In 1999, South Africa became the Saab JAS-39 Gripen‘s 1st export customer, ordering 26 fighters. The country is generally considered to be one of Africa’s stronger economies, and a regional security partner. On the defense front, their arms firms have managed to survive, albeit with some adjustment pains and restructuring. They can still produce weapons that are relevant on the world stage.
Unless current trends change, however, outside views of the country’s regional security role may need a rethink.
SDP: Shiny Toys for Show
South Africa’s 1999 Strategic Defence Procurement Process bought 3 U209 submarines, 4 MEKO A200 light frigates, 30 AW109 light helicopters, and 26 JAS-39C/D Gripen fighters. It has ballooned from original estimates of R30 billion to an estimated R70 billion (currently about $7.6 billion).
Buying shiny toys but not having the maintenance, training, or qualified people to operate them is a regular occurrence in Africa, and in many other countries around the world that lack cultures of accountability and performance. Barring the expensive Middle Eastern solution of simply importing long-term maintenance crews alongside the weapons, the end result follows like clockwork: a collection of expensive and not-so expensive weapons that are mostly for boast, show, and 10% or so.
Maintenance and support contracts may seem boring – but you can tell a lot about the readiness and state of a country’s military by watching the contracts that take place after the big buys. Not to mention the professionalism of the military service that has to maintain and operate them.
July 7/14: Review. South Africa’s own 2014 Defense Review process confirms the ongoing thrust of this article, even as it tries to lay out a 4-phase, 20-year plan to restore military effectiveness:
“According to the Review the SANDF is in a critical state of decline, is unsustainable and prime mission equipment, especially in the landward force, faces block obsolescence. “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, which is centralised and run by the deputy director-general in the Defence Secretariat.”
South Africa’s ISS think tank adds an illuminating regional comparison:
“A recent report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) confirms fast-growing Angola, long considered South Africa’s only potential rival in the southern African power stakes, already spends about 50% more on its military than South Africa in absolute terms – and Algeria almost three times…. “Neither country has the political ambitions of South Africa nor its pretences to continental leadership and imposing regional stability.”
Dec 19/13: JAS-39 fighters. South Africa has been relying on short-term interim support contracts that expired in April and endangered the fleet (q.v. July 18/13), but a SEK 180 million ($27.5 million) contract with Armscor creates a longer-term arrangement from 2013 – 2016 that should improve costs and predictability.
The contract includes typical support services like engineering support, MRO (maintenance, repair, and overhaul), and spares replenishment, as well as technical publications amendments to keep them current with SAAF changes. Sources: Saab Group, “Saab Receives Steady State Support Order For South African Gripen”.
Nov 1/13: Navy. defenceWeb:
“The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) was targeted to spend 35 000 hours at sea as part of maritime defence between April 1, 2012 and March 31, 2013, but only achieved 7 338.55 hours. This was due to “vessels that were delayed in maintenance cycles, operational defects that prevented them from going to sea and longer than anticipated repair times…. The DoD’s annual report noted that…. “The availability of on-time spares affected the performance of the SA Navy and was largely due to insufficient funds in the Maritime Logistic Capability Programme resulting in the outsourcing of work…. The shortage of skilled and specialised personnel was identified as a major hindrance to the SAN, particularly within the Naval Engineering Service and the hydrographic office…”
Sept 4/13: Fighters. South Africa’s iOL News offers testimony saying that the SAAF decided against storing any Gripens because of the up-front costs. They’re maintaining the entire fleet, but rotating them in and out of flying duties. Gen. Bayne also provides a snapshot of JAS-39C/D operational costs per flight hour (CPFH) for the South African Air Force:
“[SAAF Director of Combat Systems] General John Bayne… said the “dry costs” (without fuel) for a Gripen were R104 600 per flying hour and fuel cost R30 800, giving a total “wet cost” of R135 400. Hawks fly at a dry cost of R67 500, with fuel costs of R15 400 and a total cost of R82 900…. “To date the Hawks have flown over 10 000 major accident-free flying hours since 2005 and the Gripens 3 500 since 2008,” said Bayne.”
