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A previous article set out eight “levels of ambition” perhaps better termed mission sets: secure land borders, and monitor airspace and maritime zones; protect external vital infrastructure and interests; constabulary missions (antipiracy, smuggling interdiction) in the Southern African Development Community (Sadc); support or intervention if instability in a neighbour threatens SA; maintain conventional defence capability at core level; constabulary missions in Sub-Saharan Africa; support other Sadc countries; and participate in Sub-Saharan peace support missions.

As discussed previously, the first and second are unavoidable, the third and fourth should not be avoided as failure would have serious implications, and a core conventional capability needs to be retained, mainly because threats can arise far more quickly than forces can be rebuilt. 

Air space, borders and maritime zones  

Securing the country’s air space requires the ability to detect aircraft, including those flying at low altitudes, as a smuggling aircraft is likely to do; the ability to intercept such aircraft; and the ability to deploy personnel to deal with the aircraft should it land on some rural airstrip. That adds up to a mix of ground radars, fighters with lookdown radar and helicopters to deploy the ground intercept teams.

The radar network needs to be upgraded and should continue to include fixed and mobile radars, creating uncertainty for intended smugglers. The fighter requirement is met by the Gripen, but we should deploy pairs to Upington and Hoedspruit to be sure of intercepting aircraft crossing from Namibia, southern Botswana or Mozambique; even the Gripen would take too long launching from Makhado. Ground intercept could be handled by the army border patrol units, deploying by Oryx or, given advance intelligence, by the special forces.    

Border security is primarily an army task, including using light unmanned aerial vehicles, but the air force will need to provide helicopter lift for reaction forces and could fly border surveillance and airborne command for reaction forces. The main types will be the Oryx and the Caravan fitted with a sensor turret, and possibly long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).  

Aerial monitoring of the maritime zones is essential — ships are too slow and cannot be everywhere. Over-the-horizon radar or satellite surveillance can provide background but not replace aircraft. Maritime patrol aircraft would be ideal but are costly, so an interim solution would be surveillance types. For the mainland exclusive economic zone (EEZ), an aircraft such as a maritime King Air would suffice, and eight could be enough, though a slightly larger fleet could then also provide border surveillance.

The Marion Island EEZ and the SA Search & Rescue commitment present a challenge. The only aircraft with the required range and endurance is the maritime C-130 Hercules, and we should probably look at four to be sure of availability. Those could also serve for airborne command of special forces and airborne operations. 

Shipboard helicopters are an indispensable element of frigate operations, and there should be eight Super Lynx for the four frigates, to allow at least two and at times three to operate two helicopters each. Algeria acquired 10 for four similar frigates. A simpler variant would be ideal for the offshore patrol vessels, with one per ship, suggesting a fleet of 20 of both variants to allow for maintenance. Ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore supply and personnel movement can be handled by Oryx fitted for that role. 

Protect external vital infrastructure and interests 

The Air Force role here will be mainly reconnaissance and transport, the initial insertion of special forces teams, deployment of follow-on forces to secure the site, and deployment and support of a security force. In some cases there will be a need for surveillance beyond the capabilities of light UAVs, and some situations may require close air support to deal with guerrillas.  

Reconnaissance might best be by a Gripen flying high to avoid being obvious. Later surveillance might fall to medium-range UAVs or observation aircraft. The insertion of special forces teams would best be handled by aircraft such as the C-27J, which has the rough field capability, agility, range and payload (mass and volume) for the role, including the ability to deliver light armoured vehicles. C-130s would suffice for follow-on deployments.

Airborne command might best be from a maritime C-130, which has good communications links, day/night optronic sensors and the endurance to remain on station. In the case of the Lesotho Highlands Water Scheme, the insertion of ground troops could be by Oryx helicopters.  

The airlift requirement might be two or three C-27Js and six C-130s on the day, the latter enough to deploy a combat team and some light vehicles in a single lift. That could be met with four C-27Js and eight C-130s in the fleet to ensure availability. Insertion and deployment by Oryx would require at least eight available immediately.  

The main external vital interest is the security of the Mozambique Channel route, which could be handled by the same maritime aircraft used for EEZ surveillance, operating from a forward base.  

Constabulary missions within the Sadc 

The only likely constabulary mission within Sadc would be maritime, to counter piracy and smuggling. That would be addressed by the same aircraft required for EEZ surveillance. 

Support or intervention operations 

Any intervention operation greater than by a combat team would require more airlift capacity, even though the bulk of movement of follow-on forces could be by road and rail. It would also require reconnaissance and surveillance missions, and possibly close air support or even interdiction.

Any operation beyond Sadc would require substantially more airlift to deploy a battalion within one day to minimise risk — that was why the A400M was to be acquired. Ideally, also tanker aircraft to allow more flexible deployment of the Gripen and Hawk and deeper insertion of special forces by C-27J.

There is also a clear need for an expanded Oryx force to handle these missions plus the internal tasks. The original fleet of 50 is probably a minimum and should be complemented by some heavy-lift types such as the CH-47 Chinook for special forces work and to establish forward refuelling/rearming points for Oryx and Rooivalk.    

Conventional capability 

Air force conventional capability comprises the Gripen and Rooivalk, with the Hawk capable in some roles. This represents a good core, though the Rooivalk force is quite small. Ideally there would be a second fighter squadron, perhaps with the Gripen E for its greater strike capability, and a second Rooivalk squadron.

The more immediate need is to acquire new air-to-air missiles for the Gripen and precision air-to-ground weapons for the Gripen, Hawk and Rooivalk, all potentially available from Denel Dynamics.  


The existing Air Force has a good mix of aircraft, apart from the lack of maritime types and of a type suited to special forces work. But it urgently needs precision weapons, and we do need to look at expanding airlift capability and the helicopter force.

The weapons and some other systems could be sourced locally and exported, generating jobs and forex revenues, as could additional Rooivalk and Oryx. The other aircraft will have to be imported, starting with the maritime types.  

• Heitman is an independent security and defence analyst. This is the final article in a series of four.

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