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Air Force Equipment Introduction

South Africa's transition to a representative democracy required a reconsideration of the country's defence situation and a redefinition of the role that South Africa's defence force, the SANDF (South African National Defence Force), should have in southern Africa. The view taken was one based on joint un-derstanding resulting in a White Paper on the defence of South Africa, which was echoed in the subsequent defence review at the end of the 1990s. The defence review described the optimum composition of South Africa's defence forces including an air force that would see its fleet of trainer and fighter aircraft reduced by more than 75 per cent by the year 2011. The challenge faced by South Africa's government was to ensure that much-needed funds were made available for social needs -- education, training and housing -- while at the same time making it possible for the defence forces to meet their con-stitutional and regional obligations.

The reductions in the DoD budget caused all new programs, including the replacement for the Impala aircraft, to be rescheduled into the future or cancelled.

The air force operates an estimated 400 aircraft. The fleet includes Cheetah, Mirage, and Impala fighter aircraft, Cessna light reconnaissance aircraft, and Oryx and Alouette III helicopters.

Air forces globally agree that ‘going high-tech’ in air defence is tempting, can be cost-effective and certainly provides a competitive ‘edge’. Smaller air forces that argue against the cost of new technologies are in danger of finding themselves outmanoeuvred by better equipped opponents. Still, technology choices have to be taken judiciously on a case-by-case basis and must be well-supported by superior technology testing, evaluation and development. This is where support from a strong science partner such as the CSIR will ensure competitiveness by enabling smart buying, smart usage and smart management of capabilities.

While seemingly costly, the local development of aircraft technology and associated systems offer significant long-term value. Benefits include strategic and technological independence and equipment that is optimally tailored to the operational style of our Defence Force. Valuable spin-offs are often also generated for industrial development and job creation, all of which benefit the wider economy. Niche items such as air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions, active and passive electronic warfare systems, unmanned airborne systems, secure command and control communications and information warfare equipment can also be manufactured locally.

In the early sixties South Africa's deteriorating security position caused the Government to take steps towards rearmanent. As part of a development programme, the SAAF's arsenal was strengthened. The first Mirage IIICS fighter aircraft arrived in South Africa in April 1963 and was displayed to the public in July that year. Canberra light bombers, Buccaneer S Mk 50 strike aircraft, Lockheed C-130B Hercules and Transall C-160Z medium transport aircraft also joined the SAAF's arsenal in the sixties. During the sixties new types of helicopters were also introduced, including the Alouette II and III light helicopters, the SA 330C Puma and SA 32IL Super Frelon medium transport helicopter as well as the Westland Wasp light anti-submarine helicopter.

The writing was on the wall, however arms embargoes became imminent and it was obvious that these were probably the last aircraft the Republic would be able to buy for some time. Replacements would have to be built locally. In 1965 a new aircraft industry in South Africa was born with the registration of the Atlas Aircraft Corporation and on 8 October 1966 the first Aermacchi MB-326, built under licence, and renamed the Impala, rolled off the assembly line.

During the eighties much attention was given to new aircraft development projects. The SAAF's new supersonic fighter aircraft, the Cheetah, was unveiled at the Atlas Aircraft Corporation on 16 July 1986. The two versions - Cheetah D2 and Cheetah E - compare favourably with the Russian MiG-23s. In the previous year South Africa's first locally manufactured attack helicopter, the prototype Alpha XHI, took its first flight. The experimental Alpha XHI was later followed by a second design, the Beta XTP-1, which was unveiled to the public on 30 April 1987. This was basically an armed version of the standard Puma helicopter.

The early nineties witnessed the final withdrawal from service of the AM-3CM Bosbok light aircraft and the old stalwart, the DC-4 Skymaster. In 1992 it was announced that the Swiss Pilatus Astra PC-7 Mk II trainer aircraft would replace the Harvard as the SAAF's new trainer aircraft. The first 60 Pilatus Astras (as they were christened by the SAAF) were delivered to the SAAF in October 1994. It was expected that 32 aircraft will be in service at CFS Langebaanweg by the end of 1995.

