The Packages and Beyond
SALVO, Armscor's Corporate Journal
The "Strategic Packages"
The "strategic packages" are the first major set of re-equipment programmes since the mid-1980s. As such, they mark the end of a very worrying period for the SANDF. The defence cuts since 1989 had begun to cause real concern that the Defence Force would wither down to a lightly armed militia : unable to defend South Africa's interests unable to influence crucial events in the region, and unable to deter military adventures into this region by external powers.
The government's decision to approve the re-equipment of the Navy and the Air Force has gone a long way to relieve those concerns. Not only in South Africa, but among our neighbours who look to the SANDF as the major defence force in the region, able to field systems they cannot afford or support.
The packages also brought relief to the defence industry, which also went through some worrying years.
Sadly, some companies did not have the faith to wait and have dropped out of Defence, with the concomitant loss of capabilities for South Africa. Those who did hold on will now benefit. Not only can they look forward to work on these new systems, but they will also reap benefits from the DIP programmes and should be able to improve their exports.
Up to now the more complex systems have proved difficult to sell because potential clients were not certain that the manufacturer would be there to support the system over its service life. Now, the key South African companies are assured of support contracts for the SANDF's new systems, and can point to that to reassure clients that they will be there to support their own systems.
These packages are, of course, also the first major equipment programmes since the end of the arms embargo. That has meant the freedom for the SANDF to select what it wanted from the best on the market-limited, as always, of course, by budget and foreign policy constraints. Good fortune also meant that these projects came at a time when the international defence industry was under real pressure, allowing the negotiation of some very good deals.
The result has been a set of good equipment selections at some very good prices, even before the DIP and NIP are considered. Some South African defence companies will be regretting the end of the embargo, which has also meant that they no longer have a captive client. The Defence Force does not, of course, regret that change of status at all. The long-term outcome of the new situation will, in fact, be to the benefit of the industry. The South African companies cannot only now market their equipment more freely, they can also really focus on what they do best and draw elements from other manufacturers where convenient, rather than having to reinvent the wheel or pay premiums to evade the embargo. Even more importantly, the DIP programmes will bring an entirely new set of international links that will enable them to enter new markets and new fields of activity. There will have to be some painful changes in the process of adapting to this new situation, but the result will be worth while.
The Navy's Packages
Perhaps the most important of all the government's decisions has been to acquire four patrol corvettes for the SA Navy. That decision finally recognised that South Africa, in fact the whole of Southern Africa, is economically an island that depends very heavily on the sea. The patrol corvettes will finally restore to the SAN an ability to carry out "blue water" operations.
That does not only mean the ability to protect the prince Edward and Marion Island fishing grounds, and to patrol the outer edges of South Africa's EEZ, but also the ability to assist and support our neighbours faces with fish poaching, gun-running and piracy.
That is important because South Africa "sinks or swims" together with Southern Africa as an economic region. The ships themselves seem to be very well suited to their role : they are large enough to be effective despite the often very bad sea conditions in our wastes; large enough to conduct extended deployments; and large enough to accommodate upgrades during the likely 30 or 40 years of their service lives. The latter aspect is, of course, also enhanced by the MEKO system. The new ships also show a useful degree of "stealth", with the choice of stern exhaust a particularly interesting feature, and a valuable level of propulsion redundancy, as a result of waterjet on the centreline being independent of the diesel system. Their combat system should prove to be well matched to the medium-term needs of the Navy, and there is good potential to upgrade as dictated by future threats. To stay with the good news, the price is right, too : R6 900m for the four, compared to a reported R6 700m for a single "Improved Godavari" class frigate for the Indian Navy.
There is one downside to this package : the SAN act-ually needs at least six patrol corvettes to be really effective, not four. The three new submarines also represent an important decision by the government : to ensure that the Navy retains its submarine capability, which remains the only deterrent a small country can afford. Even the most powerful navies become twitchy when there are submarines about. The submarines will also ensure that there is an effective strategic surveillance capability, which will be essential in the uncertain era ahead of us.
The actual boats selected also seem to be a good choice : a proven class with a modern and effective combat system that will lend itself to the integration of new sensors and weapons as and when threat demands and funding allows. The one upgrade that should be looked at as soon as possible is the integration of a submerged-launched missile. The new Triton, in particular, seems to suggest itself as ideal for the SAN's needs.
As with the corvettes, however, the three ordered are a minimum figure. There is a good case to be made for a fourth. Unless, of course, the government would like to add three air-independent boats at some stage in the future.
