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Op-Ed: In defence of Africa Aerospace and Defence 2014

By John Stupart 23 September 2014

For the ordinary South African, AAD is either an utterly unknown event or, if you happen to live near Centurion, that thing that happens every two years that creates a hell of a noise. Nonetheless, this Saturday and Sunday saw AAD's gates at Waterkloof Airforce Base opened to the public to view some genuinely amazing aerobatics. This year is no exception. By JOHN STUPART.

This week has seen the Africa Aerospace and Defence (AAD) exhibition display a remarkable array of military weapons systems, vehicles, aircraft and a host of related products. Naysayers questioning the ability and number of the South African Air Force’s pilots and planes were firmly refuted during the weekend, and the trade days from Wednesday to Friday are truly compelling for African defence players from around the world.

For those who have attended, this year’s show was noticeably quieter. There were fewer large aircraft, less displays of vehicles, armour, radar and a plethora of small arms than in 2012. It carried with it almost a sense of injury since the 2012 AAD, where companies were exhibiting with fresh optimism in the wake of the Defence Review and the promising financial carrots it might offer.

The truth of the matter is that the arms deal has created a weighty cloud of pessimism over any whiff of new procurements, and thus the rampant marketing of new products may seem highly unpalatable. Yet, when peering inside AAD, you are afforded a much broader perspective on the defence sector within South Africa and without. The number of exhibitors – over 300 – and the size of their stands often indicate the seriousness or lack thereof which each company takes the African defence market. China, for example, holds a giant national pavilion in one of Waterkloof’s cavernous hangars, and remains utterly unbreachable for media. If you happen to attend the exhibition in uniform, and with a little bit of rank-implying braid, however, the steely Anglophobic attendants miraculously substitute with translators, eager to show you which missile system best suits your missile-launching needs.

This is the exhibition, after all, where Russian state arms corporation Rosoboronexport announced a giant, $1 billion deal with Angola for fighter jets that the Indian Air Force considered obsolete. It’s the place where you will see stretch limousines ushering in figures far too important to make the route march from stand to stand to attend meetings geared towards equipping his or her’s defence department. In this regard, connotations of Lord of War would be understandable.

But this would be the wrong opinion to hold. While large, troubling arms deals are signed with an alarming alacrity, there is also another, more profoundly positive aspect of AAD that often gets ignored amongst this flash and pomp.

The 2012 Defence Review promised much in terms of future budget but little in firm timelines and has discouraged many aerospace companies from attending the event. It is expensive, after all, sending delegations to a country that has a tendency to take decades to make a procurement decision and may not result in an immediate contract. The result: there is no money for now, but the need remains, and thus only the larger international players can maintain a presence at AAD. For the locals, it’s adapt or die.

AAD 2014 has showcased local defence companies’ willingness to stretch its legs outside of defence and into the civil sector, introducing prototypes and plans that can prove game-changing. South Africa’s defence parastatal Denel, for example, unveiled the Sara, a light civilian aircraft capable of carrying over a score passengers along air routes that are not covered by major airlines. The research and design expertise with which Denel has used in developing attack helicopters that helped destroy M23 rebels in the DRC has been re-applied into providing a civilian aircraft design that is both new and remarkably intelligent in conception and business plan: The project must proceed with significant private investment, rather than the government footing the bill. Denel’s gear change into the civilian aviation sector highlights local defence companies’ resilience in the face of a stalled defence budget.

Larger international companies that the average Joe is familiar with, such as Airbus, Saab and Boeing, all bring a large presence to AAD as well. Showcasing various systems ranging from Boeing’s increasing interest in the civil aviation sector of Africa to Airbus’ monk-like patience in reminding delegates that the A400M is not only fully alive, but fast becoming an operational consideration for African airlift requirements. This is important to see at a defence exhibition in South Africa. It is military airlift, after all, that could have saved lives during the Battle of Bangui. It is military airlift that saw a successful election in the DRC. And it is airlift that provides life-saving humanitarian assistance to South Africa’s regional neighbours. These strategic realties of African defence forces are lost in the wash of post-arms deal hysteria, and yet are only truly exposed to the public during AAD, and even then only to the trade visitors and clan of niche defence media outlets.

An account of AAD 2014 would be remiss without a hat-tip to South Africa’s Paramount Group. Known to the general masses for their Marauder armoured vehicle being televised in Top Gear, Paramount has harnessed the enigmatic personality of their CEO with an incredibly self-aware marketing strategy. The erection of a giant transformer-looking robot, accompanied by complimentary selfies for all those wanting one, uniform or no, blends seamlessly with the #parabot campaign. And yet, amongst the humour of a giant, inert chunk of metal sitting amongst systems that will invariably be used in violent struggle, it is Paramount who have produced an interesting new light attack aircraft, the AHRLAC, in a South African defence industry that is saturated in pessimism. But, just like Denel, the target markets are not necessarily entirely South African, if at all. Exports to fellow African countries and even overseas is the objective now.

AAD this year may have been quiet in terms of new deals, but an atmosphere of quiet optimism seems to seep out amongst the cracks. You will easily find commentary on the woeful state of Africa’s defence forces, and we will be right there amongst the critics. And yet there is something quite encouraging to see an industry knocked down so often by poor perceptions and even poorer market conditions wipe the dust off, stand up, and continue with innovation against all odds. DM

Photo by John Stupart.

John Stupart is the editor of the African Defence Review. He has completed his masters in War Studies at Kings College and has blathered endlessly on several mediums on all things pertaining to African defence policy, strategic, operational and tactical challenges. John is also the editor of DailyMaverick’s First Thing daily newsletter.

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