A matter of priorities

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Douglas Barrie/JOHANNESBURG

Last month marked the deadline for contenders bidding for South Africa's R10 billion ($2.15 billion) defence procurement package, which includes combat aircraft and naval and support helicopters.

Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK were shortlisted to respond to the May requirement for best and final offers. The winner will pick up the prize of revamping the inventory of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) - or will it?

Joe Modise, South Africa's defence minister, has so far adhered publicly to the concept of a winner-take-all approach to the SANDF's procurement needs.

Many of those involved in the bidding, however, believe the outcome will see South Africa "cherry pick" its preferred elements from the packages on offer, with "purchases" staggered to spread the funding burden.

The key to the procurement, meanwhile, is not just the capabilities of the systems on offer, but the supporting offers of direct and indirect industrial participation.

The South African Government is using its military equipment upgrade programme as a means of attracting inward investment in the country and as a way of providing work (and potential partners) for its indigenous defence manufacturing base.

The seeds of open defence procurement were sown with the collapse of the apartheid regime. The arms embargo on the apartheid state meant that the country had either to acquire weapons covertly, as was the case with the Cheetah C Mirage fighter upgrade implemented by Israel, or develop them indigenously, as was the case with the CSH-2 Rooivalk attack helicopter.

The need for a revised defence posture built around a "core force" was spelled out in the Government's 1996 "White Paper on National Defence for the Republic of South Africa".

FORCE REQUIREMENTS

The core force approach was intended to provide "-force levels-limited to what is needed to maintain essential capabilities and expertise". With the revised posture, "-manifestly offensive armaments and weapons systems, such as long range ballistic missiles and long range bombers, have been excluded from the design".

What was not excluded from the resulting defence review in three of the four force design alternatives was the purchase of a medium fighter to replace the South African Air Force's (SAAF) Atlas Cheetah C/D/Es and Dassault Mirage F1s.

The SAAF's frontline fleet of the two different fighter types amounts to around 100 aircraft. Given that future force structures would be "needs driven and budget constrained", a one-for-one replacement was always out of the question. Force options for either 32 or 44 aircraft emerged from the review. A 32-aircraft procurement is now expected.

Irrespective of the relatively limited procurement numbers, the fighter competition attracted all-comers. This was in part because, in a climate of downward spiralling defence budgets, any competition was worth entering.

The SAAF eventually settled on three fighter contenders, the Dassault Mirage 2000, the Saab/British Aerospace Gripen and the Daimler-Benz Aerospace (Dasa) AT-2000.

Given the desired in-service date of around 2008, the Mirage 2000 may be viewed as effectively an option with no initial risk. It would, however, mean buying an already mature aircraft for a projected service life of at least 30 years. This courts either early obsolescence, or the recognition that the aircraft will be upgraded considerably during its service life.

The Gripen, meanwhile, provides a low-to-medium risk approach, in that the variant likely to be preferred has yet to be developed. In comparison, the AT-2000 presents the highest risk as it is still only a design study. Furthermore, Dasa admits, it would require at least one other export customer before the company could launch the programme.

The AT-2000 proposal has its merits, however, not least the attraction of full industrial participation in the project, with the German offering South Africa a production line should the design be selected.

It is indicative of the nature of the SANDF procurement that, in addition to the defence ministry, the South African finance and trade and industry ministries will be intimately involved in the selection process.

SWEDISH/UK ALLIANCE

While Saab/BAe is unlikely to match Dasa's offer with a Gripen production line, the Swedish/UK alliance can dangle the prospect of BAe Hawk assembly as it competes for South Africa's requirement to replace the locally built Impala jet trainer. The country's lead-in fighter trainer programme is intended to find a successor to the Impala.

As with the fighter competition, the Impala replacement requirement attracted the usual suspects, but there were some unusual offerings. At least 20 expressions of interest have been received by the SAAF, which has a requirement for 16 aircraft.

The Aermacchi MB339, Aero Vodochody L-159, BAe Hawk and Yakovlev Yak-130 are thought to have been shortlisted.

BAe has looked at the possibility of a Hawk assembly line in South Africa, but a 16-aircraft procurement falls far short of a credible production run. The possibility of meeting other regional needs for the Hawk, or of offering the aircraft as a replacement for the Impala IIs used by the SAAF in the strike role, could provide the necessary numbers of airframes for local production to be viable.

The numbers issue is also a concern for Dasa. The German company had been looking to South Korea's KTX-II requirement to provide the necessary additional launch customer for the AT-2000 project. Selection of Lockheed Martin and Samsung to develop the KTX-II would appear to have stymied this hope, but it is conceivable that the two projects might eventually be brought together.

South Korea and South Africa signed a defence collaboration agreement earlier this year and Dasa and Lockheed Martin sources confirm that drawing the two projects together has previously been explored. Senior Dasa officials say, however, that there are no discussions at present on this idea.

US involvement in the South African procurement package remains, at least for the moment, anathema to defence minister Modise. Boeing, teamed with Aero on the L-159, is being considered as a bidder only because the trainer requirement is being run as a separate procurement project.

The USA's exclusion from the large package procurement stems from the fact that its arms embargo on South Africa was only recently lifted. While other states lifted the blanket embargo with the end of apartheid, US denial orders remained in place, to the irritation of the South African Government and industry.

Denel, for instance, still resents the fact that it was denied the chance to include the US Hellfire missile as part of its unsuccessful bid to sell the Rooivalk to the British Army Air Corps.

Since the US Government lifted its embargo in April, there have been both political and industrial overtures to open the South African defence market to US manufacturers. That month, senior US defence aerospace industrialists held discussions with Modise during the South African Aerospace show at Waterkloof airbase near Pretoria.

Lockheed Martin, for example, is believed to have promoted the possibility of providing the SAAF with F-16s, although this option will be a non-starter for as long as the South African Government adheres to the position that its large defence procurement package will not be re-opened to US bidders.

The Government's concern is that, in purchasing critical items of defence materiel from the USA, it would be buying into an ideology. South Africa is keen to retain and enhance its credentials as a non-aligned nation.

NO US OPPORTUNITY?

It appears unlikely, therefore, that the USA will have the opportunity to address the overall defence package, or even major elements of it, should the current timescales for decisions remain in place. Some US manufacturers, however, could yet find their way into the procurement process.

In addition to fighters and trainers, the SANDF also needs utility and maritime patrol helicopters, and here the USA may have an opportunity to compete

Agusta, Bell Helicopter Canada and Eurocopter are the three contenders to provide a replacement for the Aerospatiale Alouette III in the light utility role. The A109, Model 427 and EC135 are their respective offerings.

In the case of the maritime competition, which is for six helicopters, the shortlist appears to have reduced to GKN Westland, with the Super Lynx, and Eurocopter with its much larger AS532SC Cougar.

Kaman, however, has come late to the table, offering the SH-2GSuper Seasprite with the apparent support of the US Navy. The USA is would provide initially a handful of ex-USN SH-2Fs, as has been done in New Zealand, with deliveries of the upgraded SH-2G to follow. The South African navy has already visited Kaman and local sources suggest the service came away with a favourable impression of what is on offer.

Should the South African Government soften its opposition to US involvement in its defence procurement plans, then the naval helicopter programme would appear to be the least unpalatable option.

Given the selection timescale, it is difficult to imagine Kaman being able to provide a full unsolicited bid. If a no-select decision is announced in the naval helicopter procurement, however, then Kaman might just prove to be the sole US beneficiary of South Africa's $2 billion defence modernisation budget.