Posted on September 3, 2010

Uganda’s Long-Serving President Is Building One of Africa’s Best Air Forces; We’re Helping Him Pay

Kevin Myers, Independent (Dublin), September 3, 2010

All good men everywhere are no doubt celebrating the news that the Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is planning to run for office again, which, if completed, should bring his tenure as head of state to around 30 years or so.

To be sure, he is somewhat more responsive to the democratic process than dear old Fidel Castro; but still–30 years. By the end of which, he apparently intends to have one of the best air forces in Africa. And the really good thing is that the Irish taxpayer will have helped him buy it. You didn’t know that, did you?

Now I’m aware–from bitter experience, mark you–that there is no area of government in which civil servants are more hoity-toity and morally supercilious than are the aid officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs. I suspect that the department runs special classes in writing letters-for-publication dripping in sanctimonious condescension, and in delivering patronising knowing looks over the canapes at departmental receptions. Believe me, a mere columnist almost takes his professional life in his hands suggesting that somehow our money on foreign aid is being ill-spent or even wasted.

Ah well, here goes. As Museveni embarks on his next term in office, how it is possible that we are giving his regime about €44m a year, even as he is buying seven Sukhoi 30 fighters from Russia? This is one of the most advanced combat aircraft in the world, capable of flying at Mach 2, (twice the speed of sound) and its two Saturn turbofans probably generate more energy than Kampala uses in a week.

The Sukhoi has a 4.5-hour combat endurance, and a range of 3,000km. This will enable its pilots to see people starving at home and in Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya and the Congo. Better still, with an in-flight refuelling system–which dear old Yoweri hasn’t bought yet–the flight duration goes up to 10 hours and the range to over 3,000 miles. Just the job for bombing a village in the Congo, where, give or take, Uganda has been illegally deploying its armies for the best part of 25 years.

Museveni is buying six Sukhois, each costing about $22m, which is roughly half of what Irish Aid gives him every year. But the purchase price doesn’t even begin to cover the cost of flying an entire squadron, because any modern sophisticated fighter aircraft is the mere apex of a complex pyramid of technology and human training. Which is the main reason why the words ‘African’ and ‘fighter-pilot’ occur in the same sentence about as often as ‘Aborigine’ and ‘Zurich’, or ‘Department of Foreign Affairs’ and ‘humility’. For every hour the Sukhoi spends in the air, it will need 10 hours’ maintenance on the ground, by highly skilled technicians. And to train a pilot costs around €10m.

In other words, Uganda’s supersonic air force will be a force to be reckoned with at around the same time that Brian Cowan puts the Bord na Mona Ballylongford power station into orbit. For it is simply impossible for a Third World country–as we used to say, and I still do–to leap the technological ladder like that. The factors that enable a complex aircraft like the Sukhoi to fly–the fuel systems, the avionics, the maintenance regime–are utterly beyond Uganda’s means.

This has been the lesson for all countries that have attempted to skip generations in the acquisition of aircraft technology. In the 1960s, Germany learnt this after buying supersonic Lockheed F104 Starfighters: some 292 planes were lost because the aircraft made demands that were completely outside the Luftwaffe skill-set. Iran did something similar with the F14 Tomcat, as did Saudi Arabia with British Aerospace Lightnings, which enlivened a few air-shows at Riyadh by crashing into crowds, until there were no pilots or planes or even crowds left.

Needless to say, our own Air Corps is not remotely in the same league as Uganda’s, even as we rush headlong towards membership of the Third World. So why is this tertiomondified State of ours now effectively subsidising Ugandan efforts to equip its air force with a fighter aircraft that is considerably superior to anything even the British, the Italians or the Germans currently have?

It’s not as if the Ugandan air force has a perfect safety record. Last July, Uganda was able–had it so chosen–to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the death of Sudanese vice president John Garang who was killed in a crash of his Ugandan air force helicopter. The late VP was a close political ally of Museveni, and not even in the bizarre world of African politics is it the done thing to bump off good and essential chums. So, if the Ugandan air force can’t keep a helicopter, carrying a vital ally, from flying into the ground, how will it keep a squadron of Mach 2 jet-fighters aloft?

Silly question. Obviously, the Department of Foreign Affairs will once again come up with an Irish solution to a Ugandan problem: more Irish money.