Publication: Cape Argus Issued: Date: 2008-08-17 Reporter: Graeme Hosken

SA Can't Afford to Fly New Gripens



Cape Argus



Reporter Graeme Hosken

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As South Africa's latest military acquisitions arrive, bolstering the number of fighter jets in the country to four, the multi-billion rand arms deal continues to be embroiled in financial controversy.

The latest two Gripen fighter jets touched down in South Africa last week when they arrived in Cape Town harbour before being flown to Air Force Base Makhado in Limpopo, where they are to be permanently stationed.

As part of the country's 1999 Strategic Defence Procurement programme, South Africa purchased, among other military hardware, 26 Gripen fighter jets and 24 Hawk lead-in-fighter trainers.

The Gripens, nine dual-seaters and 17 single-seaters, are to replace South Africa's ageing Cheetah fighter jet force while the Hawks will replace the Impala jet trainers.

The Defence Ministry, in reply to parliamentary questions, admitted the budget allocated for the operating costs of the Hawk and the Gripen for the 2008/2009 financial year fell short by more than R75 million.

To operate the Hawks and the Gripens, the air force requires R254.4m, but to date it has only received R178.5m.

The operating costs include those of operating the squadrons, fuel, maintenance, repair, ammunition and survival requirements.

Added to this is the fact that of the 243 air and ground crew positions available for the aircraft programmes, only 149 have been filled, with the Gripen programme being the worst affected.

Twelve of its 19 pilot posts are vacant as are nearly half of its 111 ground crew positions.

The admission comes a week after the South African Air Force (SAAF) admitted that a cash crisis had forced it to decommission the Cheetah fighter jets four years too early, rendering the air force nearly powerless to defend the country from an aerial attack.

SAAF chief Lieutenant-General Carlos Gagiano said that because of funding "we had to close the Cheetah programme so that we could start the Gripen programme.

"The bottom line is that our funding does not allow two systems to be operated simultaneous," he said adding that he was gravely concerned by the situation.

Attempting to allay fears Gripen spokesman Linden Birns said the remaining Gripens would continue to arrive between now and 2012.

"The next Gripen is set to arrive later this year followed by the rest which will continue to arrive up until 2012," he said, adding that the delivery process was on track.

Birns said the modern Gripen C and D fighter aircraft would enable the SAAF to simultaneously downsize its fighter inventory while maintaining its full operational capability for national defence and regional peace missions.

With acknowledgements to Graeme Hosken and Cape Argus.