SAAF must get BVR capability to be relevant on the African continent


If the Southern African Development Community (SADC) as a region and South Africa as a country wish to be taken seriously on the continent, a Beyond Visual Range (BVR) capability must be introduced for the SA Air Force’s Gripen C/D fighters. Otherwise the Air Force has no chance to achieve air superiority in a given theatre, according to an Air Force official.

Presenting a paper at the South African Joint Air Defence Symposium (SAJADS) in Pretoria yesterday, Lieutenant Colonel Musa ‘Midnite’ Mbhokota, Officer Commanding 2 Squadron at AFB Makhado, explained that the SA Air Force (SAAF) did get a BVR capability with the Cheetah C in the 1990s, using the V4 R-Darter missile and using a fire control radar which could accommodate it.

However, in 2008, the BVR capability was lost, despite the V4 R-Darter missile being a Gripen User Requirement Specification (URS). There were apparently numerous reasons for eventually dropping the V4 missile from the Gripen package, but obsolescence was the main reason.

Following the government’s White Paper on National Defence (1996) the posture of the SAAF was not concentrated on the rest of the continent, but since then, things have changed. Although Colonel Mbhokota stressed that no African country was in any way threatening the SADC region, African air forces exist with BVR capabilities and as long as the SAAF does not have this, it would not stand a chance in a hypothetical conflict with such forces.

He said Exercise Lion Effort in Sweden had “proved, if you don’t have a BVR missile in a BVR environment, you are no factor”. Exercise Good Hope against the Germans, exercises against the Americans and the Belgians showed it was “clear that BVR is the weapon of choice if you want to have air superiority.”

African air forces equipped with BVR missiles included Uganda, equipped with 12 Sukhoi Su-30 Flanker H multi-role long range fighters. These are equipped with the Russian answer to the US AMRAAM BVR missile, the AA-12 Adder (Russian R-77). In addition, according to Russian doctrine, missiles should be fired in salvos of two, a radio-frequency (RF) homing missile and an infrared (IR) ‘heat-seeking’ missile. The Su-30 is a very large aircraft and could carry up to 12 BVR missiles, while the Gripen, even with BVR, could carry only four.

An earlier example of African BRV use was during the Ethiopian-Eritrean War (1998-2000) where Ethiopia obtained Sukhoi Su-27 Flankers and Eritrea received Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29s, both with BVR capability. In addition, Morocco flies the F-16 equipped with AMRAAMs while Egypt has the latest Block 52 F-16 with the more modern AIM-120C AMRAAM. In other words it is a fallacy to believe that advanced air forces are not to be found in Africa.

Of the SADC countries, Angola operates Su-27s, which could be “ramped up” to carry BVR missiles with the other potential BVR-capable country being South Africa.

Another problem, which Mbhokota described as a “step back”, was the ending of air-to-air refuelling in 2005. He said the SAAF’s Gripens had flown to the Central African Republic (CAR) with a refuelling stop in Ndola, Zambia. But, “before 2005, we would have gone to CAR directly and come back”.

Mbhokota said the answer was to obtain an “Off The Shelf” BVR missile while an indigenous version was developed in South Africa.

At present, the Gripen’s primary air-to-air weapon is the Diehl BGT Defence IRIS-T short range air-to-air missile. This was ordered in May 2008 pending the availability of the locally developed A-Darter short range weapon. The infrared-guided IRIS-T was acquired at a cost of R102 million and was accepted in Germany in March 2009.

The Denel Dynamics A-Darter will enter service in 2014. Since March 2007 the weapon has been under joint development by South Africa and Brazil’s Ministry of Defence and Air Force as well as Brazilian companies Mectron, Avibras and Opto Eletronica. It was first test fired on the Gripen on June 17, 2010, at the Overberg Test Range, and integrated onto the Gripen in July 2011. It is also being fitted to the SAAF’s Hawks and will be added to Brazil’s Northop F-5M and FX-2 future fighter. Estimated range is approximately 20 km,