The South African Air Force's involvement in the Democratic Republic of Congo over recent years has shown up a major weakness in the force's capabilities, but has also potentially given a new lease of life to a home-grown weapon system. Alan Dron reports.
For more than a decade, South Africa has contributed to peacekeeping efforts in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Contributing both troops on the ground and a small, but important air component, it has been responsible for helping rid the troubled central African nation of one of its most feared insurgent groups.
The first South African Air Force (SAAF) deployment to the DRC took place in 2003 in the form of two Atlas Oryx medium transport helicopters (MTH) to the Ituri/Bunia area in the east of the huge central African country. This was a bilateral agreement with French forces, supported by the United Nations and lasting just two weeks. During this intervention operation the Oryx –remanufactured and upgraded versions of the Aérospatiale Puma – were utilised as trooping and medium transport platforms.
The next deployment to the DRC was not until 2007, when two Oryx were sent to a forward operating base in Kamina, again to fly typical trooping and transport tasks in the unstable Goma region in the east of the country. This element then relocated to Goma in 2009.
This latter deployment was strengthened with three further Oryx, which were joined for the first time by South Africa’s indigenous Rooivalk combat helicopters, three of which were engaged in operations.
As well as the aircraft, the SAAF contingent operated a variety of ground support vehicles, air rescue support service, cargo-handling equipment and tracking and communication equipment.
Currently, the South African Aviation Unit in the DRC numbers 140 personnel. The five Oryx are assets of the force commander in terms of trooping and medium transport tasks. The Rooivalk, on the other hand, is a specific tool for the force commander in offensive military actions relating to the utilisation of the MONUSCO force intervention brigade (FIB). MONUSCO is the UN peacekeeping mission to the DRC.
The 3,000-strong FIB, comprising South African, Tanzanian and Malawian troops, was the United Nations’ first unit to be given an offensive operations mandate against armed groups threatening peace in the eastern DRC.
The Rooivalk is currently utilised in the combat reconnaissance and close air support roles to assist both the FIB and DRC Government forces in offensive actions against armed groups destabilising the east of the country.
Supporting the helicopters in the testing environment of the DRC has been the responsibility of what a South African National Defence Force (SANDF) spokesman described as “a small but very professional and effective” technical team in Goma.
“They have maintained a 100% serviceability record for the last two years. One of the Oryx helicopters was shot at and one of its internal fuel tanks was punctured. This was repaired and the aircraft was serviceable within four hours.”
A recurring difficulty since the start of South Africa’s involvement in the DRC has been transporting heavy equipment to and from the country. The SAAF’s largest airlifter is the Lockheed Martin C-130BZ Hercules, which has limitations. This has necessitated the chartering – at considerable cost – of specialist civilian heavy-lift aircraft.
“The C-130 Hercules was never built as a strategic or heavy-lift aircraft,” said a SANDF spokesman. “It is at best a medium transporter and in the case of the utilisation in the DRC, a medium sustainment platform. The joint operations division utilises the C-130 to transport medium-size cargo to the mission area.
“Joint operations utilises Ilyushin Il-76, Antonov An-124 and other aircraft similar in size to the C-130 chartered from different companies in South Africa to transport equipment heavier than 15tonnes, as well as equipment that does not fit the dimensions of the payload.
“No SAAF C-130 will be permanently based in the mission area – there are no such requests from the UN, as the type of trooping required does not suit a fixed-wing aircraft. However, the C-130 will transport equipment between Goma and other airfields in the mission area. The bigger aircraft [Il-76 and An-124] cannot land at Goma due to the all-up weight restrictions of the airfield.”
One major success of the SAAF operation in the DRC, he said, had been the first use in combat of the Rooivalk. “The Rooivalk was instrumental in the defeat/demise of the M23 rebel group in the eastern DRC. The effect of close air support to the FIB on the stronghold of the M23 was devastating. Cannon fire and missile fire destroyed its headquarters, which contributed to the disappearance of the M23 from the eastern DRC.”
The Rooivalk has a nose-mounted 20mm cannon and routinely carries pods of 70mm rockets on its stub wings.
“The [Rooivalks’] current missions include combat air patrols, combat reconnaissance patrols and combat escort of MONUSCO air assets on other missions.”
Now, the Rooivalk’s performance may see it being further developed. It has a growing reputation for maintainability and reliability despite the challenging conditions.
