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Ahead of next week's Africa Aerospace and Defence show, we assess how a $5 billion acquisition spree will change South Africa's air capability

The sweeping transformation of South Africa's armed forces that began in the early post-apartheid days of the mid-1990s is at last about to impact on its military aviation capability, with the country awaiting delivery of the first of 86 new aircraft under contract.

Four aircraft types - the Saab/BAE Systems' Gripen C/D multirole fighter, BAE Hawk 120 lead-in fighter trainer (LIFT) and AgustaWestland A109 light utility and Super Lynx 300 maritime helicopters - will be introduced over the coming years under procurements worth totalling $5 billion.

The South African Air Force (SAAF) signed a combined $2.2 billion contract in 1999 to acquire 28 Gripens and 24 Hawks to replace its ageing inventory, including the Atlas Cheetah C/D (Dassault Mirage III) fighter and 9 attack/trainer Impala I/II (Aermacchi MB326). Although this represents a 75% reduction in fleet size compared with previous air force levels, BAE says the re-equipment of the service's frontline squadrons will raise its operational capabilities while reducing its operating costs.

The SAAF's future fleet will be headed by a small inventory of 19 single-seat Gripen C fighters and nine D-model two-seat combat-capable trainers, deliveries of which will run from early 2008 to 2011. Two-seater deliveries will begin in January 2008 and conclude in late 2009, with single-seat aircraft to be handed over from 2009-2011.

Although South Africa was the first export customer to select the Gripen, it will tail the Czech Republic and Hungary in fielding the fighter. The Gripen will formally enter South African service in 2008, with the air force's last Cheetah interceptor and ground-attack aircraft to be retired around 2012.

Weapons revisions

The SAAF is within months of finalising its weapons fit for the Gripen, with work now focused on revisiting some system elements defined under its 1999 contract against current operational requirements. Final revisions are expected by year-end. The armaments package outlined under the original order includes short- and beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles and both precision-guided and unguided bombs.

Weapons under consideration for the Gripen include the radar-guided R-Darter beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile - a South African product made by Denel's Kentron division that draws heavily on Israel's Rafael-built Derby missile.

If concluded, the R-Darter acquisition will bolster South Africa's domestic weapons industry, which provides a full range of air-launched ordnance for fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft, and helicopters, including the air force's Denel Rooivalk assault helicopters, but is struggling to find financial backing for development projects in the new South Africa. For example, air force interest in equipping the Gripen with an air-launched cruise missile remains only a possible long-term requirement, despite Kentron's efforts in promoting its Mupsow stand-off weapon for about a decade.

Saab/BAE joint venture Gripen International says the SAAF's new multirole aircraft will have a key role in supporting South Africa's future regional stability operations in southern Africa. This mission for the aircraft sits comfortably with South Africa's defence review of 1995-7, which sought to boost the country's regional peacekeeping capabilities by acquiring new equipment. The company hopes South Africa will, in time, acquire more Gripens to further expand its air force capability to support operations in and beyond the home nation.

South Africa's first three Gripens are now in production in Sweden, and the first of these is scheduled to enter an anticipated 12- to 15-month flight test phase late next year. This could include the deployment of test aircraft to South Africa during 2006, says Gripen International. South African companies including Denel and Grintek are now supplying structural components and avionics equipment for integration into the SAAFaircraft in Sweden.

Gripen International is to send two Gripens to South Africa for the Africa Aerospace and Defence (AAD) show at Waterkloof airbase near Pretoria from 21-25 September: one single-seat JAS39A and one twin-seat B-model aircraft.

BAE's Hawk 120 will fulfil the SAAF's LIFT requirement from next year, with the first locally assembled example set to begin taxi trials late this year and have its debut flight next January (Flight International, 10-16 August). Assembled at Denel Aviation's Kempton Park plant near Johannesburg, the aircraft is now undergoing ground tests of its Rolls-Royce Turbomeca Adour 951 engine. Earlier integration work with the new powerplant - which will also equip new Hawks for India and the UK - was conducted in South Africa using BAE's Hawk development aircraft.

Hawk undertest

The Hawk programme's lone UK-assembled aircraft, dubbed SA001, is now more than halfway through its planned 75-sortie flight test campaign, with more than 40 flights logged by early September. Trials work was completed earlier this year on the aircraft's navigation and radio equipment, and recently the SA001 successfully dropped 115kg (250lb) Mk81 bombs from all four of its underwing hardpoints and flew its first sorties equipped with a Thales Vicon 18 Series 601 electro-optic reconnaissance pod. This month the aircraft also achieved its first flight equipped with a BAE Aden 30mm cannon, with an air-to-ground firing campaign to start before the aircraft's appearance at the AAD show. This work will later be expanded to include air-to-air gun firings.

The two-year programme of test activities using SA001 is on track to conclude in mid-2005, says Jonathan Walton, BAE's project head in South Africa. The aircraft is operating from the SAAF's Test Flight and Development Centre at Overberg airbase near Cape Town.

Seven Hawk kits had been delivered to Denel's final assembly hall at Kempton Park by mid-year, and the company's first domestic delivery is scheduled for early 2005. Aircraft will then be handed over at a rate of two a month until the order has been completed in mid-2006. The Hawk 120s will replace South Africa's remaining Impala I trainers from September 2005 after service evaluation trials, with the Impalas scheduled to be decommissioned later the same year.

The SAAF Hawk's will have systems supplied by national defence companies such as ATE, which has shipped its first avionics equipment for integration with the first of 23 South African-assembled aircraft.

The combined Gripen and Hawk deal includes an offset package worth $8.7 billion divided between so-called direct and national industrial packages. Direct offsets will total at least $1.5 billion over seven years, and national commitments to sectors such as mineral exploitation and tourism will total $7.2 billion over 11 years. By mid-2004, South Africa's Armscor organisation had agreed to national industrial package commitments worth $684 million, with this sum spread across more than 30 projects. Direct offset work is also under way, with 44 projects submitted worth more than $600 million.

The SAAF will also receive up to 40 new A109 light utility helicopters (LUH) from Europe's AgustaWestland, having signed a contract for 30, plus 10 options, in mid-2000. This deal called for five of the first 30 aircraft to be built at AgustaWestland's Cascina Costa di Samarate site in Italy, with the rest to undergo final assembly at Denel's Kempton Park plant. All five Italian aircraft have now been completed.

Locally assembled

Denel will exhibit its first locally assembled LUH at the AAD show, with the aircraft having flown for the first time on 6 September. This will be joined at the show by two Italian-built A109 LUHs, the first of which made its debut flight in Italy in September 2001.

A flight test programme will commence after the show, and the A109 is expected to enter operational service with the SAAF before year-end. Both of the Italian-built aircraft to exhibit this month will remain in the country after the show. AgustaWestland has already completed initial training of SAAF technicians and pilots to support service entry of the new aircraft.

The A109 LUH is powered by two Turbomeca Arrius 2K2 engines and can transport up to eight people. The SAAF aircraft can be armed with pod cannon.

Beyond the local assembly of most of the aircraft, further offsets linked to the A109 purchase include Denel's licensed production and marketing of the helicopter, plus the A109 Power and A119 Koala for the southern African and international markets. AgustaWestland also plans to exhibit the latter two types at the show, along with the Bell/Agusta Aerospace AB139.

* The Africa Aerospace and Defence show will take place at South Africa's Waterkloof airbase from 21-25 September. www.aadexpo.co.za

CRAIG HOYLE / LONDON