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Opinionista

The South African Air Force has become an expensive, dysfunctional luxury

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Guy Leitch is editor of SA Flyer and FlightCom magazines.

The funding crisis has become so severe that defence pundits are proposing the hitherto unthinkable — that South Africa reduce its Air Force to just an Air Wing, which comprises fewer than 75 aircraft, as Ireland and New Zealand have done.

We are told that in South Africa 19 million people out of the total population of 62 million are on social welfare grants. This is not sustainable. Given the lack of support for business by government and the resultant gradual disinvestment, combined with population growth above GDP, unemployment will get worse and the ability to fund social welfare will decrease.

Already government is saying that it cannot afford the current level of social grants. Yet the money must be found — particularly in an election year.

The easiest budget to cut is defence spending, especially as South Africa has no immediate threat. In the unlikely event of an invasion, alliances (viz a southern African Nato) to protect territorial sovereignty in the region should be agreed, possibly with the “big brother” inclusion of either the US or China.

There are therefore increasing calls to “right-size” the SANDF.

The SA Air Force (SAAF) is on its knees with some pilots flying less than 10 hours per year. It is telling that the entire SAAF budget is less than the cost of a single USAF fighter squadron. Yet the first casualty of defence cuts is likely to be the SAAF — with its high-profile expensive aircraft.

The SAAF struggles to get just a few fast jets in the air for airshows and military parades. It is in no position to become an effective fighting force or deterrent. So it is argued that the fighter squadrons can be shuttered — because they’re not operational anyway — and haven’t been since the SAAF’s limited capability for the Soccer World Cup protection.

The reality which the politicians and Air Force brass seem unwilling to accept is that the current budget priorities and funding constraints have reduced the SAAF to a hollow shell. The funding crisis has become so severe that defence pundits are proposing the hitherto unthinkable — that South Africa reduce its Air Force to just an Air Wing, which comprises fewer than 75 aircraft, as Ireland and New Zealand have done.

Air Wing proponents say that South Africa should have no more than 50 aircraft, almost all based in one central place. Serviceability could then be increased to 70%, making far better use of the remaining expensive assets.

The big idea is that the SAAF disband its Gripen and Hawk squadrons. Botswana is keen to buy Gripens, but it may be too humiliating for the SA government to sell them our hardly-used jet fighters.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Eyebrows raised after SA Air Force chief revokes cancellation of officers’ course despite fitness fail

Long-range transport, maritime reconnaissance, and search-and-rescue are capabilities South Africa has long lost, but must have in terms of international obligations. We currently could never mount a search for a missing airliner in the southern Atlantic or Indian Oceans.

So the current upgrade of our 60-year-old C-130 Hercules fleet must be expedited. Specialist maritime surveillance aircraft can be leased. And in the longer run, drones with artificial intelligence are under development by the South African CSIR. They are showing great promise for doing the dull and dangerous work of long-range offshore patrols — even if just to protect our fish from Chinese trawlers.

The proposed Air Wing will retain 10 to 15 Oryx transport helicopters, with the troublesome Agusta Westland A-109s being sold off. The Rooivalk attack helicopter, which is rapidly becoming outdated, must be upgraded to a Mk2 standard.

Basic flying training, and even advanced training, can be outsourced, as increasingly happens in other air forces, including the USAF

The net result is that rather than the current underfunded mess, South Africa will have a smaller but properly funded Air Wing where it can maintain professional standards within the current budget constraints.

Of course — it’s not just the SAAF which should be right-sized. The same pundits argue that the navy and army need to be pollarded to remove expensive submarines and obsolete tanks. The Navy can keep two frigates (in Cape Town and Durban?) and its new multi-mission inshore patrol vessels.

The choice is simple — rather have a right-sized properly funded force, than an all-but-useless relic from a once massively funded past. DM

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  • Heinrich Holt says:

    As a former SAAF national service member, I fully agree. The writing was on the wall already in 1992 with overweight and undermotivated pilots.

  • David Pennington says:

    Everything they touch….

  • Nonnie Oelofse says:

    The once ‘SUPER EFFICIENT SAAF’ has been reduced to ONE BIG NOTHING, because of the inability of the anc to govern this country with HONESTY!!!! THEY CAN ONLY STEAL AND LOOT, THAT IS THE ONLY ABILITY THEY HAVE!!!!

  • Johan Roux says:

    Very sensible, but what is to become of all the Generals.

    • Middle aged Mike says:

      My biggest concern is that if all the ballast our horde of tubby generals represent is removed suddenly Defense Headquarters and Swartkop Airforce Base may float off into the sky.

    • Robert de Rooy says:

      Indeed, there you have the biggest obstacle to a sensible solution. All the cronies given ranks and benefits way above their skill level will (only) fight to protect their gravy.

  • Middle aged Mike says:

    “The South African Air Force has become an expensive, dysfunctional luxury”

    The same is true of our government and every one of it’s bloated and crippled organs.

  • Mark Cowell says:

    Dump the C130 upgrade and simply subcontract SAAF logistics and transport needs to the taxi industry 🙂

  • Robert Pegg says:

    If countries like Ireland and New Zealand can get by with reduced air force and armed forces, then why not South Africa.

    If you compare Fire Brigade Services in those 2 countries with the same services in South Africa, it’s like chalk and cheese. We have a far higher fire risk, but a fraction of the service. New Zealand has a national service that is well equipped and well trained. We only have effective services in larger Metros who can afford a service. The rest of the country gets by with next to nothing. Use the money saved to save our Fire Brigade Services who should be there to save lives and property and not to fight a war that shouldn’t happen.

    • Darren Olivier says:

      Ireland and New Zealand are part of broader defensive alliances with much more powerful neighbours, who are not only fully equipped with fighter aircraft and large armed forces, but are positioned between them and and potential threats or enemies.

      South Africa has no such benefit, meaning that if we do substantially downsize the SANDF we need to be understand that we will not be able to handle a potential threat arising in the near to medium term future.

      On top of that, South Africa spends less than 3% of all government spending on the SANDF, leaving the other 97% for social services and welfare, emergency services like fire fighting, debt payments, etc. The SANDF also provides substantial support to other government departments including, when needed, for aerial firefighting.

  • Middle aged Mike says:

    No money would actually be saved by ditching our cosplay airforce, it would just be redirected to another one of the cadre money money sumps where it would be pumped out to turn into Johnny Walker Blue and shiny suits.

  • david clegg clegg says:

    I would point out that Ireland and New zealand are tiny geographical entities and most of their perimeters can probably be reached from the central maintenance/storage point. Not so for SA.
    And once again I have to point out that the Hercules are not 60 years old – that is the age of the design, not the SA aircraft. Certainly, the existing fleet is old and needs replacing but lets get the logic and the facts straight.

    • Bob Monger says:

      Most of the remaining ones were purches in 1963 which makes them… The rest of them are ex-USAF.

      saairforce.co.za/the-airforce/aircraft/22/c-130bbz-hercules#:~:text=The%20SAAF%20C%2D130%20fleet,their%20Excess%20Defence%20Articles%20programme

      Let’s get the logic and the facts straight.

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