In Defence of African Aerospace and Defence 2014

This week has seen the Africa Aerospace and Defence (AAD) exhibition display a remarkable array of military weapons systems, vehicles, aircraft and a host of related products. For the ordinary South African, AAD is either utterly unknown or, if you happen to live near Centurion, that thing that happens every two years that creates a hell of a noise – in part because Saturday and Sunday see the gates at Waterkloof Airforce Base opened to the public to view some genuinely amazing aerobatics. This year is no exception. Naysayers questioning the ability and number of the South African Air Force’s pilots and planes can look forward to having their pessimism firmly refuted during the weekend. However, it’s the trade days from Wednesday to Friday that are truly compelling for serious African defence players from around the world.

For those who have attended, this year’s show was noticeably quieter. There were fewer large aircraft, less displays of vehicles, armour, radar and small arms than in 2012. It carried almost a sense of injury since the 2012 AAD, where companies were exhibiting with fresh optimism in the wake of the Defence Review and the promising financial carrots it might offer.

If you happen to attend the exhibition in uniform though, the steely Anglophobic attendants are miraculously substituted by translators eager to show you which missile system will best suit your missile-launching needs.

The truth of the matter is that the arms deal has created a weighty cloud of pessimism over any whiff of new procurements, and thus the rampant marketing of new products can come across as unpalatable. Yet, when peering inside AAD, you are afforded a much broader perspective on the defence sector within South Africa and on the continent more broadly. The number of exhibitors (over 300) and the size of their stands often indicates the seriousness with which each company takes the African defence market. China, for example, builds a giant national pavilion in one of Waterkloof’s cavernous hangars, and remains utterly unbreachable by the media. If you happen to attend the exhibition in uniform though, the steely Anglophobic attendants are miraculously substituted by translators eager to show you which missile system will best suit your missile-launching needs.

This is the exhibition, after all, where Russian state arms corporation Rosoboronexport announced a giant, $1 billion deal with Angola for fighter jets that the Indian Air Force considered obsolete. It’s the place where you will see stretch limousines ushering in figures far too important to march the route from stand to stand to attend meetings geared towards equipping his or her defence department. In this regard, comparisons with Lord of War are be understandable.

But this would be oversimplifying things. While large, troubling arms deals are signed with alarming alacrity, there is another, more positive aspect of AAD that often gets ignored amongst the flash and pomp.

That the 2012 Defence Review promised much in terms of future budget but little in terms of firm timelines has discouraged many aerospace companies from attending the event. It is expensive, after all, to send delegations to a country that has a tendency to take decades to make a procurement decision and may not result in an immediate contract. The result: there is no money for now, but the need remains, and so only the larger international players have maintained a presence at AAD. For the locals, though, it’s adapt or die.

AAD 2014 has showcased local defence companies’ willingness to stretch their legs outside of defence and into the civil sector, introducing prototypes and plans that might yet prove game-changing. South Africa’s defence parastatal Denel, for example, unveiled the Sara, a light civilian aircraft capable of carrying over twenty passengers along air routes that are not being covered by major airlines. The research and design expertise thatDenel has used in developing attack helicopters that helped destroy M23 rebels in the DRC has been reapplied to providing a civilian aircraft design that is both new and remarkably intelligent in conception and business plan – the project is intending to proceed with significant private investment, rather than asking the government to foot the bill. Denel’s shift into the civilian aviation sector highlights local defence companies’ resilience in the face of a stalled defence budget.

beyond the dark humour of a giant, inert chunk of metal sitting amongst systems that will invariably be used in violent struggle, Paramount has produced an interesting new light attack aircraft

The bigger international companies that the average Joe would be familiar with, such as Airbus, Saab and Boeing, all bring a large presence to AAD as well. Showcasing various systems ranging from Boeing’s increasing interest in the civil aviation sector in Africa to Airbus’ monk-like patience in reminding delegates that the A400M is not only fully alive, but fast-becoming a serious consideration for African airlift requirements. This is important to see at a defence exhibition in South Africa. It is military airlift, after all, that could have saved lives during the Battle of Bangui. It is military airlift that saw a successful election in the DRC. And it is military airlift that provides life-saving humanitarian assistance to South Africa’s regional neighbours. These strategic realities  are lost in the wash of post-arms deal hysteria, and are only exposed during events like AAD, though even then only to the trade visitors and a small clan of niche defence media outlets.

An overview of AAD 2014 would be remiss without a hat-tip to South Africa’s Paramount Group. Known to the world after their Marauder armoured vehicle was televised in Top Gear, Paramount has combined the personal brand of their CEO with an incredibly self-aware marketing strategy. The erection of a giant transformer-looking robot, accompanied by complimentary selfies for all those wanting one, uniform or no, blends seemlessly with the #parabot campaign. And yet, beyond the dark humour of a giant, inert chunk of metal sitting amongst systems that will invariably be used in violent struggle, Paramount has produced an interesting new light attack aircraft – the AHRLAC – in a South African defence market that has so far been saturated in pessimism. But like Denel, the company is looking to sell the aircraft far more widely than the South African market.

AAD this year may have been quiet in terms of new deals, but an atmosphere of quiet optimism seems to be building. You will easily find commentary on the woeful state of Africa’s defence forces – this publication is frequently right there amongst the critics – yet there is something quite encouraging to see an industry knocked down so often by poor perceptions and even poorer market conditions  wipe the dust off, stand up, and continue with innovation against the odds.

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