Jon Lake looks at how the current Namibian Air Force developed from almost nothing just a few years ago.
Namibia (formerly known as South West Africa) West Africa) didn’t have its own
independent armed forces before the country gained independence from South Africa in 1990. Before that the South West Africa Territory Force (SWATF) came under South African command, while the country hosted South African forces engaged in the long- running war in neighbouring Angola.
The Angola accords were signed in Luanda on December 22 1988, bringing the Angolan Civil War to an end and leading directly to Namibian independence.
In November 1989 SWAPO won 57% of the votes in the Namibian General Election and requested British help in setting up defence forces following the formal gaining of independence on March 21 1990.
The People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), the armed wing of the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) and the South West Africa Territory Force were demobilised and many of their members were recruited into the new unified Namibian Defence Force (NDF).
Though engaged in fighting former National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) guerrillas and separatists in the Caprivi Strip, the new army was unnecessarily large, but it was necessary to employ the surplus soldiers and former guerrillas before they were discharged.
Most white South African and SWATF officers left, and a 55-strong British Military Advisory and Training Team (BMATT) was deployed to Namibia on March 26 1990 to begin training a leadership cadre for the newly forming 1st and 2nd Battalions, between April 17 and June 2. The new defence force was set up along British lines, using British ranks.
Namibia inherited a great deal of infrastructure from the South Africans, who had built a number of major airfields (with 7,000-7,500ft asphalt runways capable of accommodating fast jets, including Mirage IIICZs, Mirage F1AZ/CZs, Buccaneers and Canberras). These included (going from west to east) Ruacana, Ondangwa, Rundu and Mpacha.
Grootfontein, in the northeast of the country, was used by the South African Defence Force as the main logistics base, supplying the four northern bases. It had asphalt runways, the longest of which was 8,800ft. There were also airfields at Walvis Bay (7,000ft runway), Keetmanshoop (7,600ft) and Karibib (8,500ft).
The first aircraft to be purchased by the Namibian Government was a Dassault Falcon 900B, delivered in July 1992 for presidential use, though a number of helicopters and aircraft used by the previous administration were also transferred to the new government.
When founding president Sam Nujoma commissioned the NDF Air Wing on June 23 1994, it was very small, with fewer than eight pilots – all expatriates – and a handful of aircraft.
Six former USAF Cessna 0-2A light observation aircraft were delivered to the Air Wing at Windhoek’s Eros Airport on June 26 1994, and were used in the anti- poaching, anti-smuggling and coastal surveillance roles. They augmented a Sikorsky S-61L helicopter, delivered during 1993, and a Reims Cessna F406 delivered during 1994 and operated by the Ministry of Sea Fisheries for patrol and rescue operations.
Over the years, the Air Wing was developed and expanded with a view to establishing a fully fledged air force. Extra personnel were recruited and new equipment was acquired.
Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) handed over four military helicopters during November 1994. These comprised two HAL Chetaks (licence-built SA316B Alouette IIIs) and two HAL Cheetahs, (licence-built SA315 Lamas). One of the Chetaks was painted white and used for VIP transport, while the Cheetahs were used primarily in the training role.
At the beginning of 1995 the Government of Namibia took delivery of a Gates Learjet 31A for VIP use.
During 1996/97 an order was placed for two Harbin Y-12II light transports, delivered by Chinese crews in December 1997. This order followed a demonstration flight for the president of Namibia and senior members of his government in a Harbin Y-12II belonging to the Zambian Air Force during early 1996.
The NDF Air Wing made its operational debut during late 1998, when a number of helicopters and a Harbin Y-12 Transport aircraft were deployed to the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the Second Congo War (1998-2003). They were used to support Namibian troops deployed to support the forces of president Laurent Kabila against the rebels.
During the weekend of January 16/17 1999, two Namibian helicopters (believed to have been a Chetak and a Cheetah) collided in bad weather, killing nine occupants, including five Namibians, two pilots and three technicians.
The NDF was originally expected to have taken delivery of four HAL Chetaks in January 2000. This did not happen. But, following the loss of the second of the original HAL Cheetahs, which crashed near Opuwo on August 1 2008, HAL announced a $10 million order for two Chetak and one Cheetah light utility helicopters for the Namibian armed forces on June 10 2009. These were commissioned in April 2012.
Namibia’s air transport capabilities were bolstered by gifts from Libya’s colonel Gadaffi in the period prior to the inauguration of the African Union in South Africa. Two Antonov An-26s were delivered in 2001, followed by two Mi-8s and two Mi-24/35s in June 2002.
One of the Mi-8s was subsequently damaged beyond repair in a very heavy landing on November 27 2003, while one of the An-26s was damaged after crash landing at Omega airstrip in November 2013. This aircraft now seems to have been repaired or replaced, with Googlemaps showing two An-26s at Grootfontein in 2015.
Long-standing plans to grow the NDF Air Wing into an independent Air Force were set in train in the late 1990s, with preparations for the formation of a fast jet combat air element.
Two MiG-23s were seen at Grootfontein in January 2000, though it now seems more likely that they were deployed from, or loaned by, the Angolan Air Force, and quite probably flown by Angolan pilots. Nothing has been seen of the MiG-23s since then.
