Squadron’s nine C-130BZs will likely fly until around 2020, but since the cancellation of an order for eight Airbus A400Ms in 2009, there has been no talk of a replacement, meaning the SAAF will have to make do with the aircraft, some of which are many decades old.

The C-130BZs are the transport workhorses of the SAAF, with the type in service for half a century with 28 Squadron, the SAAF’s only dedicated medium lift transport unit. Examples of what the ageing, but willing, workhorses have achieved during their decades in service include delivering freight in support of Operation Copper, the counter-piracy tasking in the Mozambique Channel, as well as delivering materiel and much-needed equipment to the Central African Republic capital of Bangui in March 2013. The squadron also supports South African peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and a 28 Squadron aircraft was also tasked with a flight to Malta during the 2012 Arab spring uprising to bring home South Africans who fled diplomatic missions in North African countries.

However, the C-130s have payload/range and volume restrictions and are not available in sufficient numbers, forcing the SAAF to hire Ilyushin Il-76s and Antonov An-124s to move equipment to and from places like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria.

Denel Aviation, as the only Lockheed Martin certified C-130 maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) centre in Africa, does a lot of work for the SAAF, but the Air Force has also turned to other service providers such as Execujet Aviation Group, which is upgrading the SAAF’s King Airs with new avionics and engine modifications, amongst others. The SAAF has four King Airs in service.

The biggest threat facing the SAAF is not just a lack of maintenance and serviceable airframes, but a lack of funding in general. Treasury for the 2016/17 financial year allocated the Air Defence component of the South African National Defence Force R6.883 billion, which is R284 million less than the previous financial cycle.

Due to the reduction in budget, force employment flying hours are expected to drop to a planned 5 000 for the 2016/17 financial year, from a planned 6 500 the previous year (although only 4 785 were actually flown). This compares to 11 696 in 2012/13, for example.

Speaking in February, SAAF chief, Lieutenant General Fabian ‘Zakes’ Msimang, said “our chronic below global acceptable defence budget allocation levels will render us vulnerable, weak and undependable,” but “in an environment of high demands and obligations, we have accomplished our missions.”

Some of the SAAF’s focus areas for 2016, according to Msimang, include the Africa Aerospace and Defence Exhibition 2016; building Reserve Force capacity and reactivating the Reserve Force flying squadrons; foreign learning opportunities; restructuring the SAAF; chess programmes; youth outreach; and transformation.
“We have done well despite the unfavourable budget allocations. Equally, we remain committed towards the implementation of the Defence Review 2014 in spite of limited resource allocation,” Msimang said.
“Limited resource allocation” is indeed affecting the implementation of the 2014 Defence Review, especially as there is no accompanying funding model for it. The Review calls for the replacement of the C-130BZ fleet, increasing VIP transport, acquiring maritime reconnaissance and light transport aircraft, mobile and static radars, an airborne early warning capability, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), an in-flight refuelling capability, a military air ambulance capability and a deployable tactical air basing capability to support expeditionary operations. However, little funding has been made available for these projects although the Defence Review Implementation Project Team (DRIPT) is working on implementing recommendations that do not require much funding.

John Gibbs, who was a member of the Defence Review Committee, earlier this year warned that, “if there is not adequate and sufficient funding, the defence trajectory as set out in the Defence Review will not be reached and the consequences of that will be the continued decline of defence capabilities to the disadvantage of ordered commitments.”

DRIPT, he said, was focussing on 12 issues during the first year of Defence Review implementation, based on milestone one of arresting the decline in SANDF capabilities. This includes implementation of a costed plan for milestone one; defence capabilities developed and sustained; defence industry engagements established; defence facilities maintained; restructuring of the SANDF in terms of force design and structure; DoD human resource management; and establishing a Defence Academy.

One example of a lack of funding hurting the SAAF concerns the acquisition of light transport and maritime surveillance aircraft under Projects Metsi and Kiepie, but it seems this has fallen by the wayside as the 2016/17 defence budget vote makes no mention of new aircraft and the SAAF budget is almost unchanged for the next several years.

This leaves the SAAF to continue maritime surveillance flights with its dozen C-47TP aircraft and light transport with its four CASA 212s. Numerous aircraft have been offered to the SAAF to meet its maritime surveillance requirements, the most recent being Dornier 328s that would be leased from a consortium led by Atlantis Aviation and including Avex Air, AeroData and AeroRescue. Although demonstration flights were flown for the SAAF in September, it is not clear what progress has been made in this regard, but it is an alternative funding model that may be more feasible than an outright purchase.

Lack of budget has also affected the sharp end of the SAAF, with thirteen of the SAAF’s 26 Gripen fighter jets in rotational storage as the SAAF does not have the budget to fly them. A lack of qualified flight crew has not helped the situation, but to address the skills issue a number of 2 Squadron pilots are undergoing training in Russia and Cuba.

Although lack of funding has hurt the SAAF, there is budget for a few acquisitions. New Denel Dynamics A-Darter air-to-air missiles are being acquired for the Gripens and Hawks to replace the interim IRIS-T, with deliveries of operational missiles expected in 2017. The missile has also been bought by Brazil for its Gripen E/Fs.

