The South African Air Force (SAAF) faces an airlift crisis. While the demands on its fleet continue to increase, including larger and riskier missions thousands of kilometres from South Africa, its aged transport aircraft are unable to keep up and the stopgap chartering of Illyushins and Antonovs has proven to be unreliable when it mattered.

The backbone of the SA Air Force’s transport fleet is its 9 C–130BZ Hercules and 8 remaining C–47TP Dakota aircraft, yet both types are over 50 years old with the C–130s first delivered in the early 1960s and many of the C–47s built during the 1940s. Even though they have been significantly refurbished, to C–130BZ and C–47TP standards under Projects Ebb and Felstone respectively, they are nearing the ends of their usable lifespans. At a stretch seven of the C–130BZs can trundle on till 2025 or so, thanks to their relatively low number of hours, but the C–47TP fleet needs urgent replacement. A quartet of C212s rounds out the remainder of the force’s light transport capability, but they too suffer from poor availability and need replacement.

SAAF medium & light fixed-wing transport fleet
Type Number in Service
C–130BZ 9
C–47TP 8
C212–200 2
C212–300 2

Funding remains insufficient

By far the greatest challenge to the SAAF’s acquisition and operation of sufficient airlift is the inadequate South African National Defence Force budget, which is set based on a set of guidelines that assumed a largely inactive defence force with minimal peacekeeping involvement elsewhere in Africa.

It costs the South African Air Force about R1.2 billion per annum on average to maintain its existing small transport fleet at around 65% capacity and it should be expected that this will double, at least, for a fleet large enough to meet the SANDF’s needs to be used properly. The expected baseline annual operating cost of the eight A400Ms acquired and then cancelled under Project Continental, for instance, was estimated to be around R1 billion. These figures exclude the costs of operational usage and deployments, which come out of the Joint Operations Division (JOPS) budget.

As things stand, the level of funding is woefully inadequate. Of the nine C–130BZs available to the SAAF only five are available at short notice. One is grounded following a nosewheel failure, one was cannibalised for spares during wing inspections and two are grounded awaiting funding for their scheduled major services. Only three aircraft are operationally available on any given day, owing to shortages of crew and technicians, but since the premature retirement of the SA Air Force’s five Boeing 707s the C–130BZs are required to perform more logistical resupply flights than ever before.

The situation is even worse for the C–47TP fleet which often has a very poor serviceability rate of between 10–30%.

So it makes little sense to discuss the acquisition of new tactical and strategic airlift if the South African Air Force will not receive the funding necessary to properly maintain and use the new fleet. For this to happen, the South African government must pass the 2012 South African Defence Review in Parliament immediately, before the Parliamentary recess, and begin implementing the Review’s funding recommendations as soon as possible. Only by doing that can the necessary operating and acquisition funds become available.

The South African government’s decision, in November 2009, to cancel the acquisition of eight Airbus Military A400Ms was clearly a serious mistake.

Of course, with South Africa having so many competing and urgent socio-economic priorities there’s a real possibility that the national budget cannot spare additional funds for the defence force. If so, the solution can only be that the defence force’s mandate, missions and footprint must be reduced to match its budget. The present situation, where the budget is hopelessly inadequate for the tasks required of the defence force, is unsustainable and can only lead to mission failures and the lives of more personnel being lost.

Yet the outlook remains pessimistic. The 2012 Defence Review was based on an informal commitment from the South African government that the necessary funding would be made available, which now appears uncertain, and the demands upon the defence force keep going up. As the country’s budget faces increasing restrictions, room for spending in defence has never been tighter.

Missed opportunities

The South African government’s decision, in November 2009, to cancel the acquisition of eight Airbus Military A400Ms was clearly a serious mistake. It was based on an incorrect cost increase assumption from Armscor’s CEO that was later was shown to be far higher than the increase for which the A400M’s partner countries eventually settled. Had that acquisition been allowed to continue, the South African Air Force would be taking delivery of its first A400Ms within the next two years and it would have had a fleet of eight aircraft that could have fulfilled its strategic transport needs while also fulfilling its aerial refueling aircraft requirement. The per-unit cost of the A400M for new customers is higher now than it was for the launch customers.

After the A400M contract was cancelled the South African Air Force approached the United States of America for possible acquisitions, sending an official Letter of Request in early 2010 for nine C–27Js, a medium-sized twin engined tactical airlifter, considered excess to requirements from a United States Air Force purchase of sixty. In response the US Air Force, US Navy and US Department of State sent teams to South Africa for a meeting of the South Africa-U.S. Acquisition and Technology Working Group that May. The offer presented was for South Africa to take some of the US Air Force’s production slots for the C–27J, receiving brand-new aircraft direct from the factory.

