Business, Politics, Sci-Tech

Rooivalk, the next generation: Mark 1

By Sipho Hlongwane 4 April 2011

After five months of testing, the new Rooivalk Mark 1 combat helicopter is ready for duty. The helicopters themselves have been around for a while now, but the business ends of the aircraft – the cannons, rocket launchers and missile pods have only just been combat certified. We can almost hear our generals rubbing their hands together in anticipation of actually being able to use it. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

Denel Aviation finally handed over five new Rooivalk Mark 1 combat helicopters to the South African Air Force on 1 April 2011, after years of development, building and testing. The new Rooivalk isn’t much different to its predecessor, the AH-2 Rooivalk. It’s been given a slight upgrade, incorporating “modifications to the weapons systems, avionics and airborne systems”. The cannons which used to be a bother on the older Rooivalk by overheating very quickly and preventing rapid and sustained fire, have now been fixed.

The chief of the South African Air Force General Carlo Gagiano said, “What is new is the Mokopa missile, which was test-fired at the Overberg range a long time ago and we had some very good results.”

The Mokopa is a precision-strike, multi-purpose air-to-surface missile with a range of more than 10km. It was originally designed by Denel for the Rooivalk, but can be fired from the ground and from fighter jets as well.

Photo: Air Force chief General Carlo Gagiano addresses the media at the handover ceremony of the Rooivalk Mark 1 combat support helicopter. It was a hot day. (The Daily Maverick)

Gagiano accepted five Rooivalk from Denel on Friday, with four more expected to arrive before the year is out.

The Rooivalk was made to be a tank-buster first and foremost (and still is), but the range of services it can deliver has been widened to that of a combat support aircraft as well, to incorporate peacekeeping missions, according to Gagiano. The air force chief wouldn’t be drawn on where the Rooivalk might be deployed on missions (they will be based at 16th Squadron in Bloemfontein), but we said he would be more than chuffed to put these magnificent aircraft into the field when needed. Just as soon as he has all 11 of them. “Well, if they ask me to deploy all 11 aircraft obviously I can’t comply, but if they say four or five, then I think that it is a great opportunity not just for the Air Force, but for the whole country to be proud,” Gagiano said.

Photo: The business end of the Rooivalk: after five months of testing, the helicopters’ weapons systems are now “military certified”. Just point them at someone you don’t like and squeeze gently on the trigger button. (The Daily Maverick)

On these missions, the helicopters can be expected to carry out “tank busting interdiction comfortably, normal support of ground troops with its cannons and its rockets,” said Gagiano. “It is such a versatile aircraft. This is something that the South African National Defence Force can’t do without.”

This new Rooivalk means South Africa is now one of only nine countries in the world to have developed and engineered its own combat-support helicopter, says Denel Aviation. On top of its earnest peacekeeping job in hotspots that may flare up here and there on the continent, the Rooivalk may come to play another role the government has found for our arsenal of late. In February, when the political crisis in Côte d’Ivoire was reaching that interesting stage where the African Union panel was in the country, and nobody was sure which way things would go, the SAS Drakensberg suddenly appeared in the waters off the coast of west Africa. It is the largest armed naval ship designed and built in South Africa. One could almost have imagined President Jacob Zuma saying to the other African countries (Nigeria especially), “We’re the only country on the continent to build our own bad-ass ships. We’re the only country on the continent that can deploy soldiers and support aircraft anywhere on the continent. So who is your daddy?” Let’s not forget the SAS Drakensberg can carry two Rooivalk, if need be. In 2003, the navy and air force jointly demonstrated that the Rooivalk can land on the foredeck and stern deck of the Drakensberg quite comfortably. Will we see the Rooivalk being used in a similar fashion, as a knobkierrie to wave around and remind everyone who they ought to come to in their hour of need? Does the sun rise in the east and set in the west?

Following South Africa’s much-lauded peacekeeping missions in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, they will probably be called upon again and again in the coming years. The Rooivalk, with its new weapon range will make the chore all that much more easy to carry out. DM

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