At current exchange rates, that translates into JAS-39C/D flying-hour costs of about $10,465 dry and $13,350 wet; Gen. Bayne’s CPFH figures for the sub-sonic Hawk Mk.120 trainer & light attack jets translate to $6,755 dry and $8,295 wet.
It’s worth noting that CPFH is a tricky area, for 3 reasons. The 1st is that there’s no standard formula, so different militaries can include different costs. The 2nd twist is that the SAAF fleet’s small size increases “dry” costs per flying hour, as fixed costs are amortized over fewer planes. The 3rd twist is unique to low-readiness countries like South Africa, who spend more per flight hour because they allocate few flight hours, but still have to maintain all of the jets. Even with all these caveats in mind, it’s still an interesting data point, especially alongside its comparison to a popular platform: Source: iOL, “SAAF jets aren’t in storage, says general”.
Sept 2/13: A109 Helos. August 2013 “Shared Accord” exercises with the US Navy emphasize the SAAF’s helicopter issues. South Africa’s handful of Super Lynx 300 naval helicopters are forced to add standby MEDEVAC roles to their portfolio, because the Light Utility Helicopters that are supposed to play this role aren’t available.
defenceWeb also details the problems encountered by pilots who were in the middle of conversion training to add the AW109s to their career qualifications. With the LUH fleet effectively grounded, they couldn’t fly the required number of hours for certification on the new platform. Meanwhile, they’ve been away from their previous helicopters (usually the Oryx AS332 Puma derivative) for too long, so that certification has lapsed. Now you have valuable pilots who aren’t qualified to fly anything. They won’t regain qualifications any time soon, either, because they’re slotted behind existing Oryx flight crews for the limited number of hours available.
In other news, Major Roy “Cougar” Sproul, the leader of South Africa’s Silver Falcons display team, has quit because his team hardly ever flies. He’s now working as an airline pilot. As of publication, however, the Falcon’s site still lists him as “Falcon 1”. defenceWeb, “SAAF woes continue” | SAAF Silver Falcons.
July 24/13: A109 Helos. South African media report that none of the SAAF’s Agusta AW109 helicopters are being used, because there isn’t enough money to operate them. They’re turned on occasionally, but don’t fly, and reports indicate that just 71 flying hours have been allocated to the operational fleet. Even as government “VIPs” continue to receive rides.
If true, it means that many pilots are in danger of losing their qualification. Which may not matter. The Beeld newspaper quotes a “senior [SANDF] officer” who says a 60% budget cut could end all helicopter operations, as well as grounding the Gripen fleet. Effectively, it would leave South Africa without an air force.
The SAAF originally bought 30 of the helicopters as part of its arms deal. At least 4 have crashed, most recently in March 31/13, killing a total of at least 8 service members. The March crash followed 3 other crashes from 2009-2010. The helicopter’s performance and future have been an issue since 2011, and there are criticisms that it’s underpowered in light of South Africa’s needs. Given persistent corruption allegations swirling around South Africa’s 1999 Strategic Defence Procurement Process, analysts in South Africa can be forgiven for wondering why it beat competitors.
July 18/13: Fighters. DefenceWeb quotes Saab South Africa President Magnus Lewis-Olsson, who tells them that the SAAF’s interim JAS-39C/D Gripen support contracts ended in April 2013. Saab was hoping to get a support contract in place within the next few months, but if it doesn’t, SAAF personnel can only provide front-line maintenance. Over time, their fleet will become unable to fly. defenceWeb.
July 17/13: Fighters. Saab South Africa President Magnus Lewis-Olsson tells defenceWeb that a planned global Gripen Fighter Weapon School in South Africa (q.v. July 10-18/12) represents a missed opportunity for the country. The 1,000 square meter training HQ would have been at AFB Overberg in the Western Cape, which Saab liked for its central location and available flight space. The course would have used a mix of Swedish and South African pilots, keeping those SAAF pilots current, and reimbursing the SAAF for the use of 4-6 Gripens that aren’t flying anyway due to budget cuts. Oddly, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) didn’t move to support the initiative, and in fact seemed to campaign against it.
Meanwhile, Saab has completed its syllabus and is ready to begin construction of the School and start training. Other countries have expressed interest, and Saab will be moving forward. defenceWeb.
