Stretched SAAF maritime capability faces increased workload


The SA Air Force (SAAF) has only one squadron dedicated to maritime patrol and reconnaissance and it currently has seven aircraft on strength.

AFB Ysterplaat in Cape Town is home to 35 Squadron and its C-47TP. From here the squadron has been as far afield as Pemba in Mozambique on extended deployment to support the Operation Copper counter-piracy tasking where the Navy has the lead.

This has been reviewed and Pemba will no longer serve as temporary home base for the Squadron. According to SANDF Joint Operations the Mozambican port city will be replaced by either AFB Waterkloof or Richards Bay as temporary base for the aircraft and its air- and ground-crew tasked with aerial anti-piracy work.

The 35 Squadron aircraft are all C-47TP’s, which were converted under Project Felstone starting in 1989. The SAAF has had C-47s in service for more than 60 years when the turbo conversion is taken into account.

A retired senior air force officer said the project originally saw the conversion of more than 40 C-47 airframes to the turbodak configuration. “It was a difficult project for many reasons and eventually concluded with 34 being the only C-47TP operator with 12 airframes: five transport, five maritime, one electronic warfare and one photo reconnaissance,” he said.
35‘s aircraft are currently two transport, four maritime patrol and one electronic warfare.

With the squadron’s maritime role set to increase as the ocean economy sector of Project Phakisa moves along there is going to be an increasing demand for maritime patrol to keep a watchful eye on ocean-bound resources ranging from protein (fish) through to energy (gas).

The Ysterplaat squadron is going be hard-pressed to keep abreast of demands for its specialist service once Phakisa gets into high gear, bearing in mind marine protection and governance is a specific component of the project.

Aircraft will be used to patrol South Africa’s economic exclusion zone (EEZ) already a problem for the C-47TPs. While they are deemed maritime patrol aircraft they are restricted to a distance of 150 nautical miles from shore and a five hour endurance does not make them any sort of deep water aerial capability, the retired senior SAAF officer said.

Any distance further than 150 nautical miles offshore that has to be patrolled will see 28 Squadron and its C-130BZs called into operation as aerial platforms for maritime duties. That pool of aircraft is also limited to seven and logistic demands mean there is often no airframe available for other duties.

Talks about replacing the 35 Squadron aircraft have been around for some time now with the latest indications being the possible acquisition of C-295s for maritime patrol. Lockheed Martin is also keen on offering its C-130J to the SAAF as a multi-role aircraft, which would include maritime patrol and reconnaissance as well as its primary airlift job.

It is not known whether any developmental work was done on a suggestion made by immediate past air force chief, Carlo Gagiano. He told a briefing at AFB Zwartkop ahead of an Air Force Day parade some years ago that KingAirs could be “well utilised” in the maritime domain. He envisaged a fleet of six or seven of the twin-engined aircraft, fitted with the right equipment, based at airports and air forces bases along the coast and flown by Reserve Force pilots as a way of providing some much needed capability to this area of SAAF operations.