An order for four NAMC K-8 Karakorum jet trainers was placed late in 1999. Indications are that four were delivered (though some sources suggest that 12 were ordered and delivered)
and the quartet has since been seen flying from the main international airport. The exact sub-type of K-8 remains unknown, but the aircraft are believed to be similar to those operated by Pakistan, with Martin Baker ejection seats, western avionics and systems and Honeywell engines.
Namibia received two MIG-21bis fighters, and one MIG-21UM two-seat trainer in 2002. The aircraft were then serviced by IAI in Israel, where spotters noted two MiG-21bis and a single MiG- 21UM on April 14 2002. The aircraft were reportedly returned to Namibia in 2006, though three MiG-21s were seen in a flypast at the formal commissioning ceremony that accompanied the official formation of the Namibia Air Force on March 13 2005.
The commissioning of the air force was retrospectively back-dated to 2002, but it was officially declared that June 23 should continue to be commemorated as the Namibia Air Force Day, albeit with 2002 as the baseline date.
The new force was led by Air vice marshal Martin Pinehas – Air vice marshal being the highest rank in the Namibian Air Force.
The air force’s role was to operate in support of the Army and the Navy, flying in the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), transport and training roles, and providing support to the civil authorities. It has assisted in transporting electoral material and personnel during national elections. It has also flown foreign heads of state during their stays in Namibia.
In August 2005, the newly established Namibian Air Force ordered Chinese- built Chengdu F-7NM and Guizhou-built FT-7NG aircraft. Reports suggested that 12 aircraft had been ordered (or 12 plus two twin- stickers), but other sources suggest that just six single-seat F-7NMs were delivered, with two twin- stickers.
The FT-7NG trainers were delivered in November 2006 and the single-seaters between 2006-2008. Some sources suggest that eight more F-7NMs may be on order.
The F-7NM is an export version of the J- 7G, which was a further improved derivative of the J-7E, with a one-piece, wrap-around windscreen, a more powerful engine and provision for a licence-built Russian helmet- mounted sight. The J-7E had introduced a cranked or ‘double Delta’ wet wing, with extended span outer wings of reduced sweep. This gave improved manoeuvrability and take-off performance, as well as reduced drag and increased range.
The aircraft are believed to be equipped with the less powerful Italian Grifo-7 radar, and not the newer Grifo MG, which offers longer range and improved multi-target tracking capability (against up to eight targets), and not the GEC Skyranger, or the Chinese KLJ-6F radar with BVR capability.
Like earlier F-7 ‘Airguards’ they are believed to have a British head-up-display weapon aiming computer (HUDWAC), and other western avionics equipment.
The aircraft serve with the 23rd Squadron, the primary air defence unit of the Namibian Air Force.
With Grootfontein as the main air force base, projects are under way to expand the Keetmanshoop Air Base, as well as to construct a new base at Karibib.
A more controversial procurement came in October 2011, with the delivery of a Dassault Falcon 7X to replace the presidential Falcon 900. Negotiations started in 2007, and the first down- payment was made when the contract was signed at the end of 2008.
Whereas the purchase of a VIP- configured AW139 in September 2004 attracted little public comment, the cost of the Falcon led to much criticism, even though the aircraft it was replacing was more than 20 years old, having flown more than 5,000 flying hours. The old aircraft has reportedly been sold, realising nearly half of the price of its replacement.
While the Falcon 900B carried 14 passengers, the 7X can carry 19 passengers, and can fly directly from Windhoek to London or Paris without any stopovers. Its increased range makes the Falcon 7X more cost-effective, avoiding stopover landing fees and often-exorbitant fuel prices in some African countries.
The Namibian Air Force helicopter squadron (the 151st squadron of the 15th Wing) was bolstered by the addition of a pair of Harbin H425 helicopters, which were handed over on April 20 2012. The H425 is the newest VIP version of the Harbin Z-9.
The Namibian Air Force deployed a flight of helicopters (consisting of one Harbin Z-9 and two Chetaks) to Zimbabwe to assist during the February 2014 floods at Tokwe-Murkosi in Masvingo. The mission lasted seven days, in which 600 residents were airlifted to safety, and the helicopters also carried 56tonnes of supplies.
One of the two H425s crashed on April 11 2014, killing five of the eight people on board.
In September 2014, it was announced that the Namibian Government had deployed three Falcon unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to support anti-poaching operations by the NDF as part of a new more “aggressive” approach. It has not been revealed whether these unmanned aircraft are operated by the air force.
In addition to its flying units, the Namibian Air Force has an Air Force Technical Training Centre (AFTTC) at Grootfontein Air Base. This provides technical training for the air force’s ground personnel, and runs training programmes in conjunction with the Namibian Aviation Training Academy.
An Air Force School of Air Power Studies was inaugurated in February 2015. It will offer six-month training courses to members of the Namibian Air Force and to cadets from other countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, forming part of Namibia’s contribution towards promoting peace and security and integration in the region.
Today, the Namibian Air Force has about 40 pilots, all Namibians, and about 30 aircraft – 12 of them fast jets.
The air force participated in the Namibian silver jubilee independence celebrations in Windhoek on March 20 2015. The accompanying flypast included a formation of helicopters, with a Z-9/H425 and two Chetaks carrying national and armed forces flags, accompanied by a Cheetah. The flypast also included K-8 trainers, which trailed red, yellow and green smoke, flanked by a pair of F-7NMs, and with an FT-7NG tucked in behind.