The SA Air Force's packages also represent an important decision - in this case to ensure that the SAAF retains a credible multi-role fighter capability.
The advanced trainer follows naturally from that decision, and a new light utility helicopter was quite clearly essential, with the Alouette IIIs now rather older than most readers would consider desirable in their cars.
The Gripen was, arguable, the only possible choice : an aircraft of the new-technology generation that is also well suited to the needs of a small air force operating in a large theatre. The new technologies will ensure that it remains effective through its service life which, given funding constraints, is likely to be a long one. The inherent multi-role capability is of obvious value to a small air force, enhancing its operational flexibility and reducing the number of types that must be operated and supported on a limited budget. The fact that it is specifically designed to operate from austere forward strips, will also be valuable to the SAAF, which may well find itself having to deploy its small fighter force far afield to support the Army and our friends in the region.
As with the patrol corvettes, a look at comparable new contracts suggests that the SAAF is getting a good deal : the UAE is paying some R44 800m for 80 current F-16s, albeit including some missiles. The SAAF will be paying around R10 500m for its 28 Gripens. The downside is, yet again, in the actual numbers : 28 fighters are a very small force in a region of this size. It also does not really allow for a two-squadron fighter force, which is potentially valuable in both training and operations. That said, the Gripen will remain modern long enough for a follow-up buy to be a realistic option in the medium term.
A major upside for the industry is the introduction to the range of new technologies that the Gripen will bring with it. That can go a long way to ensuring a viable aerospace industry for several decades to come.
The other two types are perhaps less exciting, but both should serve the SAAF well. The Hawk was also probably the only viable choice for the new advanced trainer, and has the advantage that there are other Hawks in service in the wider region. That could lay the groundwork for future regional co-operation. The advanced manufacturing technologies that come with it will also be of value to the industry, as will the export links that come with the selection of South African sub-systems for other export Hawks.
The A-109 would seem to be a perfectly workman-like light utility helicopter from a company that has a good track record of producing useful helicopters, and which works closely with the Bell and in future also Westlands.
Beyond the packages
The immediate emphasis will be on meeting the most important re-equipment needs of the Army. Not that the SAN and the SAAF have met all their requirements, but they will be kept very busy for the next decade or so bringing their new aircraft and ships, and their related weapons and systems into service. Then, too, there are some very urgent Army requirements.
Re-equipping the Army
The Army has for many years been the best-equipped of the South African armed forces. That has been a result of three different factors : it started much later, only beginning re-equipment in the early 1970s; the primary threat was land-based, leading to a natural focus on Army equipment; and Army equipment was a rather more practical starting point for South Africa's young industry than would have been any aircraft or ship programme. One result now is, of course, that a lot of equipment is headed for block obsolescence.
The most urgent Army requirement, however, is not to replace one of the existing systems, but to acquire modern SAM systems to be able to protect its forces against air attack. The Army has been able to acquire new radars developed locally, but does not have the missiles to really provide effective protection for its forces in the field. As current planning stands, this need is set to be addressed with two new systems : a lightweight SAM system that can be deployed with airborne and other light forces to provide at least a basic self-defence capability, and a self-propelled short-range SAM system to protect mechanised forces.
The latter is likely to be based on Kenron's Umknonto SAM, but the light SAM is clearly a candidate for foreign acquisition. An additional requirement will be for new fire-control systems. Other major programmes will be a new ICV to replace the Ratel in the mechanised infantry battalions, and a new APC to replace the Buffel and Casspir. All three vehicles have rendered outstanding service, but all three are now quite elderly, while the Ratel is also not really up to operating with the Rooikat. Both of these requirements are most likely to be met locally, but there seems to be no reason why foreign armoured vehicle companies could not be drawn into these programmes.
Another major programme is set to be the acquisition of new MBTs to replace the Olifant Mk 1B. While the Olifant is certainly an old vehicle that cannot be pushed much further by upgrading, the tank project does seem to need revisiting : the key question that must be answered here is whether the very small tank force that is currently planned - one or two regiments - will have tactical capability commensurate with the cost. That force does not seem likely to be strong enough to be an effective deterrent to any outside power able to deploy forces to Southern Africa, but does seem rather costly to be a fancy training aid.
Considering the size and nature of the operational theatre, the same money spent on upgrading the Rooikat, perhaps to a 120 mm gun, and expanding the SAAF's combat helicopter force, would seem likely to offer a better force mix.
