William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

SAAF: From fighting force to flying farce

South Africa is to deploy three Rooivalk (Afrikaans for kestrel) to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in support of the United Nations Intervention Brigade. Three helicopters. That might not sound a big deal, but it’s a rare bit of good news for an air force nosediving towards catastrophe.

Dating to the 1980s and the international arms embargo against South Africa, the Rooivalk is widely viewed as one of the best attack helicopters around. But only 12 have been built and it cost more than $1-billion in development and manufacturing. In comparison, the air component of the controversial 1999 arms deal was worth $2.2-billion, and that bought 26 Gripen fighters and 24 Hawk fighter-trainers.

Not only is the UN giving the Rooivalk its first battleground test, but crucially for the South African Air Force (SAAF), it is also paying to do so. All deployment costs, including fuel and ammunition, are borne by the UN.

That’s an unexpected bonanza because the SAAF can’t afford much actual flying and fighting. A dozen of those Gripens are now mothballed because the SAAF has neither the money to fuel them, nor the aircrew to fly them.

The SAAF’s budgets are so strained that its pilots struggle to clock the flying hours needed to keep their ratings current. There are only six pilots qualified to fly the Gripens and they clock barely a tenth of the 250 annual hours each, which European militaries consider the minimum necessary.

Most of the SAAF’s 30-strong light helicopter fleet is grounded because of the “almost total lack of flying-hour allocation”, according to the authoritative Defenceweb site. Defenceweb writes that this “precarious financial and personnel situation” also led to the humiliation of the SAAF managing to keep its specialist maritime helicopters aloft for fewer than a dozen hours, during last month’s joint peacekeeping exercise with United States in the Eastern Cape.

Nor can the SAAF afford to keep its elite aerobatic team, the Silver Falcons, in the air. They have flown only twice this year and their lead pilot recently packed it in, to fly for a commercial airline.

Some of the SAAF’s problem is the apparently insatiable demand for VIP flights from African National Congress politicians. Last week Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula refused to cost the leisure flights of the president and the deputy-president on “security grounds”.

However, David Maynier, the Democratic Alliance’s dogged shadow defence minister, elicited from earlier parliamentary questions that the recent Indian Ocean island holidays for President Jacob Zuma and Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe cost the SAAF R1.6-million and R1.2-million apiece. And the Defence minister himself used the VIP aircraft 61 times in just over a year, at a cost of R13-million.

But, as Beeld has reported, such international jet setting by our politicians might soon be curbed. Already three VIP pilots have lost their international ratings through lack of flight time, while another 13 have been unable to travel to the United States, which picks up the tab for them doing their currency ratings on flight simulators, because the SAAF couldn’t afford the air tickets and accommodation costs.

Turning the SAAF from fighting machine into an aerial limousine service comes at a high cost not only to military preparedness. The SAAF’s two coastal helicopter squadrons this year received generous funding for VIP flights – the Durban-based 15 Squadron got 300 hours flying time to ferry the Zuma entourage to and fro between King Shaka International and Nkandla for weekends – but very little for training and nothing at all for sea and mountain rescue.

So here’s a muted cheer for the Rooivalk. It was admittedly expensive, but at least three aircraft of the SAAF – with its proud history as the world’s second oldest airforce – are doing what they’re supposed to do.

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