Previous low availability of South African Air Force (SAAF) Saab Gripen C/Ds has been overcome by bringing stored aircraft back into service, says Lt Col Josias Mashaba, commanding officer of the service's 2 Sqn.

South Africa has 19 single-seat Gripen fighters and nine two-seat D-model examples, most of which are operated by 2 Sqn at Waterkloof air base. At least 12 of the aircraft were put into long-term storage in 2013 because of severe budget cuts.

"Reduced funding means less flying, which means your currency level goes down," Mashaba told the annual meeting of the Swedish Air Force Fan Club in Paris on 18 June. This issue was managed to some extent by flying the remaining aircraft harder, he adds.

"Every country has its ups and downs and has budget cuts," Mashaba notes. "We have overcome them and we basically have all our Gripens up and running."

Although South Africa is working towards meeting a target of spending 2% of its GDP for defence spending, the current level is only 0.9%, air force chief of staff Lt Gen Fabian Msimang told FlightGlobal. In 1994 – the year of the first democratic elections in South Africa – defence spending was 2.9%. "But you have to remember that South Africa is a country in development and we have had other priorities," he adds.

Mashaba says Gripen operating costs are between South African rand (R) 80,000 and R100,000 ($6,300-$7,800) per flying hour.

Lessons learned in introducing the Gripen into SAAF service included not saving money on specialists, especially those in radar and electronic warfare, and involving the squadrons at every stage, says Mashaba, adding: "After all, it’s their aircraft."

South African Gripens are introducing an indigenous datalink called "Link ZA", which allows data sharing with the nation's BAE Systems Hawk 120 lead-in fighter trainers. "We 'Gripenised' the Hawk," says Mashaba. "When you are flying the Hawk, you are able to see the Gripens around you. The stepping stone from Gripen to Hawk is actually much easier."

Mashaba also outlines a unique role for South Africa’s Gripens in combating rhinoceros poaching. Using their Rafael Litening III targeting pods, Gripens will fly at night in the areas where poachers are known to operate – particularly on the Zimbabwe border – and direct wildlife rangers to their camps.

"They are smart, those guys, they are not stupid, but we find them," says Mashaba. There are cheaper aircraft to use than Gripens for such an application, he adds, but anti-poaching surveillance is usually combined with other tasks. "And if we do nothing, the rhinos will all be gone," he notes.

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