Strategy Page, July 31, 2013
Four months after admitting that 12 of its 26 Gripen jet fighters had been placed in storage because they were too expensive to operate and there were not enough qualified pilots to fly them, South African officials admitted that the maintenance contracts for all the Gripens had expired in April. That made long term use of the Gripens dangerous. This contract was with a reliable, and expensive, South African firm (Denel). The maintenance contracts pay for ongoing support for the aircraft to include updates and warnings on problems other users have encountered as well as access to manufacturer engineers and maintenance experts. Aircraft become more dangerous to operate (if they operate at all) without regular maintenance and these maintenance contracts are a critical part of that. Some South African politicians are now calling for the Gripens to be sold, as there is not likely to be sufficient money to operate them and retain qualified pilots.
Currently only about half of the remaining 14 Gripens are flyable and there are only six qualified Gripen pilots. Corruption, shrinking defense budgets, and political pressure to find more black combat pilots and technical personnel has led to the South African Air Force having fewer operational aircraft. All this has been going on for over a decade.
For example, back in 2009, the South African Air Force stopped automatically releasing data on how many hours combat pilots flew for training. When the numbers were finally obtained, it was discovered that in 2008, fighter pilots were in the air for 325 hours (less than two hours a month per pilot). In contrast, pilots on VIP flights (carrying politicians and government officials) were up there 1,932 hours. There are about fifty transports and 80 helicopters in the air force at the time, and that number has continued to shrink.
In 2009, the air force had only twenty fighter pilots and only nine Gripen fighters. The remaining 17 were delivered by 2012. In 2008, the last of the 66 Cheetah fighters (rebuilt French Mirage IIIs) were retired. In 2008, the last full year that Cheetahs were operational, fighter pilots got 2,084 hours in the air and the year before that it was 2,448 hours. It’s believed that only six of those twenty fighter pilots were competent to handle these aircraft in combat. Most competent pilots have left the air force because of the lack of flying hours. Many of the pilots remaining got in under a quota system that attempts to add more racial diversity to the air force.
Not surprisingly, many South Africans believe that the South African Air Force (SAAF) has been falling apart for years. The most obvious evidence of this is the decrepit state of aging buildings, runways, and aircraft. But the biggest problem is getting, and keeping, technical people. This is complicated by a government program to integrate previously all white institutions. This has been most difficult in areas that require a lot of technical training and education. Like pilots and aircraft maintainers.
The government has set a racial goal for SAAF pilots and wants them to be 75 percent black and 25 percent white. A lack of qualified black air force personnel means that this goal has still not been met. The morale problem started getting a lot worse back in 2005, when the three top rated graduates of pilot training school, who would normally go on to fly fighters, were told that, because they were white, they would instead fly helicopters or transports. Three less qualified black pilots would go on to fly fighters. When commanders noted the morale problem, and public outcry, they declared that it was no longer the policy to send the best pilots to fighters but to spread the best pilots around to all flying communities.
The problem here is that flying fighters is the technically most demanding job for pilots, and the best pilots only stay in the SAAF to fly fighters. If they wanted to fly helicopters or transports they could make more money, and fly more often, as civilian pilots. So the SAAF is ending up with less competent fighter pilots (which ultimately results in more accidents) and fewer, and less capable, helicopter and transport pilots as well. Since the SAAF pilots are currently selected more for their race than for their ability, the morale of most pilots will remain quite low.
A similar situation occurs in other technical specialties, like maintaining the aircraft. Fewer whites are enlisting for these jobs, and more existing techs are quitting for civilian jobs. There is also pressure on civilian airlines to integrate, but the pressure is not as great because politicians fly those airliners and want the highest quality pilots and maintainers for those aircraft.
Even with the current situation it won’t be easy getting that many black pilots, as blacks with the skills to be pilots tend to prefer better paying civilian jobs. And there aren’t many black pilots to begin with. In the long run, this won’t mean much, beyond a higher accident rate for military aircraft and some lost aircraft. This has been the case in other African countries where most, or all, air force pilots are black. South Africa has no enemies in its neighborhood and little likelihood that the SAAF would have to go to war.
South Africa is also fortunate that it has a free press. Many other nations (especially in Africa) have in the past faced similar problems with jet fighters. But these countries are usually dictatorships so details of why the jet fighters don’t fly much (or even reports that they don’t fly much) don’t get reported. But after the dictatorship falls, as they all eventually do, the sad tales of the aircraft that were too expensive to operate emerges.