It could be termed “a call to action” or even a friendly warning but the meaning is clear – unless those tasked with planning for the equipment needs of the SA Air Force (SAAF) don’t start now, the country is going to find itself grounded when it comes to airlift.
The SAAF maintains it can operate its ageing fleet of C-130BZ Hercules until 2020 but this doesn’t mean work on replacing these venerable workhorses shouldn’t start now. This is the view of Dennys Plessas, Lockheed Martin Vice President Business Development Initiatives, Europe, Middle East and Africa.
“A start has to be made on planning to replace the BZs,” he told journalists in Pretoria this week.
He acknowledged the South African defence budget, in common with many western countries, was under “extreme stress”. He noted that at a cost of between R693 and R780 million for the basic aircraft, it would be better to look at acquisition “sooner rather than later”.
With timeframes for delivery of up to five years from the date of initial contractual agreement to acquire new aircraft, this certainly makes sense. Plessas pointed out that fine-tuning of contracts and all documentation could take up to a year.
“When this, along with actual build time, fitting of customer specific requirements and testing is taken into account, there is not really too much time left for the SAAF to start serious work on the C-130BZ replacements.”
The SAAF C-130s are operated by 28 Squadron at AFB Waterkloof and this year notch up a remarkable 50 years of service. This Plessas sees as not only a tribute to the flying and maintenance skills of the SAAF and the maintenance and repair abilities of Denel Aviation but also the ruggedness of the aircraft.
“It has proven itself as a willing workhorse all over the world and has, over the years, been adapted to any number of missions.”
It’s origin as a pure airlifter has been boosted by the addition of mission capabilities including air-to-air refuelling, VIP passenger transport, firefighting, maritime patrol and reconnaissance, paradropping and even an armed version.
Airlift and maritime patrol are two red light areas of operation facing the SAAF and Plessas believes the C-130J can do these jobs as well as others.
“This would eliminate the need to acquire extra platforms and because the SAAF is a long-time user of the C-130, at least half the infrastructure needed for new Lockheed Martin platforms is already in place. I see an almost seamless transition to the C-130J if the planners decide it is the most suitable platform.”
This was further borne out by William Swearengen, Air Mobility Systems Studies Principal at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics.
He and his team have completed a number of studies pertaining to the use of the C-130J by the SAAF. These include maritime patrols and air-to-air refuelling.
Working from AFB Waterkloof, the new generation airlifters, when suitably equipped, could refuel 2 Squadron Gripens on sorties across the continent. They could also provide full coverage, using a single aircraft, of South Africa’s exclusive economic zone and its priority fishing areas also from Waterkloof, obviating the need to duplicate facilities for maintenance at either AFB Ysterplaat or Port Elizabeth.
These studies show the latest generation Hercules will be a true multi-mission platform and when the possible inclusion of high-tech passenger capsules is added, the C-130J can be tasked in yet another area of operations the SAAF is battling to fill adequately.
Both Plessas and Swearengen point out the modular system of roll-on/roll-off components for different missions do not all have to be done at once.
“These are all already in service and development costs have been paid by the US Air Force. This means no extra cost and with all the necessary fitment options already on the C-130J they can be acquired as need and finance dictate adding more value to the multi-mission role of the aircraft,” they said.
28 Squadron has nine C-130BZs on its inventory to fulfil tasks ranging from logistic support for SA National Defence Force continental peacekeeping and peace support operations, humanitarian operations, support to the landward force, and general airlift. Indications are three, at most four, aircraft are airworthy at any given time.
The C-130BZs were scheduled to be replaced by Airbus’ new generation A400M airlifter, but this order was cancelled due to delays in production, and cost escalations. A deposit of R3.5 billion, paid to Airbus as a risk taking partner in the A400M programme, has been refunded to government but has not been allocated to aircraft acquisition. Indications are at least part of the refund went to the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Programme.
Picture: Frans Dely/Lockheed Martin