According to highly-placed sources in the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), Rooivalk attack helicopters deployed to the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) may end this year, following a request received from the United Nations to repatriate them as part of cost-saving measures. A final decision on whether the aircraft will continue with the mission will be dependent on negotiations currently being held between the SANDF and the United Nations.

If the decision is made to repatriate, all three Rooivalks presently stationed at Goma in the eastern DRC will be back in South Africa by the end of May or June at the latest, marking an end to the type’s four and a half year deployment to the country in support of both regular UN peacekeeping forces as well as the more robust operations of the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB). Over that period the Rooivalk detachment of two aircraft and one spare, four air crew, and fifteen ground crew successfully carried out hundreds of sorties, with more than a dozen of those being full combat sorties in which the aircraft fired a total of over 600 rounds of 20 mm cannon and 800 70 mm unguided rockets. The earliest, and arguably most important of those combat missions were those carried out against the M23 rebel group in late 2013 and early 2014, in which the Rooivalk’s ability to operate in all weather and strike with a high level of accuracy was credited with breaking the back of M23’s resistance.

The remainder of the sorties were intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) missions using the aircraft’s on-board NightOwl infrared and thermal imaging system, which made up 80% of all sorties, and armed escorts of utility and transport helicopters into high-risk areas. In total, the SAAF’s Rooivalks have flown over 1,500 hours for MONUSCO since 2013, playing a vital role in supporting the Force Intervention Brigade and allowing the peacekeeping mission to conduct more offensive operations.

However, the Rooivalks cost MONUSCO at least US$12 million a year, making them a much costlier platform to operate than the Ukrainian-supplied Mi–24Ps also deployed to the mission. The main reason for this cost difference is that the Rooivalks are more capable and better-equipped than the older Mi–24Ps, but it’s also a result of South African Air Force operating doctrine which specifies that Rooivalks may only deploy in mutually supporting pairs.

That cost was easily justifiable when MONUSCO was going up against semi-conventional and well-equipped forces like the M23 insurgency in 2013, but it has become increasingly difficult to justify as the mission has begun to receive sharp cuts to its budget. This is despite a more challenging security environment, in which most of the remaining irregular forces in the eastern DRC comprise less well-equipped militias that are not as susceptible to airstrikes.

Last year, the Trump administration succeeded in reducing MONUSCO’s budget by $100 million (an 8% decrease) and it seems likely to repeat the approach when this year’s budget negotiations begin. Given that the political and security situations in the Congo are deteriorating daily as a result of crisis over President Kabila’s delays in holding elections, MONUSCO has found itself having to make difficult choices in order to fulfil its mandate while staying within its limited budget. The majority of Rooivalk missions have been in ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance) or escort roles that can safely be performed by Mi-24Ps and other, cheaper platforms. The five South African Air Force Oryx transport helicopters, currently deployed to MONUSCO under a separate Letter of Assist (LOA), are cheaper to operate and will remain with the mission.

All of this is taking place within the context of the most substantial evaluation and rethinking of United Nations peacekeeping missions in decades, largely as a result of the recommendations made by the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) in 2015, and further informed by a study on improving the security of peacekeepers written by Lieutenant General (Retired) Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, William R. Phillips, and Salvator Cusimano in December 2017.

As part of these studies, the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations is looking at ways to change the nature of peacekeeping forces from the traditionally static, poorly equipped, and complacent forces typical of Chapter VI operations to being better-trained and well-equipped units able to conduct highly mobile operations across the entire mission area with small logistics footprints. This is intended to allow forces to respond to emerging situations before they escalate. In the view of a former SANDF officer who served in MONUSCO, using the limited funds available to bring about these operational changes as fast as possible appears to be a higher priority than retaining the additional capabilities brought by the Rooivalk.

The Rooivalk’s time in the DRC has provided valuable lessons, test data, and experience for the South African Air Force and a useful capability for MONUSCO when it mattered. What’s more, the Rooivalk’s combat performance, especially against M23, re-ignited international interest in the platform to a point where Denel had began exploring the idea of offering an upgraded Mk2 variant for sale.

A final decision will be made in the next few weeks in the discussions between the SANDF and the UN on the Rooivalk itself and in parallel discussions being held between SADC and the UN on the future of the Force Intervention Brigade.

Cover Image: A pair of Rooivalk Mk1s. Photo by Trent Perkins/ADR

Comment was requested from both the SANDF and the UN, but neither had responded on record by the time of publication. We will update this story as and when we receive a reply.

UPDATE 2018-02-26: A spokesperson for UN peacekeeping has provided the following response: 

“The Department of Peacekeeping Operations conducted a thorough strategic review of MONUSCO last year to ensure that the Mission is adequately positioned and equipped to respond to the changing threats and challenges. Some of the recommendations of the review are addressed to the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), of which South Africa and other SADC countries are key contributors. We are discussing with SADC countries as well as with all troop contributing countries, on how best to translate these important recommendations into concrete actions.”

“At the same time, following a review of the United Nations air assets initiated by the Secretary-General and aimed at improving efficiency and make savings in an increasingly constrained financial context of the Organization, it was determined that MONUSCO would need to give up its Rooivalk Helicopters. At this stage, it is considered that the Mission is in position to implement its mandate without additional attack helicopters.”

UPDATE 2018-02-27: A spokesperson from the SANDF has provided the following response:

“The SANDF can confirm that there are deliberations on the withdrawal of Rooivalk due to financial constraints within the UN.

SADC is still busy with talks with the UN to decide what the implications will be and the way forward.”