There is another requirement that has not yet surfaced formally : the SA Army will be required to operate regionally, and it will need air-transportable armoured vehicles, artillery, logistic vehicles and engineering equipment. That must still be analysed and developed into a set of requirements, but could become urgent rather sooner than some might expect. There is also, of course, an ongoing need to keep the Special Forces properly equipped.
The one other major programme that must be addressed quite soon is to begin replacing the current family of logistic vehicles.
Summing up : if the government is serious about defence, it must now also look to re-equipping the Army. That will bring a considerable amount of work for local companies, and could also draw in international players.
Beyond the Army's needs
While the Army is likely to enjoy priority for a while, there is still a set of Navy and Air Force needs to be addressed once the new equipment has been brought into service.
The Navy will need new surface combatants to replace the strike craft, and that requirement might ideally be met by extending the patrol corvette contract by at least two ships. The short endurance coastal patrol mission can then fall to a new class of "patrol mine-countermeasure vessels" to replace both the Rivers and the Tons. The Navy will also need an additional support ship if it is to operate effectively as a regional force, and to be employed internationally for peace support operations.
Looking beyond the obvious, there is also a very clear need for a multi-role ship that can be employed in the "force projection" role. That ship will need to be able to operate both helicopters and landing craft, which will enable it to deploy and support a ground force or light coastal forces, and which will also make it a very valuable asset in disaster relief operations.
I could be a ship as small as the new Singapore 6 000-ton LSTs, or it could be a through-deck ship with a well deck, similar to that now planned for the Italian Navy and envisaged by the Australian and Belgian Navies. Many navies are now acquiring or planning to acquire such ships, and the SAN should be able to join one of those programmes.
The Air Force, apart from needing more new Fighters and combat helicopters than are currently planned, will have to address two critical needs soon : it has far too little aircraft capability to support the Army and its own combat forces in regional missions; and it has no long-range maritime patrol capability at all. The SAAF must also, of course, finally be given approval to go ahead with the acquisition of shipborne helicopters.
South Africa needs to be able to deploy a reinforced parachute battalion group to anywhere within the region within 48 hours if we are to have a credible crisis response capability. That will require a fleet of around 24 medium-heavy transports to be reasonably sure of having the necessary lift on the day. Some of those aircraft also need to be able to transport an Oryx in a near-flyable state if the SAAF is to be effective in support of the Special Forces. The ideal interim mix might well be a 50:50 C-130:C-160 mix, to be followed by A-400s or the An-74 when that can be funded. The requirement for a medium transport type must take a back seat until this heavier lift requirement can be met.
There is very little point in acquiring a fleet of fuel-efficient five-ton trucks when the critical mission will actually require 10-ton trucks. That said, the SAAF should ideally also have a small number of medium transports for utility tasks, as well as some light utility aircraft.
The Maritime patrol gap has already played its part in not allowing the fishing grounds of the Prince Edward Island group to be well nigh destroyed. This is an urgent requirement if the government is serious about protecting South Africa's resources, and indeed also if it is serious about meeting the international search-and-rescue commitments that it has agreed to.
The need here is for a suitable mix of long-range aircraft, able to patrol the islands and to conduct long-endurance patrols along the edge of the EEZ and in support of our neighbours, and smaller and simpler light patrol aircraft for the coastal waters.
Other SAAF requirements could include high-speed reconnaissance RPVs and airborne sensor aircraft. The latter can be "miniature AWACS" without being cripplingly expensive, as Brazil has shown with its present SIVAN programme, and would greatly enhance the effectiveness of the SAAF's fighter force. There is also a case to be made for a regional force of airborne sensor platforms, but that may not be politically viable for some time yet.
The South African government has shown considerable courage, and realism, in launching the re-equipment of the Navy and Air Force at a time when so many other needs must also be met. The major "packages" now in hand will address some critical needs and will serve to relaunch the South African defence industry. Effective follow-through, to re-equip the Army and to address the other Navy and Air Force requirements, will be necessary to ensure a balanced defence capability. Carefully phased, it could also for the first time break the "boom and bust" cycle of South African defence equipment funding. That will enable the government to ensure effective defence at an affordable cost.
Looking beyond South Africa, there is also a very good case that can be made for regional defence equipment programmes. This is a region that is short of funding but not short of threats. There is much potential benefit in co-operation, and little benefit in always going it alone and duplication of effort.
With acknowledgement to Salvo - Armscor's Corporate Journal.