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Could the SAAF become an air wing?

Date: 9 September 2019

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Parliamentarians were given six reasons for the decline in the airborne arm of service of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) which could eventually see the “air force” becoming an “air wing”.

This uncomfortable scenario was sketched out to Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Defence by SA Air Force (SAAF) Chief, Lieutenant General Fabian ‘Zakes’ Msimang, during an oversight visit to Air Force Base Ysterplaat in Cape Town.

He pointed out since the acquisition of new prime mission equipment in the form of Gripen, Hawk and Agusta A109 aircraft in the late nineties, the SAAF saw its overall situation go from “affordable aviation” coupled with a “can do” attitude and ethos to “unaffordable aviation”. This trend has been manifesting itself more and more since the 2013/14 financial year and led SAAF management identifying a crisis as coming.

Indicators of this are general inflation, aviation specific inflation, the exchange rate particularly Rand/Dollar, an increase in air operations, continued budget cuts, a decay in industry and, what he termed a decay in morale.

A possible end state, given prevailing circumstances, would see the “air force” disappear to become an “air wing” with no assets, apart from personnel.

He told committee members at the base – at one stage earmarked for possible closure – that the air defence programme for the current financial year was allocated R5.9 billion. When measured against a full cost of more than R13 billion, this was a shortfall of more than R7 billion.

“Budget allocation to the SANDF and the SAAF must be looked into urgently. Underfunding and continuous budget cuts have immediate and long term consequences on the SANDF mandate in terms of its air defence obligations,” his presentation read, in part.

Other areas affected include force preparation and readiness, air border security, support to government departments, VVIP transport capability and recapitalisation of the older components of the SAAF fleet. Top of the list are the now 80-year-old C-47TPs operated by 35 Squadron from the Cape Town air force base closely followed by the C-130BZs flown by 28 Squadron at Air Force Base Waterkloof. The first seven of these four-engined transport workhorses were acquired in 1963 with another five arriving in 1997/98. There are currently only nine in the fleet.

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