25 July 2013 by Kim Helfrich - defenceWeb
With the country’s military watchers united in their view the SA Air Force (SAAF) is fast approaching crisis point in terms of operational ability, the finger is - again - being pointed at underfunding.
Some, including respected defence analyst Helmoed-Romer Heitman, have gone as far as suggesting the sale of certain air assets, including the Hawk Lead-In Fighter Trainers and Agusta light utility helicopters.
Such comments follow the news that 14 out of 26 of the Air Force’s Gripens have been placed in storage and that most of the A109 light utility helicopters have been grounded.
Heitman is on record as saying government must decide what it wants its military to do and fund it accordingly.
On the aircraft maintenance side, the United Association of South Africa (UASA), a trade union representing workers in, among others, the transport, manufacturing and engineering sectors, has added its voice to the list of those seeing the SAAF in crisis.
Some its of members were among those retrenched when a SAAF maintenance contract with Denel Aviation was not renewed earlier this year. The contract was not renewed because it was apparently in contravention of the Public Finance Management Act and left a large gap in maintenance operations of the air force. More than 500 specialist aircraft technicians were affected by the termination.
In February, SAAF Deputy Chief Major General Jerry Malinga said termination of the Aero Manpower Group contract was a “serious knock” for the airborne arm of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF).
Speaking at the annual Air Force Day parade in February, he pointed out the SAAF was “in good shape considering the restrictions it has to live with”.
UASA spokesman Andre Venter points out some consequences of the lapsed contract are already starting to show.
“Most notably only 10 out of the 26 Gripen fighter jets, bought as part of the Arms Deal at the princely sum of R40 billion, are serviced to fly while the rest were either mothballed for long term storage or are being cannibalised to keep the others flying. The same is most probably experienced regarding aircraft serviceability at most other squadrons. No transfer of skills is taking place or will take place until such time the proposed agreement (to end March 2014) with Denel is signed for aircraft maintenance.
“It has become a sad day in the proud history of the SAAF, that not only aircraft, worth billions, are being mothballed due to technical incapacity but also as to what the future holds for the SAAF capabilities in the near and long term future,” he said.
His statement follows the revelation earlier this week that at least half of the SAAF’s fleet of Agusta light utility helicopters cannot fly due to a lack of funds. This could see at least 18 current Agusta pilots lose currency on the aircraft type. SANDF Communications Head Siphiwe Dlamini would not comment other than to say: “We do not discuss operational matters and the SANDF’s state of readiness”.
Keen military watcher and author Darren Olivier said the latest developments are what happens when an air force is allocated a minuscule peacetime flying budget that gets drastically cut from last year and then is forced to carry out two rapid, large scale and expensive deployments to countries thousands of kilometres away.
“Once the operational budget has been totally emptied, emergency ad hoc funds are not allocated from the National Treasury’s contingency fund as expected. The Minister of Defence and Military Veterans didn’t even know what reporters were talking about when they asked her about ad hoc funding,” he wrote on a local aviation chatroom.
He also points out the SAAF definitely needs more equipment.
“The need for new transports to replace the 50-year-old C-130BZs, maritime patrol aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles won’t go away just because the operational budget has been squeezed.”
Opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party shadow minister of defence and military veterans David Maynier is another who feels the SAAF “cannot go on like this. We have to get to the bottom of what is really happening in the air force”.
He plans to request a meeting of Parliament’s joint standing committee on defence to discuss the crisis in the SAAF.
Maynier points out that while a large portion of the Agusta fleet is grounded, VIPs, including the President and the Defence Minister, continue to use SAAF Oryxes.
“Between 2009/10 and 2012/13 the SAAF undertook 590 helicopter flights for VIPS at a cost of R50.9 million. The SAAF is in danger of being reduced to an airborne taxi service for VIPS.”