This Working Group is part of the South Africa-U.S. Defense Committee and is described by the US as:

The A&TWG … is the senior bilateral forum between the U.S. Department of Defense and the RSA Department of Defence for discussion and coordination of matters involving research, development, test, evaluation, production and follow- on support of defense equipment. … Its aims are to: Establish a framework for bilateral cooperation in acquisition and life-cycle support of defense equipment; facilitate cooperative activities; develop activities that will lead to substantive cooperation and monitor progress periodically; provide a forum in which the policies, plans and requirements of both sides can be discussed.

For as yet unexplained reasons, South Africa ultimately rejected the US offer of a government-to-government acquisition of the nine C–27Js and the discussions with the other USAF and USN teams on other airlift and maritime patrol platforms also came to naught. Those nine C–27Js would have allowed for the C–47TPs to be retired in the transport role, possibly preventing the tragic accident of C–47TP 6840 in December 2012.

The subsequent adoption of the C–27J by both the US Special Operations Command and Australia indicates the aircraft would likely have been a good choice, making the decision to turn the offer down an odd one.

The shock of Bangui

If any moment over the past few years could be thought of as a turning point in the thinking of senior SA Air Force officials it was the aftermath of the fighting in Bangui, when a combined force of 250 South African paratroopers and special forces soldiers were attacked by a Seleka rebel force many times larger. After hours of fierce fighting 13 South African soldiers were dead, ammunition was short and there was a desperate need for extra reinforcements in case of further rebel attacks.

The SANDF’s command staff sprang into action and prepared the largest urgent airlift of soldiers and equipment in recent memory. Hundreds of soldiers and hundreds of tons of ammunition, armoured personnel carriers and other equipment were prepared for transport to Entebbe, Uganda and then onwards to Bangui. In support were two Rooivalks flown up in Il–76s and four Gripen Cs equipped with reconnaissance pods, underwing fuel tanks, missiles and bombs.

But however impressive the SANDF’s rapid work to get these reinforcements ready they arrived in the operational theatre far later than planned because many of the charter aircraft, mostly Illyushin Il–76s and Antonov An–124s, the SANDF needed to rely on were either unavailable or unreliable. Some refused outright to fly into a dangerous area, others could not provide aircraft at short notice and some flew their aircraft into the country days after the contracted date. Had Seleka regrouped and attacked again the small force in Bangui would’ve been hard-pressed to defend itself once more.

The realisation of just how close they had been to a tragic disaster sent shockwaves through the SANDF’s senior leadership and made it clear to defence planners that they had a need for strategic airlift within the SANDF itself because charter operators could not be relied upon.


As the SA Air Force has not made public its Requests for Proposals for new transport aircraft it’s difficult to state its exact set of requirements, but an analysis of the statements made by senior SA Air Force officials and the information that has leaked out can provide a reasonably accurate set of assumptions.

The Air Force’s senior officers have clearly stated that there is a need for both strategic airlift, aircraft large enough to carry most of the SANDF’s combat vehicle and helicopter inventory without disassembly over large distances, as well as tactical airlift consisting of aircraft to replace both the C212s, C–47TPs and, in certain roles, C–130BZs. For as long as there are larger numbers of SANDF troops deployed in dangerous combat zones across Africa there will be a need for enough strategic airlift to evacuate or reinforce them in the event of another Bangui-type incident.

This need for a rapid response over massive distances means the Air Force would like to restore its aerial refueling capability, which may provide an edge for types like the A400M and KC–130J which are capable of refueling other aircraft.

There is a strong preference for a strategic transport aircraft with a cargo hold large enough to carry a Rooivalk or Oryx without significant disassembly, especially of the gearbox, as it takes only 4 hours in field conditions to re-assemble either type with only the rotor head and other small components removed but it requires over 24 hours and a dust-free work room to re-assemble the aircraft if it had to be broken down any further.

The Special Forces, South African Medical Health Service and South African Army all have their own additional requirements that will have to be taken into account for any aircraft acquisition. These include the need for low-level night tactical flying, requiring a terrain following radar, the need for onboard oxygen systems and litter connectors compatible with the Medical Health Service’s existing equipment and the ability to carry vehicles such as the Badger and Ratel IFVs, Rooikat armoured reconnaissance vehicle and containerised systems like the ESR220 Thutlhwa radar.

For tactical airlift the Air Force has said it would prefer to acquire the same platform to fulfill both the transport and maritime patrol roles to be acquired under Project Amanzi. Many of the same requirements for the strategic transport aircraft apply here too, including a tactical night flying capability, compatibility with the Medical Health Service’s equipment and the ability to airlift the Army’s light armoured vehicles like the Mamba.

However, trying to find aircraft that satisfy both the operational needs of the SANDF, and the political requirements of the government, has proven more difficult than expected.

In next series of posts I will detail each of the options facing the South African Air Force for its future airlift needs and how well they match its requirements.