This article originally appeared in the February edition of SA Flyer and FlightCom magazine.

As the political, economic and technological aspects of countries in the South African Development Community (SADC) change, the region’s air power balance and structure is likely to shift.

Brazilian Air Force Embraer R-99B, an example of the type of SIGINT/COMINT aircraft that could be acquired and shared by SADC's air forces - Photographer: Alan Wilson

The most common use of air power in Southern Africa over the next decade is likely to be against irregular and asymmetric opponents. Although potential for inter-state conflict remains, particularly in the Great Lakes region, the primary purpose of air power for SADC countries over the next ten years will be to achieve political and military objectives in unconventional conflicts against rebel groups such as M23, the FDLR and the ADF.

Thus the primary focus of air power in Southern Africa will likely be theatre-level: Primarily involving transport, interdiction and close air support, as opposed to the traditional strategic air power focus of heavy bombers and large numbers of fighter aircraft.

For the first time, this could allow the region’s air forces to obtain some level of mastery over the vast distances and difficult terrain that typify their operating conditions

While fighter aircraft will continue to remain important, particularly in the ability of aircraft like the Gripen to perform high-speed reconnaissance, close air support and air interdiction, their primary use is unlikely to be in the traditional establishment and maintenance of air superiority.

Countries will still seek to maintain or establish a base level of strategic air power, investing in more modern aircraft, radar systems and beyond visual range (BVR) missiles, but for most it will be for its deterrent effect.

Air power is unique in that compared to both sea and land power it has no boundaries, giving commanders the theoretical ability to utilise it at any time and any location. In the past, this has caused some air power theorists to believe air power to be supreme and capable of determining the outcomes of wars all on its own, though most theorists now view air power as most successful when used as part of a combined all-arms action. This is even more true for southern Africa, where the budgets of most countries cannot sustain large and technologically sophisticated air forces that could operate completely independently.

With Africa’s vast distances, underdeveloped infrastructure and geographically dispersed populations air power will remain critical.

Yet southern Africa will not be immune from the technological trends driving changes in air power thinking around the world, as the rapid cheapening and easy availability of ever more sophisticated technology means that even relatively poor rebel groups now have access to powerful information networks and new types of weaponry.

The ubiquity of mobile phones has introduced a new dimension to irregular warfare in Africa, providing groups with the ability to share information immediately over vast distances while using SMSes and social networks as rudimentary command and control (C2) networks. As mobile phones becomes an ever-increasing and necessary part of life amongst the general population, the option of merely jamming or disabling cellular networks will cease to exist in all but the most intense conflicts and so African air forces will have to invest in the signals (SIGINT) and communications (COMINT) intelligence infrastructure and cyber warfare skills to counter it.

This makes the current lack of dedicated SIGINT and COMINT aircraft in SADC air forces look ever more short-sighted.

The easier availability of technology has also made effective public relations (PR) and propaganda much easier for even small groups without much money to undertake. This was seen in the attempts by M23 to influence South African opinion via social media networks prior to the deployment of the Force Intervention Brigade in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. By its nature, the exercise of air power amongst civilian populations will always present many opportunities for opposing forces to use effective propaganda, a fact that forced NATO countries involved in Afghanistan and Libya to rethink and improve their transparency and public relations efforts. In contrast, SADC air forces are marked by a secretive and paranoid approach towards the general public, making them increasingly vulnerable to more adept opposing forces.

Of course, technology goes both ways and will create new opportunities for African air forces to increase their effective air power at a far lower cost than would have been the case just ten years ago. It is now possible for even mid-level air forces to augment their capabilities with communications networks, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), optical and electronic sensors and communications and signals intelligence.

UAVs in particular are likely to be transformative in sub-Saharan Africa, perhaps even changing the nature of conflict in the region altogether. As the cost of the technology continues to fall, and the systems become more autonomous, it’s feasible that the use of squadrons of UAVs for persistent wide-area surveillance and routine logistical and transport work will be within the reach of most SADC countries. For the first time, this could allow Africa’s air forces to obtain some level of mastery over the vast distances and difficult terrain that typify their operating conditions, allowing them to cover vast areas of terrain quickly and to establish logistics networks able to support rapidly-moving expeditionary forces.

