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Air Force keeps mum on combat pilots

Date: 17 November 2010

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Cape Town - The SA Air Force (SAAF) on Wednesday invoked "national security" to avoid telling MPs how many fully-trained combat pilots it had to fly its multi-billion-rand Gripen fighter and Hawk fighter-trainer aircraft.

This question, among others, came after a briefing by SAAF air capability planning director, Brigadier-General Wiseman Mbambo, to members of Parliament's defence portfolio committee.

In the briefing, he told MPs that "inadequate funding" of the Hawk and Gripen combat systems had placed these "in the balance", and the SAAF "has not been able to generate the required number of flying hours and re-provision the systems adequately".

To save on costs, pilots were training on Pilatus aircraft rather than the Hawks, because these were cheaper to operate, Mbambo said.

This prompted at least two MPs to inquire on the number of qualified combat pilots available for the Hawks and Gripens.

Responding, Mbambo called on committee chairperson Mnyamezeli Booi to advise him whether or not to answer this question.

"I would like to get some advice on that one because it touches exactly on the... security of the country in terms of what we have currently for combat readiness."

Mbambo had earlier been cautioned by the chairperson not to venture into areas that touched on national security.

His call for advice prompted an objection from Freedom Front Plus MP Pieter Groenewald.

"That can't be a threat (to national security). I've asked this question in Parliament a couple of times. What is the threat? To know how many combat pilots we have? Let us know!" he said.

Booi then asked Mbambo if he was saying divulging this information was a threat to national security.

Mbambo responded: "It's digging into the actual capability that we have. Another thing... the combat readiness of pilots will differ from time to time. I can give you an answer now, but as I walk out of this room, the answer is not perfect anymore."

Booi then ruled that the question was "bordering on national security"; that Mbambo was not in a position, as a serving officer, to answer it; and, would have to consult Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu before providing an answer.

He further suggested the question could be "posed through the parliamentary system to the minister herself".

Earlier, Mbambo sketched a picture of an airforce that was desperately short of funds.

The SAAF's budget allocation for 2009/10 had been R3.1bn, of which R1.6bn was for personnel and R1.5bn for operations.

"In the year under review, the SAAF was under-funded to the tune of R132m, specifically on operations," he said.

Reporting on the SAAF's air combat capability, he said it had been planned to fly 950 training hours, but only 715 were achieved.

"The reasons include: substantial underfunding of the systems; long lead times on spares; the Gripen support package has not been fully delivered (during the year under review); and a software upgrade on the Hawks which affected availability," Mbambo said.

MPs also heard the SAAF had been forced to dig into its severely-strained operations budget to fund capital equipment.

"If we do not take operational funds to buy spares, we will not be able to fly the aircraft," an official told the committee.

Source: News24

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