Declining budgets have stunted many air arms over the past decade, but few have been affected so badly by a lack of funding as the South African Air Force (SAAF).

There are glimmers of financial hope on the horizon, but much depends on South Africa’s legislators approving a defence review that has been stalled in the parliamentary process for more than a year.

By 2013, around half of the SAAF’s front line force of 26 Saab Gripens – 17 single-seat Gripen Cs and nine two-seater Ds – had been placed in storage. An estimated six to 10 were available for flight, but a shortage of pilots meant only around six were capable of being flown on any one day.

Similarly, last year its fleet of 30 AgustaWestland A109LUH light utility helicopters was almost totally grounded. The service found the type vastly more complex to operate than the 1960s-vintage Sud Alouette IIIs it had previously fielded.

In the case of both the Gripen and A109, matters were exacerbated by a lack of maintenance contracts with the manufacturers.

A crippling shortage of funded flying hours for both types in 2013 – 200h for the entire Gripen force and just 71h for the A109s – meant pilots were struggling to maintain currency on type. Frustration with this state of affairs led many South African military pilots to quit and find new jobs – notably with the Australian armed forces.

However, over the past year matters improved slightly on the maintenance front. Saab – which previously provided support through short-term interim contracts – was awarded a SKr180 million ($26 million) “steady state support contract” stretching to 2016. This allows the Swedish company to provide maintenance and engineering assistance against a backdrop of greater certainty.

Similarly, AgustaWestland signed an annual service support contract – extendable for up to five years – for the A109LUH fleet. This involves providing spares, support and D-level maintenance.

The SAAF’s other modern fleet – 24 BAE Systems Hawk Mk120 lead-in fighter trainers – has fared somewhat better under the strained financial circumstances, being simpler and considerably cheaper than the Gripen to operate.

SAAF Gripen

By 2013, around half of the service's front line force of 26 Saab Gripens had been placed in storage

By 2013, the country’s defence budget had dipped to just 1.1% of GDP. Restoring the SAAF’s capabilities to something approaching effectiveness – as well as maintaining ground combat groups that can intervene on behalf of the UN or other international bodies in African conflicts – will require almost double that figure, according to military commentators.

South Africa’s 2012 defence review – recently rebadged as the 2014 defence review – sets out a series of near-term priorities for the SAAF, including the introduction of much-needed strategic and light tactical airlift capabilities, as well as maritime reconnaissance assets. Other capabilities in the extensive wish-list include unmanned air vehicles and an in-flight refuelling capability.

However, Guy Martin, editor of independent South African defence portal DefenceWeb, says the review has yet to be approved by South Africa’s parliament – more than a year since it was drafted.

Without the envisaged injection of funding, the 2014-2015 defence budget – at R42.8 billion ($4 billion) – will be up just R2.6 billion on that for 2013-2014 – scarcely sufficient to cover South Africa’s rising inflation.

Whether this is the start of a realisation in the South African government that the shrunken defence budget of recent years has caused serious problems remains to be seen. There have been complaints that government ministers fail to look beyond the “sticker price” of weapon systems, and do not understand that an operating budget is also required.

For instance, in late 2012 the SAAF cancelled a long-running maintenance and support contract with Denel Aviation to save money. The contract had been in place for 30 years, and Erika Gibson – defence correspondent for South Africa’s Beeld newspaper – described its withdrawal as disastrous: “These 550 [Denel] people were your aircraft specialists. Air force technical people had never learned to cope, they would always ask Denel.”

Commentators have been complaining of South Africa’s declining military capabilities for some years, but current proposals do offer hope, with money being made available in the 2014 budget estimates of national expenditure to improve the SAAF’s operational capability. Money is being diverted to the service’s rotary-wing, transport and maritime capabilities.

The latter two categories also need rapid renewal – particularly the maritime capabilities. Astonishingly, South Africa still relies on four turboprop conversions of 1940s-vintage Douglas C-47s to patrol the strategically vital waters around the Cape of Good Hope and further east.

The SAAF is seeking a replacement for the maritime surveillance C-47TPs under Project Metsi, with a decision anticipated in 2015-2016. Another acquisition programme, Project Kiepie, aims to find a light transport to replace a further three C-47TPs, plus three CASA C-212s. Increased funding has been proposed for the transport and maritime budgets over the next three years to help fund these projects.

Virtually every current type capable of meeting the maritime reconnaissance role has been offered or demonstrated to the SAAF – including the Airbus C295, Bombardier Q400 MSA/MPA, ATR 42MP Surveyor and versions of the Dornier Do228 from both RUAG and Hindustan Aeronautics.

A replacement also needs to be found for the SAAF’s main tactical transport component, which Flight International’s World Air Forces directory shows consists of six Lockheed Martin C-130BZ Hercules.

These marked their 50th anniversary in SAAF service last year, and it is anticipated a replacement will be required by 2025 at the latest.

Lockheed Martin understandably believes the best replacement for a Hercules is another Hercules. The other major competitor is likely to be the Airbus A400M Atlas. South Africa originally ordered eight A400Ms, only to cancel them in 2009, citing rising costs.

Airbus Military has never given up on winning a South African order, however. The airframer has continued to give A400M structural component work packages to South Africa’s Denel Aerostructures, demonstrating its support for South Africa’s aviation sector – and keeping a foot in the door when the C-130 replacement order eventually materialises.

Some South African commentators have argued that the C-130J suffers from payload/range and volume restrictions if transporting heavy equipment to areas such as central Africa – where South Africa has been engaged on UN peacekeeping missions in recent years. The current C-130BZs also fall short in this regard, requiring South Africa to hire commercial Ilyushin Il-76 and Antonov An-124s to move heavy kit north.

Ironically, if South Africa reorders the A400M now, it will pay considerably more than the originally-budgeted $1.1 billion.

The 2012 Defence Review is still wending its way through parliament. This, says DefenceWeb’s Martin, offers hope for both the SAAF and the South African National Defence Force generally, as it acknowledges that changes must be made if the armed forces are to both defend the nation and act as an instrument of diplomacy elsewhere in Africa.

While the review recognises the problems – particularly in funding – that face the SAAF, adds Martin, approval of the review is still pending. Only then will an injection of much-needed funds be forthcoming.

Source: Flight International