Months of uncertainty ended on Monday 5th September for the South African Air Force’s (SAAF’s) front line combat fleet when a single-seat Gripen C (tail number 3918) took off from Air Force Base (AFB) Makhado in the wake of intense work by 2 Squadron technicians and pilots.
Details of the sortie – the first by a SAAF Gripen in a year – have not been made official with African Defence Review (ADR) director Darren Olivier saying 3918’s return to the skies followed “final signing of a delayed support contract” and the sweat equity put in by 2 Squadron personnel. He called it a remarkable achievement, given the timescales and resources available. Further evidence the single-engined jet fighter’s take-off was truly a team effort came via the involvement of former 2 Squadron personnel volunteering reserve duty to assist.
Right now, Olivier maintains it’s about regaining basic operational currency and will be months before combat readiness is restored.
“Even then it won’t be to previous levels absent an increase in funding. There is still a long way to go. 3918’s take-off and subsequent landing was an important symbolic step. At one stage it wasn’t at all certain we’d ever see a SAAF Gripen in the air again.”Darren Olivier, Director African Defence Review (ADR)
The ever-present spectre of funds, more specifically the lack thereof, means the newly concluded support contract covers only 13 aircraft. This Olivier sees as sufficient to rebuild air combat capability, retain scarce skills and provide some operational deployability. The three year contract is, according to him, important for stability and rebuilding capability. The capability side goes further than 2 Squadron and its air and ground crews. Forward air controllers (FACs) and other musterings rely on 2 Squadron for currency and qualification.
On paper the SAAF has a Gripen strength of 26, but one was damaged beyond economic repair and 12 will be mothballed to stay under the budget ceiling, leaving 13 aircraft operational.
There is talk of putting the Gripen into the air above AFB Waterkloof during the 21 to 25 September Africa Aerospace and Defence (AAD) exhibition.
Late last month Armscor told Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans (PCDMV) that all SAAF aircraft maintenance contracts were resolved, with 40-odd contracts in place, including the Gripen and Pilatus fleets as well as the VIP aircraft.
In February this year, only 25% of SAAF aircraft were serviceable with Armscor at the time evaluating bids for aircraft support contracts.