Atlantis demonstrates interim maritime surveillance solution to the SAAF


Further details regarding the offer to lease up to five maritime surveillance aircraft to the South African Air Force (SAAF) by a consortium led by Atlantis Aviation were revealed when the aircraft was demonstrated to members of 35 Squadron.

Following the display of the Dornier 328 aircraft at the Africa Aerospace and Defence exhibition at AFB Waterkloof earlier this month, the aircraft was flown to Cape Town where defenceWeb accompanied members of the SAAF’s sole maritime surveillance squadron on a demonstration flight to show the capabilities of a modern maritime surveillance aircraft.

Arising out of the latest Defence Review, the SAAF has a requirement for both a maritime patrol and a surveillance aircraft under Project Metsi/Kiepie. However, the defence budget for the next few years makes no provision for new aircraft and it will take three to five years from go-ahead for a new aircraft to be delivered and placed into service. Until that happens, 35 Squadron will be forced to continue using 70 year old C-47TP Turbo Dakota aircraft. Although modernised, the Dakota does not possess specialised maritime equipment or systems. The Dakota is also suffering from maintenance related issues.

Hence, the Atlantis consortium is offering five specialist maritime surveillance aircraft that, Atlantis says, can be operational in a short period without capital budget cost and can be used as an interim measure until Project Metsi is operational.

The aircraft offered by the consortium is the Dornier 328-100 (Mod 20) operated by AeroRescue of Australia on behalf of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA). The ten year contract with AMSA for search and rescue services is progressively tailing off as the new tenderer is utilising the longer ranged Challenger 604.

Apart from Atlantis, which act as Project Managers, the consortium includes South Africa’s Avex Air (providing maintenance), AeroData of Germany (sensors and equipment) and AeroRescue (the current aircraft owners, providing search and rescue services for Australia). The South African companies would own 51% of the new company which will take over ownership of the aircraft from AeroRescue.

The Dorniers are currently equipped with a second-generation STAR Safire III IR/digital TV FLIR electro-optical ball and the IAI-Elta EL/M-2022(V)3 multi-mode search radar. This radar, which is rumoured to have been fitted to the SAAF’s Cheetah C fighter prior to being replaced by the Gripen, has been optimised for small contacts in high sea states. Besides various search, navigation, weather, air-to-air and moving target modes, it is capable of Spot-SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) and Strip map SAR mapping capability. The ISAR (Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar) and Circular Synthetic Aperture Radar (CSAR) capabilities allow crew members to view a 3D picture at long distances from the target.

Other systems include digital satellite communication, enhanced navigation and AIS transponders fully integrated into an AeroData Mission Management System that allows for data transfer and full digital recording of all mission data, voice, video and data for a comprehensive evidence trail.

The airframe itself has been modified to incorporate large observer windows, an operator console and an airdrop capability. The modified inflight opening door can dispatch life rafts, self-locating datum marker buoys (SLDMB) and a variety of other containers stocked with food, water, medical supplies and communications equipment.

Gordon Blackbeard, Chairman of Atlantis, said that they were originally “looking at a very cheap and cheerful interim solution” based on the King Air 350ER. Despite the SAAF already operating earlier versions of the King Air, Atlantis felt that the good range of the King Air was offset by the lack of crew comfort and limited stores carriage capability.
“Then we had the opportunity of these Dornier 328s becoming available,” Blackbeard explained, “providing an interim solution to serve the Marine Spatial Planning outlined in Operation Phakisa’s Marine Protection Services and Ocean Governance.”

Besides the traditional maritime surveillance role provided by the SAAF, allowing the SAAF and SA Navy to cover both the Mozambique Channel, East and West coasts, it also provides the SANDF with a land and border surveillance capability, utilising the onboard IR sensors.

Blackbeard also sees the aircraft fitting the needs of other diverse government departments and agencies. These include the Department of Transport (responsible for the monitoring of sea lanes in and out of South Africa), the Department of Environmental Affairs (following a pollution incident at sea), the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) which is responsible for the safety of shipping lanes, vessels and the combating of pollution, and the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

In support of the aforementioned agencies, two of the Dornier aircraft are fitted with IR/UV Line Scanner systems, capable of detecting oil slicks. The aircraft can also provide top-cover incident control and coordination in response to an incident at sea.

Equipped with an Auxiliary Power Unit (APU), the aircraft are capable of landing on gravel runways and have operated in the past out of austere airfields for up to three weeks at a time. “This,” Blackbeard says, “is important if you want to support SADC countries as well.”

Armscor has already requested a proposal based on a lease period of five years, with extension.
“We have ten years of information, so we know the running costs of the aircraft very, very well,” said Matthew Butler, Deputy General Manager of Aviation Management, a sister company of AeroRescue.

The offer will likely consist of a fixed lease portion and a rate per flying hour. Blackbeard notes that the fully-equipped Dorniers can be delivered to South Africa at a third of the price of the cheapest new-build Project Metsi contender.

Should South Africa opt for the Dorniers, the first aircraft will be available for duty within four months. The remaining four units will become available progressively from end of February 2017 until July 2017.

Prior to delivery, the aircraft will return to Germany where they will undergo a mid-life upgrade. The mission system will be upgraded with a new computer and software, including the replacement of the second-generation FLIR with a fourth generation system. It is likely that the Link-ZA tactical data link system would be installed to ensure interoperability between SANDF aircraft, ships and units on the ground.

During this period, the air and ground crews will be trained by AeroRescue, who operate their aircraft with a five-person crew, consisting of two pilots, an Aircraft Mission Coordinator and two Observers.

The course for the Air Search/Observer/Dropmaster will take four weeks, whilst the Aircraft Mission Coordinator (the operator of the mission management system and sensors) course will take eight weeks. The cockpit crew will undergo flight simulator training overseas.

Avex would provide local support of the airframe. Avex, which supports six similar passenger aircraft at their base in Johannesburg, is certified as an Approved Maintenance Organisation (AMO) by the South African Civil Aviation Authority and already has access to a large stock of spares. SAAF technicians would be trained by Avex to perform Levels 1 to 3 maintenance, with Level 4 going to Avex. It is possible that Avex would also second one or two technicians (airframe and avionics) to each base where the Dorniers would be operated.

Not only is the consortium willing to provide airframes and training, they would also hand over ten years’ worth of intellectual property, such as Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), mission profiles, techniques, etc. This would allow the SAAF to become familiar with modern maritime surveillance philosophies which, Blackbeard comments, the SAAF has not been able to conduct since the Shackleton aircraft ceased operation in November 1984.

As Blackbeard said, “That’s something you just won’t get from an aircraft manufacturer. That’s a key point. We’re not just selling nuts and bolts, computers and so on. It’s the experience.”

As for the budget, the cross-agency functionality of the system may allow funding to operate the aircraft to be accessed from the budget for Operation Phakisa.

Butler summarises that their solution is not just an aircraft solution. “It’s a proven platform with ten years’ experience which we’re prepared to hand over,” he says. “That’s something which our competitors, who are simply manufacturers of aircraft and systems, don’t have. We’ll be here for another twelve months, providing that experience and training and getting the capability up and running. We believe this would be a highly suitable platform as an interim solution for South Africa to meet its maritime surveillance needs.”
“We’re very lucky to find that the AeroRescue aircraft were coming off task,” Blackbeard concluded, “(but) this offering is available on a first come, first served basis.”