Not one of the SA Air Force’s (SAAF) 18 Agusta A109 helicopters is currently flying because there are no funds to use them operationally, the Afrikaans daily Beeld reports.
Such funding as there is is used to start the engines on the light utility helicopters from time to time but the rotorcraft don’t take-off.
This boils down to helicopter flight crews and the rotary-winged aircraft not retaining current status for flying missions and sorties.
Along with the mothballing of 12 Gripen fighters as well as the under-utilisation of the remaining 14, this means a second aircraft type obtained as part of the Strategic Defence Acquisition Package are not being used, according to the paper’s specialist defence writer Erika Gibson.
The situation is fast reaching the critical stage, according to confidential documentation on SAAF helicopter operations.
An across the board budget cut of 60% for helicopter operations has led to an “amputation” of SAAF work nationally, a senior officer told the newspaper.
The same productivity is expected, which is almost impossible when taking into account the loss of technicians at various squadrons. The technicians were retrenched earlier this year when the Air Force did not renew a maintenance contract with AMG, a division of Denel Aviation.
This has also negatively influenced availability of the workhorse Oryx medium transport helicopter. During the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup there were at least 30 Oryxes serviceable daily. Indications are possibly 13 can now become airborne daily.
The current defence budget allocates just 71 flying hours for the year to the light utility helicopters. Making matters worse is acquisition of A109 spares has been halted, also due to financial constraints. This is also given as the reason for stopping the last helicopter pupil pilot course.
Another helicopter type operated by the SAAF – the Eurocopter BK-117 – has also fallen foul of budget cuts. All six are based in Port Elizabeth and face an uncertain future because of the apparent cancellation of a maintenance contract. This has been renewed following protracted negotiations but availability is currently reckoned at two a day.
The BK-117s were earmarked to take over from the A109s in the ongoing anti-rhino poaching operation in the Kruger National Park following a crash that saw five SA National Defence Force (SANDF) personnel killed. The low level of aircraft availability has put paid to this.
Military analyst Helmoed-Romer Heitman was scathing in his response.
“The Air Force, as with the entire SANDF is suffering as a result of government’s inability to decide what it wants from its military.
“An air force without fighters is a dead duck in the African military context. A defence force without helicopters and transport aircraft is a dinosaur in a swamp. An army without attack and transport helicopters is a lame duck and a navy without maritime helicopters and maritime patrol aircraft is blind,” was how the Defence Review Committee member reacted to the A-109 grounding coupled with other current equipment shortcomings in the SANDF.
The SAAF did not respond to the newspapers when asked for comment. defenceWeb has had the same lack of response from the airborne arm of the SANDF since Lieutenant General Zakes Msimang took over command late last year.
Enquiries routed via SANDF Corporate Communications suffer the same fate. A telephonic enquiry to DCC SSO Captain (SAN) Prince Tshabalala about the SAAF’s lack of response to media questions drew this response: “We forward it to them for action and if they don’t answer, it appears they don’t want to”.