The air force in early 1996 began the delivery of fifty to sixty Pilatus PC-7 basic training aircraft from Switzerland and planned to purchase several locally manufactured Rooivalk combat helicopters. The air force also upgraded its Cheetah fighter aircraft and is developing plans to produce short- and medium-range air-to-air missiles for this purpose.

The Cheetah C fighter fleet was officially handed over to the operational and logistic sections of the Air Force and became fully operational during 1997. The 60th and last Pilatus PC7 MKII Astra was delivered to Central Flying School at Langebaanweg in the Western Cape during 1997. The first Pupil Pilots' Course was successfully completed on the aircraft. Full Instrument Flight Rules qualification on the aircraft was completed in FY 97/98.

All 51 Oryx helicopters have been delivered to the SAAF and are in operational use. Two helicopters were modified for use in the Southern Ocean and Antarctic. They were delivered to the SAAF in FY 97/98. The Rooivalk EDM aircraft was virtually completed during 1997 and was put through a comprehensive test program during FY 97/98. In 2003 the South African Air Force put 21 F1 aircraft up for disposal by way of Armscor. Paramount purchased the entire Mirage F1 package, including airframes, spares and support equipment in 2006 and is marketing it together with Aerosud. As part of a combined contract valued at US$2.2bn, South Africa has ordered 24 BAE SYSTEMS Hawk Lead-In Fighter Trainers and 28 Gripen multi-role/swing-role fighter aircraft for the South African Air Force. These are currently in production and will be delivered from 2005 through until 2012, resulting in a 75% reduction to the SAAF's overall jet trainer and fighter fleet as they replace the 1960s vintage Impala and Mirage/Cheetah aircraft.

A small fleet of multi-role aircraft could take over the duties that had previously been covered by a combination of the Mirage F1AZ, F1CZ and Cheetah while a small number of two-seat aircraft could replace the Cheetah D for type conversion. A formal bidding process was initiated in 1997 by the Defence Department and its procurement organisation Armscor. A number of aircraft including the Gripen, Eurofighter, MiG-29 and the EADS AT-2000 (Mako) concept aircraft appeared to meet the requirements. When evaluating the bids, consideration was also given to the extent and quality of the industrial collaboration packages that South Africa could negotiate in connection with this strategic procurement.

South Africa chose a combined contract comprising 24 BAE SYSTEMS Hawk trainers and 28 Saab-BAE SYSTEMS Gripen. The Hawk aircraft's avionics will be modified so that they are 'Gripen-like' to facilitate the conversion training of pilots. The first deliveries of Hawk aircraft will commence in 2004. These will be followed by nine two-seat Gripens and 19 single-seat Gripen aircraft between 2007 and 2012.

Hawk 100 Trainers

The South African Air Force (SAAF) acquired 24 British Aerospace-supplied Hawk 100s, customised to meet specific South African requirements. All aircraft are dual seat aircraft, and optimised for jet training as well as weapon-delivery training. The Hawk is powered by the latest Rolls Royce Adour engine and has a max level speed of Mach 0.85. The normal operating speed is 400 KTS in a typical training configuration.

Assuming a contract effective date of 01 April 2000, the first 12 Hawks were delivered by 2005 and the following batch by 2006, after the Government exercised the second tranche option. The Hawk replaced the Impala trainers, which have been in use since the 1960s and have already been declared obsolete by the SAAF. The Impalas weree removed from the SAAF inventory as the Hawks were brought into service. The Hawks provide a cost-effective bridge in the training gap between the Pilatus PC-7 Mk II Astra basic turbo propeller trainer and the front-line supersonic fighter aircraft, the Cheetah C and Gripen. Pilots who have qualified on the Astra do jet-type conversion and an operational training course on the Hawk at 85 Combat Flying School, followed by a consolidation period at operational squadron level.

