Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Lindiwe Sisulu says she is fighting for an increase in the defence budget but as it requires public support and Treasury buy-in it may take some time. She made the comment to journalists after the first visit by a defence minister to Air Force Base Makhado since the base was established in 1987.
Sisulu yesterday afternoon told airmen and other military personnel based at the nation’s main fighter base that she was visiting defence facilities countrywide to familiarise herself with the working and living conditions of the armed forces, the improvement of which she says is a high priority. She spent about two and a half hours – up from a scheduled 30 minutes – fielding question from base staff in a packed sports centre.
“Put yourself in their position,” she afterwards said,” this base has been in existence for 36 years [sic] and its the first time they’ve had the minister talk face to face with them. So, the issues ranged from very personal – “my rank, I’ve never been promoted’, salaries, facilities, doctors, a whole rane of things. But the good thing about it is it gave me a sense of what are the issues, the day-to-day isues that our soldiers are grappling with.”
“We gave them space. Most of the issues they raise were domestic issues and we agreed to take note of some of their concerns and come back with very firm answers to those issues; and we asked them to give a commitment to keep giving their best because we regard them as the cream of our skills base in South Africa. I think we had an extremely good discussion.”
AFB Makhado is home to 85 Combat Flying School equipped with 24 new BAE Systems Hawk Mk120 lead-in fighter-trainers and 2 Squadron, the “Flying Cheetahs”, who operate the Saab Gripen C and D light fighter aircraft. To date all nine two-seater D’s and the first two of 17 single-seater C’s have been delivered. A further four C’s are currently on their way to SA and will be in the skies by June.
Budget cuts and underfunding has reduced flying hours for the Hawk to just 2000 and that for the Gripen to 500 per year. Defence analyst Helmoed-Römer Heitman last month described the SAAF’s flying hours as ludicrous. He noted NATO nations required fighter pilots to log 20 flight hours per month (240 flight hours per year per fighter pilot) to remain qualified. Air Force chief Lieutenant General Carlo Gagiano recently said the Hawk fleet and its pilots needed at least 4000 hours in the air. The defence department’s strategic business plan for 2010-2013 puts planned Gripen flight hours for the fleet at 500 for the current financial year and just 250 for financial years 2011/2 and 2012/3. This translated to 9.6 flying hours per aircraft per year for 2011 and 2012. A DoD briefing to Parliament last month put the optimal number of hours at 1120. Acting air force chief Major General “Lucky” Ngema yesterday stressed that job satisfaction for most pilots involved a maximum of flying. The less flying time available, the harder it is to retain pilots and the more vulnerable they are poaching.
Sisulu agreed with the contention that the military was seriously underfunded, but did not give figures. The DoD annual report for 2008 suggested a defence budget of around R41 billion was required to crate a credible defence force by 2030. This year’s budget has been cut to R30 billion from R32 billion. The DoD last month avered it was underfunded by at least R7.335 billion for the financial year that began this month. Speaking to reporters at Makhado she said the SANDF would have to live with that shortfall this year. She said underfunding was a concern “but we are also understanding that within the cake that is available for this year we may not get any more than what we already have, but we are hoping that perhaps next year we might have a better response to some of our requests [to Treasury] because we really are extremely underfunded.
Asked about the paucity of flying hours and what could be done about it this year, Sisulu said “we are looking at a number of strategies to see how we can protect the money we already have in our own budget to ensure we can cover operational costs because those are operational and they have to be found somewhere and at the same time try to get a better slice of the budget … but obviously this is not something we would like to debate [through the media] but it is something we will be raising in our budget vote [on May 4].