Although well-regarded by observers, only 12 Rooivalks were produced, equipping a single SAAF squadron. It also took many years to be deemed fully operational, a factor in its failure to win export orders despite attracting interest from several air arms.
Specialist South African defence website defenceWeb reported in August that the country’s Department of Defence and Military Veterans is supporting a study for the possible upgrade of the current Rooivalk 1F baseline model, replacing some obsolescent on-board equipment. The study is also looking at a much more extensive development, effectively resulting in a ‘Rooivalk Mk2’ around 2025 or beyond. Cost is likely to be the deciding factor.
“The current Rooivalk Mk1F baseline as deployed will require a midlife upgrade due to future additional functional requirements,” said Denel in its annual report. “Denel is in discussions with the SAAF regarding the Rooivalk roadmap to define and upgrade the current Rooivalk baseline, as well as the possible development and manufacturing of additional aircraft at a Rooivalk Mk2 baseline.”
Meanwhile, one of the biggest lessons learned from the extensive deployments to the DRC had been the requirement for more transport assets, said the SANDF spokesman. “The SANDF does not have a strategic/heavy-lift capability and if South Africa is to take part in future operations in Africa, it should have that capability. As far as the acquisition, renewed or otherwise, is concerned the joint operations division, as the end user, does not get involved in that process.”
Other challenges had included the long logistics lines, which made proper support difficult, together with the service schedules for the helicopters, as flying hours are unpredictable and based on operational requirements. “Technicians can do services up to the 400hr service; thereafter, major services must be done in South Africa.”
Agreeing on the requirement for a heavy-lift capability is David Maynier, the country’s opposition Democratic Alliance Party shadow defence and military veterans minister. But the opposition defence spokesman says that South African parliamentarians have been prevented from getting a clear view of how the Congo mission has progressed by the government’s refusal to give information.
“My understanding is that the SANDF air component – particularly the Rooivalks – have performed very well. The Oryx seem also to have performed extremely well.” Personnel had done a fine job, despite being stretched, he said.
“However, if one looks at fixed-wing aircraft, it’s well known that the SAAF has very limited lift capability. As a result, an enormous amount of money is spent on chartering aircraft to make up the heavy lift capability to the DRC and South Sudan.
“The whole question of the SAAF’s lift capability is a huge concern and, as a result of our deployments not only to the DRC and South Sudan... it’s a priority to acquire lift capability.”
Ironically, South Africa was one of the first export customers for the Airbus A400M heavy transport, but its order for eight was cancelled in 2009 on grounds of cost escalation and production delays. However, Airbus has continued to source work packages for the aircraft from South African companies and remains hopeful that an A400M order will eventually be forthcoming.
Its main rival will be Lockheed Martin’s C- 130J, the current and hugely updated version of the venerable C-130BZs that have been operated by South Africa for more than 50 years. There are eight C-130BZs still in service (although not all are believed to be serviceable at any one time) and ockheed Martin has said that the C-130J could handle 90% of South Africa’s airlift needs.
Lockheed Martin has said that the SAAF requires between six to eight C-130Js to fulfil its needs and has warned that it will take around three years from contract signing to delivery.
The C-130J’s main weakness is an inability to handle particularly bulky or outsize loads. The Oryx helicopters, for example, require major dismantling to fit inside its cargo hold.
Late in 2013, the SANDF was reported to be actively considering the purchase of at least three Ilyushin Il-76s (probably second-hand examples) to supplement the C-130s. However, this would require a major investment not only in the aircraft themselves but also in creating a maintenance support ‘tail’ and no order for the type has yet been forthcoming.
Maynier admitted that it was difficult for him, or other members of the standing committee on defence, to give detailed comments on the deployment to the DRC because of a near total blackout of information from the South African Department of Defence (DoD). His committee had never been briefed on the DRC involvement or undertaken an oversight visit there.
The DoD had also refused for six years to brief parliament on defence acquisition, he said.
Reasons given for the lack of information were unclear, he said, but included national security and the risk of compromising acquisition processes.
However, he added: “There’s clearly an acquisition process under way to acquire a transport capability and it’s budgeted for, because there’s evidence of the acquisition process in the estimates of national expenditure.” There remained no details on what form this acquisition would take.
Ironically, there was no disagreement between the government and opposition that a lift capability was required, he added.