Some of the South African Air Force’s fleet of 26 Saab Gripen fighter jets will not be placed in storage but will rather be flown on a rotational basis, according to an Air Force official. Earlier this year it was reported that 12 Gripens had been placed in storage as there was not enough money, nor pilots, to fly them.
South African Air Force (SAAF) Director of Combat Systems, Brigadier General John Bayne, last week told the Seriti commission investigation allegations of impropriety into the multibillion rand arms deal that no Gripens, or Hawk fighter-trainers, had been placed in long-term storage as it would be too expensive to reactivate them.
Bayne said the SAAF’s 2 Squadron at Air Force Base Makhado would fly the Gripen fleet in rotation instead, with some aircraft being put in short-term storage between flying cycles in order to minimise the risk of corrosion. Flying hours would thus be spread evenly across the entire Gripen fleet.
In March this year defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula stated that “The South African Air Force (SAAF) has 12 Gripen Fighter Aircraft placed in long-term storage. These aircraft are placed in a storage as a planned activity in line with their utilization and budget expenditure patterns/flow of SAAF.”
However, last month Mapisa-Nqakula said that no Gripens or Hawks were in storage. Bayne said this was because after consulting with Saab, it was decided to rather rotate the aircraft to ensure they all get a chance to fly.
Already in 2010 there was great concern that a lack of money would ground the Gripen. Then-defence minister Lindiwe Sisulu warned that the Gripens could be mothballed if the military failed to get hold of extra funding. The Department of Defence annual report released in 2010 warned that “Combined with the recent funding cuts for the medium-term expenditure framework period, the air force will only be able to sustain the Hawk system.”
“Funding is a reality we have to live with, but we have had good years to fly sufficient hours, such as in 2010 [for the Soccer World Cup], and particularly for the training purpose using the Hawks,” Bayne said at the arms deal commission. “Knowing the 2013-14 financial year would be very challenging, funding-wise, the SAAF did in advance prepare for and put in place austerity measures in the [Gripen] combat fleet which included fleet reductions.”
Bayne defended the Gripen buy, saying the aircraft “has exceeded the SAAF’s and SA National Defence Force’s expectations, especially in the domain of modern, fourth generation integrated systems, deployability, logistics support, and reach.”
“Should the security environment change to one of conflict, then the utilisation of the systems will change as and when required to defend and protect the Republic in line with the constitutional mandate,” Bayne said. “In these times of a security situation, the situation is managed as best as possible.”
At the moment the combat fleet is taking a back seat as focus is fixed on transport aircraft, especially due to their support of combat operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Africa’s other peacekeeping commitments elsewhere on the continent.
This is more understandable given the cash-strapped nature of the SAAF and the fact that it cost approximately R135 400 an hour to fly a Gripen, and R82 900 an hour to fly a Hawk, according to Bayne. He said the “dry costs” (without fuel) for a Gripen were R104 600 per flying hour and fuel cost R30 800, giving a total “wet cost” of R135 400. Hawks fly at a dry cost of R67 500, with fuel costs of R15 400 and a total cost of R82 900.
The lack of money for the Gripens has also affected flying hours and pilot training. In April 2011 then-chief of the Air Force Lieutenant General Carlo Gagiano said the Air Force was not going to fly the required number of hours due to a lack of funding and in its 2010/2011 report, the Department of Defence said that due to underfunding, the number of flight hours per Gripen aircrew member was reduced from 224 to 110 per year.
Bayne said the Gripen fleet has flown 3 500 hours since 2008 while the 24-strong Hawk fleet has flown over 10 000 major accident-free hours since 2005. According to testimony at the arms deal commission, 18 Gripen aircrew (navigators and pilots) have been trained up to operational status to date and 52 Hawk aircrew have been trained so far.