One of the principal issues raised in the Arms Deal controversy concerned the choice of the trainer aircraft, the British Hawk, in the light of the fact that the Italian Aeromacchi trainer was cheaper. Once the decision was taken to buy the advanced Gripen fighter aircraft, the decision about a trainer had to take this into account. Specific features of the Gripen also pointed to the need to provide less of a gap in equipment and performance between the fighter trainer and the advanced fighter. These factors and the various options were placed before the Committee of Ministers and it was them who made the final recommendation to Cabinet. For a number of reasons the Hawk to Gripen graduation was chosen. No one person could have influenced this and it was in line with the decision making processes at a policy level. Four Ministers and their departments expressed their various views on this matter.


In February 2003, AgustaWestland announced that the final assembly of the first Agusta A109 Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) airframe for the South African Air Force commenced at the Denel Aviation facilities. Denel Aviation, an aerospace divison of Denel (Pty) Ltd, has been granted a licence to manufacture 25 of the 30 A109 aircraft on order from the South African Air Force. In addition to licence manufacturing of the A109 LUH, the Denel Group also reached an agreement with AgustaWestland to produce and support the A109 Power and A119 Koala range of helicopters. The first result of this agreement has been the Denel Group involvement in the airframe manufacture of 20 A109 LUH aircraft ordered by the Swedish Air Force.

The future of the air force squadron of Denel Rooivalk attack helicopters (Project Imposer) is assured for several years, but it remained to be seen whether a mid-life upgrade will be funded. There may be a case for a low-cost multi-role aircraft such as the Eurocopter Fennec, as photographed at the exhibition with the ATE-developed Saws (Stand-Alone Weapon System).

The last of 30 Agusta A109 light utility helicopters were delivered in 2011/12. A retrofit program was executed to correct deficiencies identified during operational testing and evaluation. The ninth and last dual-seat SAAB Gripen advanced light fighter and the first two of 17 single seat SAAB Gripen advanced light fighters were also delivered. Training of the first group of aircrew and relevant ground crew was completed. The Phase One handover of the 24 BAE Systems Hawk lead-in fighter trainer to the SAAF was concluded. The development of the A-Darter infra-red air-to-air missile was continued as a successful joint venture with the Brazilian Air Force.

Transport Replacements

Towards the lower end of the fixed-wing logistics scale, the EADS-Casa C-212 and CN-235 need replacing, as does the Douglas C-47TP maritime patrol aircraft. Project Saucepan combines the air force's light transport and MPA needs. One candidate present was the 31.8-tonne Alenia Aeronautica C-27J Spartan. BAE Systems has promoted the 42-ton BAe 146M.

A contract for the upgrading of the SAAF's 12 Lockheed Hercules C-130 medium transport aircraft was signed with Marshals Aerospace in the United Kingdom during December 1996. The upgrade will enable the use of the aircraft for the next 20 years. The production phase of the contract was carried out by DENEL Aviation in Kempton Park. The aircraft were delivered to the SAAF over the period July 1999 to June 2002.

By 2010 the most urgent South African Air Force need was to replace its old Lockheed Martin C-130s, ideally with wide-body transports that can accommodate helicopters and combat vehicles and use short airstrips. Its Project Continent order for eight Airbus Military A400Ms was cancelled in 2009 due to programme delays, but might be reinstated (probably with an initial order for four).

In the longer term, an alternative may be provided by the Antonov An-70. Earlier in the year, Antonov made the newly formed, black-owned Pamodzi Aviation its sole marketing and MRO agent for the whole of Africa. This new company will promote the An-70 alongside the commercial An-148/158 series and provide maintenance for any Antonov aircraft. It is expected to partner with Denel Aviation, and later manufacture parts. The United States is thought to have offered the air force a package of four C-17s and eight C-130Js. Lockheed Martin is arguing that the stretched C-130J-30 provides outstanding load flexibility, and that this can be combined with the tanker capability of the KC-130J and (with roll-on/roll-off modules) the maritime surveillance of the HH-130J.

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Page last modified: 02-01-2017 19:48:35 ZULU