Denel Dynamics last year also delivered an unknown number of Seeker 400 UAVs to the SANDF’s Defence Intelligence division and these have been offered as a contribution to the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC). Both Defence Intelligence and the SAAF are apparently hoping to operate the Seeker 400.

On the defence equipment side, the SAAF is seeking to replace some of its fixed and mobile radars under Project Chutney, with a Request for Information released last year and funding allocated for the 2018/19 financial year. At the moment the SAAF uses six Plessey AR3D Umlindi air defence radar systems (upgraded by Tellumat) and four Plessey Tactical Mobile Radar systems. Also regarding situational awareness, the SAAF is upgrading its Joint Air Reconnaissance Intelligence Centre (JARIC) with image analysis tools under Project Achilles.

Other equipment has been upgraded to keep it in service or improve performance, such as fitting the Caravan fleet with Argos 410-Z day/night reconnaissance turrets under Project Koiler, and upgrading 39 Oryx helicopters under Project Drummer to keep them in service until 2020. The final Oryx was handed over to the Air Force in September, concluding a lengthy and technically challenging programme that began in 2006. While there has been talk of acquiring a heavy lift helicopter for battlefield support in line with the Defence Review, little appears to have become of this plan.

After very good performance with the United Nations combating rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the SAAF’s 11 surviving Rooivalk attack helicopters may get an upgrade as well. Denel Aviation is talking about developing an enhanced Rooivalk for the SAAF that would introduce modern avionics and weapons and improve performance. Denel Aviation has brought back Rooivalk jigs and is seeking to rebuild the crashed example as a Rooivalk Mk II prototype.

In the meantime, the Rooivalk has fired Forges de Zeebrugge 70 mm laser guided rockets, Mokopa anti-tank missiles and been fitted with an Airbus Defence and Space Optronics Argos II airborne observation system. In September Airbus Helicopters and Denel Aviation signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in which they agreed to cooperate on a phased programme of enhancements for the Rooivalk helicopter.
“As part of the Rooivalk roadmap we developed, we will launch a market assessment and feasibility study into a modernised version of the Rooivalk incorporating enhanced operational capabilities. Our ultimate objective is to offer a South African product which will provide an attractive solution for potential export customers around the world,” said Mike Kgobe, CEO of Denel Aviation.

Secretary for Defence, Dr Sam Gulube, said discussions and negotiations were ongoing with potential African partners to both contribute to actual manufacture of Rooivalk Mk II and potential users. “We are looking at about 60 or so aircraft to be used by African air forces as well as their possible sale to BRICS partners, Brazil and India.”

While the SAAF is keen to get an upgraded Rooivalk, it seems that production of the Rooivalk Mk II would only proceed if sufficient export orders are achieved. In the more than 20 years since the Rooivalk first flew, no export orders have been placed, but now that the fleet has been upgraded and performed well in the DRC, this may change.

An area where many feel the SAAF is being dragged down is VIP transport, with much effort and money going towards flying VIPs and leasing VIP aircraft. Tens of millions of rands are spent on chartering VIP aircraft every year – for example, between 2009 and 2012 the SAAF spent R76 million chartering 55 VIP flights while its own aircraft flew 814 VIP flights in that period at a cost of R217 million. During the 2015/2016 financial year, the Air Force flew 893 hours for VIP flights, according to the Department of Defence.

The SAAF’s VIP 21 Squadron flies a Boeing Business Jet (BBJ – Inkwazi) acquired in 2003, two 1980s era Falcon 50s, a 24-year old Falcon 900B, and two 34-year old Cessna Citations, but these are often deemed insufficient and aircraft are leased – especially when aircraft are down for maintenance, although President Jacob Zuma seems reluctant to use the BBJ. (At the moment the Citations are apparently grounded.)

The government is attempting to acquire new VIP aircraft but with at least four abortive attempts since 2011, it is not clear if this will ever go ahead. In October 2015 Armscor issued a Request for Information for the acquisition of an ‘intercontinental air transport system’ with a closing date of 20 November, but on 22 April Armscor issued a tender for the wet lease of an intercontinental VIP aircraft for at least 12 months. This was subsequently cancelled as none of the bids were suitable. This week defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said the acquisition of a new VIP aircraft was still on the table and the Defence Council had decided the process for “a full acquisition” should proceed.



In spite of budget cuts, VIP remains an important function of the SAAF and it has been reported that 20% of SAAF flight hours go to VIP flights. There have been calls by experts and commentators for the VIP airlift function of the SAAF to be transferred to the Presidency so the SAAF can focus on its job of defending and protecting South Africa and its people. This involves supporting peacekeeping operations outside the country, contributing to anti-piracy operations, disaster relief, search and rescue, logistic support and border safeguarding. With the lack of funding threatening to turn the SAAF into what is jokingly referred to as the South African Grounded Force, the SAAF needs every cent it can get and reprioritising its mandate to exclude VIP flights could be one step in the right direction.