If solid evidence is required as to just how desperately underfunded the South African Air Force (SAAF) is, when one of its Oryx helicopters was recently hit by ground fire during the SADC mission in Mozambique and there were no spare aircraft readily available to replace it.

Darren Olivier

YET AT THE SAME TIME two Oryxes, serials 1234 and 1237, were being sent back to the Air Force from Denel, unserviced, because they had stood waiting and gathering dust at Denel’s facilities for so many months that they were becoming a liability. There were even discussions within the SAAF about decommissioning both airframes, given how unlikely it is now that they could be returned to service, and handing one over to the Air Force Museum and using another as a training aid.

The removal process was temporarily halted, after 1234 had already returned to 17 Squadron at AFB Swartkop, with a new order from the Air Force changing their minds. They later issued an official statement saying that they intend to return the aircraft to service after major maintenance is complete, but despite that it seems certain that the decommissioning will still go ahead regardless in a few weeks or months, because there simply isn’t enough funding and they’re at the back of a long queue of other Oryxes & Rooivalks awaiting servicing.

What makes this unusual, and frustrating, is that these Oryxes weren’t waiting for so long, or planned for withdrawal, because they’re at the end of their service life, damaged beyond economic repair, or excess to needs. On the contrary, both helicopters have years of flying left in their airframes and main components, are in excellent condition, and the SAAF desperately needs more Oryxes to meet Joint Operations & training requirements.

As it is, there are only a pair of Oryxes in Mozambique for the SADC mission, despite a need for far more, because with five committed to the DRC and standby requirements in South Africa, there simply aren’t enough available.

The SAAFs Gripens and Hawks are already being cannibalised for spares.

So why were they being removed from Denel, and even potentially decommissioned? In short, because they flew to Denel for a scheduled major service many months ago and have since stood gathering dust, while most of their components were stripped off to keep other Oryxes flying. This is because of Denel’s

ongoing crises of cash flow and lost expertise, coupled to declines in the South African Air Force’s budget, meant it had become effectively impossible to service them and return them to flight.

There isn’t sufficient money available to service or replace major components and other parts, so the ever-shrinking set of usable components and parts are rotated in a desperate effort to keep an ever-smaller fleet of aircraft flying.

1234 and 1237 are two of at least six Oryxes in a similar state at Denel, all waiting for major services and the reinstallation of major components and spares for which there simply is no longer sufficient money in the SAAF budget.

Worse, this affects all of the SAAF’s fleets, including its C-130BZs, Rooivalks, Gripens, Hawks, and A109s. As the budget has been successively slashed each year far below what’s reasonable or sustainable for a force the size of the SAAF, and with the mandate it has for both internal and external missions, an increasing number of aircraft have been cannibalised for parts once reaching their major service intervals and never returned to the air.

              ‘Already a number of Gripens and Hawks have been cannibalised’

To some extent cannibalising is a normal process for any air force, especially toward the end of financial years, but it’s when it reaches the tipping point now evident in the SAAF that it becomes a problem and a self-reinforcing negative cycle with no end.

At this stage at least 25% of all the SAAF’s aircraft have been cannibalised beyond economic restoration, at least under current funding. More will soon follow unless the SAAF is given a budget increase to match its size, mission, and mandate and to allow it to catch up on the backlog. Or unless the SAAF’s size, structure, units, capabilities, missions and mandates are shrunk to match the available budget, which would mean closing many squadrons and retiring many aircraft types. Even then a few years of increased funding would be required to restore the remaining fleets to full operational capability.

Denel’s ongoing crisis has been another problem, causing higher costs, slow maintenance, missed supplier payments, and other blockers. If it collapses, as may very well happen, the impact on the SAAF will be swift and severe.

So a decision must be made soon, because if the status quo continues the SAAF will become a hollow force unable to effectively use or deploy its assets. In some ways it already is, as recent exercises and operations have highlighted. But I fear worse is yet to come: National Treasury has indicated that it will cut the SAAF’s budget even further over the next three to five years, regardless of what the 2015 Defence Review or national policy states. And some political parties are demanding that the SAAF relocate from AFB Ysterplaat in Cape Town at its own expense — despite the massive and unaffordable cost of doing so — in order to free up the land for low-cost housing. If that goes ahead the hit on the SAAF’s operational budget will be disastrous.

