South African Airpower: Clipped Wings?

by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

Among the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa has long maintained superior airpower, successfully limiting the country’s exposure to regional conflicts. During the Border War between 1966-1990, the South African Air Force (SAAF) consistently defended the country’s airspace from incursion by the National Air Force of Angola (NAFA) and provided air support in engagements with the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN). More recently, SAAF assets have been employed as part of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) and the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA).

Graphic by Louis Martin-Vézian of CIGeography (Facebook / Twitter), first published in the African Defense Review. Louis, thank you very much for the offer to republish the graphic on Click on the graphic to see the high resolution version.

Graphic by Louis Martin-Vézian of CIGeography (Facebook / Twitter), first published in the African Defense Review. Louis, thank you very much for the offer to republish the graphic on Click on the graphic to see the high resolution version.

Although the immediate threat to South Africa’s security has dissipated with the end of the Border War, it is apparent that South African leaders remain willing to use the SAAF to full effect. On 20 March 2013, Séléka rebels attempted to seize the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), Bangui, and besieged a garrison of around 250 South African paratroopers and special forces soldiers. In response, SAAF deployed four Saab JAS 39 Gripen C/D fighters – South Africa’s workhorse fighter jet since 2008 – and a Lockheed C-130BZ Hercules transport aircraft reportedly laden with bombs. Ultimately, a ceasefire agreement was reached with the rebels and so the close air support went undelivered, but this demonstrated the political will among South African leaders to continue to use airpower in defence of the country’s interests. Nonetheless, the South African military involvement in CAR can be assessed as an disaster (see “Factbox: SANDF’s disaster in CAR” below).

The SAAF is experiencing several challenges. In March 2013, South African Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula caused some confusion by telling the Parliament of South Africa that 12 of the 26 Gripen were in long-term storage because there was not funding to fly them. The storage was only temporary, because the SAAF found a cheaper solution with the aircrafts’ manufacturer, Saab: a rotational preventive maintenance programme which involves flying the aircraft every now and then. According to an article from September 2013, some Gripen were put under tents to slow the corrosion process while the aircraft were standing.

In the same time, flight hours have declined considerably, limiting opportunities for pilots to hone their skills. In the 2015-2016 fiscal year, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) aimed for 6,500 flight hours, but only 4,785 hours were actually flown, down from 5,026 flight hours in 2014-2015. It also seems that the Gripen fleet is not fully manned, with some pilots re-designated as reserve pilots and others assigned to instructor roles at Air Force Base Makhado. In short, the SAAF is not making full use of its Gripen fleet or use its fighter pilots, which could substantially diminish the air branch’s combat effectiveness.

Factbox: SANDF’s disaster in CAR
[…] current funding levels mean that Pretoria’s commitment to African security and stability missions presents the SANDF with critical challenges. Despite ambitions to deploy, the SANDF faces significant difficulty in generating the troops and key capabilities, such as airlift, required to play an effective role. The 2013 intervention in the CAR underlined this situation. Once the deployment was decided, it became clear that the army lacked sufficient troops to deploy more than a single combat team supported by a special-forces group. This provision proved inadequate when Séléka rebels attacked the capital city of Bangui, the CAR army disintegrated and the multinational force from Central African states proved ineffectual during the major combat phase. With a dearth of long-range airlift, South Africa was unable to quickly reinforce or extract its personnel. Thirteen troops were killed in close and hard fighting around Bangui, and the incident subsequently provoked debate within South Africa about the state of the armed forces. — Chapter Nine: Sub-Saharan Africa“, The Military Balance 116, January 2016, p. 425.

A lack of adequate maintenance is also a persistent problem. According to South Africa’s 2014 Defence Review, the SANDF is in a critical state of decline – Ammunition stocks are depleted, infrastructure is falling apart, skilled staff is leaving and the arms of the various services operate in silos and are unable to manage basic procurement. More specific to the SAAF, South Africa previously relied upon short-term interim support contracts for its Gripen fleet, allowed these to lapse, and then established a longer term arrangement with Armscor for 2013-2016. With that agreement set to expire at the end of 2016, it remains to be seen whether South Africa will be able to secure a renewal of support from Armscor and Saab in time, or if the Gripen fleet’s maintenance is set for another period of neglect and uncertainty.

Finally, South Africa’s power projection is inhibited to some degree by its relative lack of strategic airlift. In September 2014, when a church hostel collapsed within the compound of the Synagogue Church of All Nations in Lagos, Nigeria, 85 South Africans died and several others were injured. As such, the SAAF was tasked with the repatriation of the survivors and victims of the disaster, but was only able to transport the 25 survivors. For the repatriation of the remaining bodies, the South African government had to charter an Airbus A320 and an Antonov An-124 transport plane. The Antonov was coming from the private firm Maximus Air Cargo. This casts some doubt on South Africa’s capacity to assist in disaster relief elsewhere on the African continent or to contribute toward peace support missions outside South Africa’s traditional sphere of influence in southern Africa. Although the SAAF boasts a total of nine C-130BZ Hercules transports, the majority of these were purchased in 1963, prior to the introduction of a United States arms embargo in response to South Africa’s then apartheid system. As such, these aircraft are aging, have a limited range, and can only carry up to 90 troops under ideal conditions. Unless the SAAF invests in new strategic airlift, South Africa will have to rely increasingly on chartered aircraft or assistance from external partners – such as NATO member states or the Russian Federation – in order to participate in any future humanitarian interventions.

Dutch Soldiers from the 11 Luchtmobiele Brigade during drills using SAAF Atlas Oryx helicopter.

Dutch Soldiers from the 11 Luchtmobiele Brigade during drills using SAAF Atlas Oryx helicopter.

Angola no longer presents a credible threat to South Africa’s security, but the considerable resources this country is investing in airpower should give South Africa pause. In 2013, Angola acquired 18 Sukhoi Su-30K fighters from the Russian Federation, which enjoy some performance advantages against the Gripen (according to the SIPRI Arms Transfers Database, all fighters should be delivered until end of this year). The narrowing capability gap does not necessarily imply that Angola is preparing for renewed confrontation with South Africa; rather, it suggests that South Africa’s pretences to continental leadership require greater fiduciary commitment, particularly with regard to South African airpower.

More information
Darren Olivier, “South Africa’s Airlift Crisis“, African Defence Review, 03.07.2014.

This entry was posted in English, International, Louis Martin-Vézian, Paul Pryce, South Africa.

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