March 13/13: Fighters. Opposition Democratic Alliance MP David Maynier recently forced the ANC government to acknowledge that 12 of its 26 delivered JAS-39C/D fighters were in long term storage. In reality, the SAAF’s fighter problem is even worse than that. He sums up the situation this way:
“The sad facts of the Gripen system are as follows: 26 Gripen fighter jets were delivered; 10 or fewer are operational; 12 are in long-term storage; there are six qualified pilots; there are about 150 flying hours available to the entire squadron for 2013.”
See: Business Day.
Nov 29/12: Fighters & Frigates. SANDF strategy director Admiral Alan Green tells parlementarians that the SAAF can’t keep all 26 Gripen fighter planes in the air, and documents show just 2 hours of flying time per plane per month over the 3-month period from July-September. The SAAF’s 9 reserve squadrons have also been grounded.
Meanwhile, naval operations are severely limited, as the navy was sent on operations in the Indian Ocean, but not given the requested budget to deploy. Of the SAN’s 4 MEKO A200 light frigates, 1 is currently operating, 2 are in for maintenance periods of up to 9 months, and the 4th needs a new engine that can only be installed in Germany. Ghana MMA.
Aug 12/12: Submarines. South Africa’s Times Live reports that the SAN’s R8 billion fleet of 3 U209 attack submarines are all in dry dock, after the only operational vessel crashed into the seabed. SAS Queen Modjadji suffered a serious dent in her hull during a safety drill involving the hydraulic system.
SAS Charlotte Maxeke is busy with routine maintenance.
SAS Manthatisi, the country’s 1st submarine, has been in dry dock since 2007. Mishaps have included crashing into a quay and damaging her steering mechanism, incorrectly plugging in a shoreline power cable and damaging her electrical system. The vessel’s propulsion batteries are currently being replaced. Times Live.
July 10-18/12: Fighters. Saab says that they’re moving to establish a new global Fighter Weapons School for Gripen pilots at the SAAF’s Overberg base, in the southern Cape area, along with the Swedish and South African air forces. The first class is said to be targeting an October 2013 opening. Aviation Week:
“A former site for secret South African/Israeli missile tests, Overberg hosts the SAAF’s test squadron and was chosen because it offers access to maritime, desert and high-elevation training areas, live ordnance areas and instrumented ranges with land targets… The SAAF will provide the school with [4-6] JAS 39C/D Gripens, plus aggressors (opposition aircraft) and targets if necessary, and each student will fly 20 day and night sorties. Discussions with other Gripen operators have already started. Airborne early warning and control aircraft or tankers could be added later.”
Even though this would keep SAAF pilots much more current, create a maintenance center of excellence in country, provide spinoff opportunities for Denel re: drone targets, and reimburse the SAAF to keep more Gripens in the air, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) follows with a sharp rebuke:
“We would like to place on record that there has never been any discussion between SAAB and the SANDF. It is with dismay that we read such in the media when no interaction whatsoever with regard to the purported school. The Air Force Base Overberg is a sensitive security establishment of the SANDF and will remain solely in the hands of the SANDF. The suggestion therefore that such a school will be established is devoid of truth.”
Saab tells defenceWeb that it remains 100% committed to the project, and says that the SAAF was onboard and supportive, “but final and formal approval with South African government bodies is still outstanding.” Saab | Aviation Week | defenceWeb.
* South African government (March 25/14) – South African Defence Review 2014.
* defenceWeb – Fact file: AgustaWestland A109M light utility helicopter. Offers SAAF-specific background.
* AgustaWestland – AW109 LUH. The designations “A109″ and AW109” can be used interchangeably; the company itself has used both, but currently prefers AW109.
News & Views
* defenceWeb (July 7/14) – Defence Review an important first step to SANDF rejuvenation.
* StrategyPage (Dec 10/13) – Logistics: The South African Scam.
* DID (July 18/13) – Iraq: Weapons – and Challenges – In the Pipeline. Maintenance and support is also a challenge for the Iraqis. That’s very common in the Middle East. Which is to say, South Africa is hardly a unique example.