              ‘It’s difficult to not be pessimistic about the future of the SA Air Force’

For years the SAAF has been in full-blown austerity mode, intentionally keeping the number of serviceable aircraft at each squadron to the barest minimum to save on maintenance and component repair or replacement costs. Larger and more expensive maintenance events, such as major services, are postponed and slowed down to save costs, resulting in aircraft reaching their hour limits and then standing and waiting for months in most cases for their maintenance slot.

For a while that worked well enough, with the rotation remaining sustainable and fairly stable, while still providing for surge capability in the event of an emergency, new security threat, or major operation. But then National Treasury hit the SAAF with a further round of successive annual budget cuts, even as the missions the SAAF was required to undertake grew. The result has been a huge reduction in maintenance and spares budgets, and the rapid depletion of the pool of available and serviceable components, grounding more and more aircraft each year as the cycle takes hold.

Already, the operational impact has been massive.

35 Squadron, in Cape Town, is able to operate only a single C-47TP for maritime surveillance at any given time, largely as a result of the cost of replacing engine cradles & control cables affected by a service advisory.

28 Squadron can simultaneously operate only two C-130BZs on a sustained basis, going up to three as a surge capability when maintenance periods, commitments, and luck all combine. Three of its aircraft, 404, 407, and 408 require so much money to return to service that they are considered non-operational, and one (403) was lost in an accident at Goma, DRC last year.

2 Squadron and 85 Combat Flying School are in desperate straits, as the cost of just maintaining their support contracts with Saab and BAE Systems respectively swallow up virtually all of their allocation, and Line Replaceable Units and other spares still need to be procured separately and individually. Already a number of Gripens and Hawks have been cannibalised and would need hundreds of millions, if not billions, of Rand to return to service.

Central Flying School is struggling with aircraft availability as a result of new corrosion issues, always a problem with aircraft operating so close to the sea. In normal times this would be fairly easy to resolve, but under current constraints it has been severely damaging to pupil pilot courses. Even the Silver Falcons were unable to fly as scheduled for some time.

The transport helicopter squadrons (15, 17, 19, 22, and 87 HFS) are all struggling with Oryx availability in particular, sometimes even being unable to keep sufficient aircraft available for base standby requirements. Denel’s issues have been a huge problem here especially, and the requirement to have five Oryxes in the DRC and two in Mozambique has limited the available number of aircraft available within South Africa. By some unofficial estimates, the actual number of operational Oryx helicopters may be down to 25 or 30 from the 51 originally procured.

16 Squadron is also badly affected by Denel’s issues and an insufficient budget, along with the need to keep three aircraft serviceable in the DRC for the UN mission there. At least one Rooivalk has been sitting at Denel for ages waiting for parts, for a maintenance procedure that itself would take no more than a few days at most.

Even the Rooivalk is becoming unsustainable.

21 Squadron is facing a looming C-Check for Inkwazi, its VIP BBJ, and is struggling to bring its Falcon 50s back into service with the latest mandated avionics upgrades like ADS-B Out. Its two Citation 550s have been grounded indefinitely for over half a decade now and will never return to service. Its sole Falcon 900 has not flown in some time.

The situation is a little better for 41 Squadron, which are seeing decent availability from their Cessna C208 and Beech King Air fleets, both of which have been involved in supporting the SADC mission in Mozambique. 44 Squadron however is struggling to keep up enough flying to support all the requirements placed on it, which has a knock-on effect on currencies for Army units like 1 Parachute Battalion, 101 Air Supply Unit, and others who relied on them for ongoing training.

Worse, this is all just what it takes to keep the SAAF’s current aircraft operational. It does not take into account the urgent need to replace many of the types in service, especially the C-130BZs and C-47TPs, or perform mid-life upgrades on others, like the Rooivalks. There is an acquisition project for each of the SAAF’s current aircraft listed on the Strategic Capital Acquisition Master Plan (SCAMP), its long-term planning document, but every single one has been halted indefinitely as a result of National Treasury taking away the Air Force’s allocation for the Special Defence Account. So increasingly tired aircraft in shrinking fleets are being pushed to the breaking point, with no relief in sight.

It’s difficult to not be cynical and pessimistic about the future of the SA Air Force given all these obstacles though, especially seeing as though the same warnings have been given many times over the past few years without any serious changes or improvement. We can only hope that the combination of new leadership at the top of the Air Force, the SANDF, the Defence Ministry, and the Finance Ministry brings a fresh mindset and new approaches to stave off disaster.

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