The South African Ministry of Defence has for the first time revealed the operating and deployment costs of the three Denel Rooivalk combat support helicopters deployed to the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the DRC (MONUSCO). The figures were provided as an answer to a Parliamentary question raised by Kobus Marais, the shadow minister of defence and military veterans for the opposition Democratic Alliance political party.

The Ministry’s reply stated that:

(a) Total cost of Rooivalk Helicopter unit in the Democratic Republic of Congo for financial year 2017/18 is: R122 316 383.04

Flying Cost per year = R104 927 400
Rockets for training per year = R8 165 783.04
Fuel cost per year = R9 223 200.00
Total Cost = R122 316 383.04

This comes fairly close to the $12 million annual cost that MONUSCO has budgeted for the Rooivalks.

In addition, the Ministry provided details on the total invoices submitted to the United Nations for the two Letter of Assist periods covering November 2013 till October 2016. No information was provided on invoices for the present Letter of Assist period.

Letter of Assist
(from 01 November 2013 to 30 October 2014)
Flying Hours R128 746 200.00
Ammunition R11 360 283.55
Paint (White) R965 412.00
Total R141 071 895.55


Letter of Assist
(from 31 October 2014 to 30 October 2016)
Flying Hours R296 415 360.00
Ammunition R130 942 961.20
Total R427 358 321.20

As we reported earlier, the United Nations had opted earlier this year to cancel the MONUSCO Rooivalk deployment in favour of less capable but more affordable Mi-24s, as it sought to find savings to deal with substantial budget cuts imposed by the United States. At an annual contracted cost of US$12 million, versus the relatively paltry US$4 million that a pair of basic Mi-24s would cost for the same period, the Rooivalk detachment was an early target for those looking to rebalance the books, especially as new funds had to be found to support the planned national election later this year.

Some confusion and alarm was also inevitable after the initial MONUSCO budgets for the 2013/14 period listed the cost of the Rooivalk detachment as US$4 million before suddenly jumping to US$12 million a year later, creating the impression of a sudden increase in costs. In reality, according to the Secretary-General’s budget report for June 2014 to June 2015 (A/70/613), the US$4 million figure was merely an expected cost based on the hourly rates of standard Mi-24 helicopters, estimated before the Letter of Assist with South Africa was negotiated and the parameters of the deployment decided. All else being equal, advanced combat support helicopters will always cost a lot more to operate than older-generation Mi-24s, given the additional maintenance and support requirements for the various sensors and the standard doctrine (adopted by South Africa) of always flying sorties in supporting pairs, never as a single aircraft.

Another real problem has been the declining availability of the Rooivalk and Oryx helicopters deployed to the DRC, largely owing to the crippling cuts to the South African Air Force’s budget and the resulting reductions in readily-available ammunition, spares, and crew. Instead of being able to acquire ammunition and spare parts in large order quantities, benefitting from economies of scale, the Air Force and Denel are being forced to buy items as and when they’re needed and must each time go through the lengthy and painstaking bureaucratic process that governs public procurement in South Africa. Thus when items break unexpectedly the lead time for replacement parts is unacceptably long, especially when the suppliers are in other countries, during which time at least one of the Rooivalks is usually unavailable.

Between this reduced availability and MONUSCO’s attempts to save funds, the number of hours flown by the Rooivalk detachment has plummeted over the past few months from well over 80 a month in late 2017 to fewer than 20 a month by February.

Nonetheless, South Africa and other countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have strongly opposed the withdrawal of the Rooivalks from the DRC on the grounds that the two Ukrainian-operated Mi-24Ps also provided by the mission lack the equipment and the crew training to provide effective combat air support to the South African, Malawian, and Tanzanian troops deployed with the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) in the country’s volatile north-east.

In the Ministry’s Parliamentary reply, it listed the negative consequences of that withdrawal:

“[R]educed intelligence gathering capability, reduced firepower and the absence of an air interdiction capability will seriously reduce the combat potential of South African Forces to stabilise conflict affected areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Should the helicopter be withdrawn, the Force Intervention Brigade’s morale and confidence will be impacted on negatively.” Senior SADC government and military officials have also hinted at withdrawing the FIB altogether, should the Rooivalks be returned without an equivalent capability being provided.

As a result, the Rooivalk withdrawal has been halted pending the completion of further negotiations, which remain ongoing, between SADC, MONUSCO, and the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO). Amongst the ideas being mooted to maintain the capability under the reduced MONUSCO budget are alternative sources of funding, perhaps from SADC or the AU, or some approaches to extract additional value from the detachment, although none of the proposals appear to have met with wide enough approval to be finalised.

Caption: A Rooivalk combat support helicopter of the South African Air Force, showcasing its 20 mm cannon and 70 mm rocket launchers at the 2018 SAAF Museum Air Show. ADR/DARREN OLIVIER