After a year-long absence, the South African Air Force’s premier combat aircraft, the Gripen, returned to the sky in time to wow crowds at the September 2022 Africa Aerospace and Defence (AAD) exhibition.
By Guy Martin Images: Frans Dely
For a year, the South African Air Force (SAAF) only had several Hawk Mk 120 lead-in fighter-trainers and Rooivalk attack helicopters as airworthy offensive aircraft. Budget constraints and a poorly managed contracting procedure led to delays in finalising a new maintenance support contract with the aircraft’s manufacturer Saab, and engine manufacturer GKN. Initial offers were unaffordable and due to negotiation delays, the SAAF was forced to ground its Gripen fleet in September 2021 while negotiations between the cash-strapped SAAF, state contracting authority Armscor, and Saab continued.
The Gripens’ grounding was not a complete surprise, as experts were warning this could be a possibility as far back as 2016 when funding cuts started to bite, especially as the value of the Rand decreased against particularly the US dollar, making spares more expensive. This resulted in the SAAF implementing rotational storage that would see half the fleet mothballed at any given time. Since then, the financial situation has only deteriorated, and the 2021/22 financial year defence budget allocates R5.9 billion to the air force, whereas it requires R7.8 billion to carry out its duties.
Because the defence budget is so tightly stretched, Armscor and the SAAF signed the new maintenance contract with Saab for only 13 of the 26 Gripens, with 12 remaining in storage (one was written off following a ground accident in April 2021 – the aircraft smashed through a wall after a ground engine run went awry and the aircraft’s cable restraints snapped).
With the new maintenance contract finally in place, a Gripen took to the air again on 5 September at Air Force Base Makhado, the home of the fleet’s 2 Squadron. The Gripen was subsequently a highlight of the AAD 2022 exhibition, with the aircraft dazzling crowds during the air show days of 24 and 25 September at Air Force Base Waterkloof – Africa’s largest air show would not have been complete without the Gripen, which made it back into the air just in time for this signature event.
The support contract with Saab is worth R532 million over three years, running to 2025, and covers service, repairs and maintenance as well as minor updates of the support and training systems of the South African Air Force’s Gripen system. Armscor is in the process of signing a support contract with GKN Aerospace for the maintenance of the Gripen’s RM12 engine.
Although the Gripens are back in the air, the aircraft are ageing and require midlife upgrades, which are currently unfunded. The Gripen also needs to be equipped with a beyond visual range missile to be an effective air superiority aircraft, but this is unfunded as well (Denel is slowly developing the Marlin beyond visual range missile demonstrator for the SAAF, but this is years away from maturity).
South Africa has been operating the Gripen since 2008 and is Saab’s first export customer for the type. The SAAF acquired nine two-seat Gripen Ds and 17 single-seat Gripen Cs, which were delivered between 2006 and 2012 and replaced the older Cheetah jets, which were retired in 2008. Some of the Cheetahs were subsequently sold to Ecuador and US-based private contractor Draken, as they still had plenty of flying hours left on them.
Although largely built in Sweden, many of the SAAF’s Gripen components were made in South Africa, such as the Link-ZA secure communications system, which allows all South African National Defence Force communications equipment to easily and seamlessly exchange information, from handheld devices to Hawk and Gripen jets. It was developed as an alternative to the NATO Link-16 system.
Other South African technology can be found on the Cobra helmet sight, including the critical head position sensor that tells the system where the pilot is looking, and which uses an innovative laser/LED tracking system that eliminates electromagnetic interference. Developed by Denel, it has also been used on foreign jets. SAAF Gripens also have a partly South African electronic warfare/countermeasures system developed by Saab Grintek Defence. In addition, major sections of the aircraft were manufactured in South Africa for all Gripens built after the SAAF order was placed, including the main landing gear units and rear fuselages, which were manufactured by Denel Aeronautics.
With its canard (‘tail first’) layout and fly-by-wire flight controls, the Gripen is extremely agile. Cost effective to operate, it can perform aerial combat, ground attack and surveillance missions, assisted by its powerful PS-05/A radar. Its clean and efficient glass cockpit – with a helmet-mounted sight that can cue missiles – gives a low workload to the pilot and makes it easy to fly. Armament includes bombs, a 27 mm cannon (on the single-seaters) and air-to-air missiles, including the IRIS-T and (eventually) the locally developed A-Darter. Paveway laser-guided bombs can be dropped with the aid of Litening targeting pods.
Most SAAF Gripens are operated by 2 Squadron (Flying Cheetahs) at Makhado Air Force Base, with two operated by the Test Flight and Development Centre (TFDC) at Air Force Base Overberg in the Western Cape and used for testing equipment and weapons such as air-to-air missiles.
Although the SAAF’s Gripens are flying again, the next challenge is to get aircrew current, as the half dozen or so Gripen pilots over the last year lost their currency, and have to re-qualify on the aircraft.
Fighter pilots start out on the Pilatus PC-7 Mk II turboprop trainer with the Central Flying School at Air Force Base Langebaanweg, before moving on to the BAE Systems Hawk Mk 120 with 85 Combat Flying School at Air Force Base Makhado. The Hawk and Gripen can share data through their datalink, and the Hawk can emulate the Gripen’s radar, making conversion from the Hawk to the Gripen a relatively simple affair.
Since entering service, SAAF Gripens flew combat air patrols and surveillance missions during the 2010 soccer World Cup under Operation Kwele, and border patrols in February 2011 and January 2012 under Operations Corona and Prosper. When rebels in the Central African Republic (CAR) took over the government in early 2013, Gripens were deployed to assist South Africa’s withdrawal. Extra troops, Gripens and Rooivalk attack helicopters were sent to the region in April following a battle that resulted in the overthrow of the CAR’s president Francois Bozize – over a dozen South African soldiers were killed in the Battle of Bangui in mid-March. Four Gripens, under Operation Vimbezela, were deployed to Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo (following a refuelling stop in Zambia) in the first operational combat deployment of the jet, but they arrived too late to engage in combat.
Aircraft: Saab JAS 39 Gripen C
First flight: 1988
Top speed: 2 204 km/h
Service ceiling: 15 240 m
Endurance: 3 hours
Payload: 5 300 kg
Max climb rate: 254 m/s
Max g force: +9/-3 g
Empty weight: 6 800 kg
Engine and power: Volvo Aero Corporation RM12, 8 210 kg thrust
Wingspan: 8.4 m
Length: 14.1 m