The South African Air Force’s miniscule airborne maritime capability has become even more miniscule, according to defence analyst Helmoed Römer Heitman.
This follows the tragic loss of the “Gooney Bird” C-47TP Turbo Dakota in the Drakensberg mountains in December, and the writing off (as a Category Five loss) of another C-47TP following a landing incident at Umtata airport in November.
Unofficial sources indicated there are now nine C-47s in the SAAF’s inventory. No official figures were available from the South African Air Force, despite repeated requests since mid-December, on the number of converted C-47 aircraft still in service at AFB Ysterplaat’s 35 Squadron. Five of these are configured for maritime patrol operations, two for transport, one as a transport/photographic platform and the remaining one set up for electronic warfare. According to the Squadron website it originally had 11 of the turbo power plant engined aircraft.
“Given they are old aircraft and with one more or less permanently assigned to anti-piracy operations in the Mozambique Channel, it would be fair to say the Squadron has at most five serviceable aircraft available to it at any one time,” Römer Heitman he said.
With general light cargo and other duties also assigned to 35 Squadron, Römer Heitman said maritime patrol capability was “never very big” in the SAAF.
“Now it has decreased even more and what was fairly limited has become even more so.”
This was echoed by Linden Birns of Plane Talking. The Cape Town-based aviation specialist said the unfortunate loss of two C-47TPs left the SAAF’s maritime operations area “even more exposed”.
“It’s not a good situation even with Navy ships on patrol duties. Aircraft are more agile and can allow for a speedier response if a threat arises, be it in terms of piracy, fish poaching or other maritime incidents.”
The need for an upgrade of the maritime capability of the SA National Defence Force’s airborne arm of service has long been a concern. The previous Chief of the Air Force, Lieutenant General Carlo Gagiano, indicated he would have been happy with six suitably configured King Airs to support this aspect of airborne operations.
“If I had such aircraft available I would have them deployed at various costal locations from where they could conduct maritime patrols, flown if necessary by SAAF Reserve pilots,” he told a media briefing at AFB Swartkop two years ago.
No aircraft, whether in the King Air category or bigger, such as the C295 as demonstrated to the SAAF for multi-role tasking last year, appear to be in the acquisition pipeline. Another potential contender is Lockheed-Martin’s C-130J Super Hercules, which will boost much-needed airlift capacity and can also be equipped for maritime surveillance and patrol duties as well as other taskings.