Paramount Advanced Technologies Vulture UAV, in service with the South African Army, is an example of an autonomous unmanned system - Photographer: Danie van der Merwe

Paramount Advanced Technologies Vulture UAV, in service with the South African Army, is an example of an autonomous unmanned system – Photographer: Danie van der Merwe

Used wisely, these enabling technologies can allow SADC air forces to catch up to modern air power techniques and concepts while massively improving their capabilities, but it’s a process that will be neither easy nor quick.

In addition to UAVs and network-enabled technology, SADC air forces should focus their future acquisition efforts on aircraft able to bring tactical success against asymmetric opponents, such as transport and attack helicopters, tactical and strategic airlifters and heavily-armed close air support aircraft. Where possible, strategic assets such as airborne ELINT and COMINT platforms and airborne radars should be acquired, perhaps in shared pools similar to NATO’s E-3B and C-17A operations.

If I could sum up in one sentence what’s needed for the air forces of SADC to establish a competent, sustainable and effective air power capability it would be this: Highly-skilled personnel capable of sustaining multifaceted high-tempo operations, air power development institutions capable of developing new doctrines, the right equipment to enable those operations and a big increase in the amount and quality of intelligence gathered.

It is doubtful that the SADC region will be able to achieve this goal without the active leadership and assistance of the South African Air Force (SAAF).

Of all forces in the region, the South African Air Force is by far the most developed in both the theory and practice of air power. It is unique in having an unbroken history of operating front-line fighter aircraft over the past 90 years, since its founding in 1920, and has built up an industry capable of supporting the improvement and the sustained deployment of its aircraft. A strong academic structure for the study and development of air power doctrine exists within its Air Power Development Centre in Pretoria and the country’s universities, providing guidance to the operational side on changing circumstances and techniques, while its strong understanding and culture of joint operations with the rest of the South African National Defence Force’s gives it a strong advantage in combined arms operations.

However there is a strong possibility that this will not remain the case for long: The South African Air Force is under siege by an insufficient budget, ill-conceived quotas and an ever-shrinking base of skilled graduates to draw from.

The past year showed clearly that the SAAF’s lack of funding has now reached critical levels, forcing it to temporarily ground its A109 light utility helicopters, place nearly half its Gripens in rotating storage and downsize its annual force preparation exercises. Two successive Chiefs of the Air Force have warned that, without an increase in the budget, the Air Force will continue to lose skilled personnel, will lose key competencies and may have to retire entire fleets of aircraft such as the Gripen or Hawk.

On top of this, job reservation of any kind has no place in a modern air force, which requires a large number of highly-skilled and motivated individuals to fly, manage and maintain incredibly complex systems in difficult circumstances. Using anything other than pure merit to decide appointments and pilot selection will cause the most highly-skilled and motivated people, black and white, to seek opportunities elsewhere.

Research done by the Academy of Science of South Africa (Assaf) concluded that South Africa ranked near the bottom of all countries with PhD programs, producing fewer than 500 doctoral graduates per annum in the all-important science, engineering and technology fields and falling well short of the 1 200 graduates each year that the South African government estimates are needed. This inability of the South African education system to produce the necessary numbers of science, engineering and technology graduates across all levels will negatively impact the country’s ability to sustain the high technology skills base required to maintain an effective level of modern air power capability and develop it further.

Any one of these factors, taken individually, may be enough to severely harm an air force’s air power capability. Taken together, they are guaranteed to. This has worrying implications for the rest of the region, as South Africa has much to offer as an example and lead country in the establishment of true air power capability in other SADC countries. Should South Africa’s capability be seriously diminished or lost it will make it far more difficult for the rest of SADC to achieve the needed levels on their own.