The biggest of these programs has been the acquisition of the Saab Gripen fighter. The jet made its operational debut in 2010, as part of a force providing counter-terror overwatch of the World Cup soccer tournament, and the air force (SAAF) has learned some useful lessons from that and other operations.
The Gripen is not expensive to operate versus other supersonic fighters, but it is costly relative to the defense budget, and the air force has learned some cost-saving techniques such as hot-refueling between sorties, minimizing afterburner use, and switching to new tires that last twice as long in hot weather.
The SAAF Gripens are well-equipped and the operation is quite sophisticated. The air force uses strike navigators in the back seats of its JAS 39Ds and says that the World Cup overwatch proved their value. The same operation saw wide use of the Rafael Litening targeting pod, and the Thales Digital Joint Reconnaissance Pod is being procured. The force is equipped with the BAE Systems Q-Sight helmet mounted display (HMD) and the Diehl-BGT IRIS-T air-to-air missile, although the plan is to replace that with the South African/Brazilian A-Darter. Live tests of the GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bomb have been carried out, and the air force plans to follow that system with the Denel Dynamics Umbani bomb family, which features multiple seeker options and a long-range wing kit.
The Gripen operation also brings South Africa into contact with other advanced and professional armed forces—a trend which is being continued with the establishment of a Gripen Fighter Weapons School at the SAAF's Overberg base, in the southern Cape area, to be operated by Saab. The plan is to start modestly, but there are clearly hopes for growth. South Africa offers a lot of space for test ranges—including live-weapon sites close to Overberg, and open ocean all the way to the South Pole—and a location less than a 3-hr. drive from Cape Town, which has to be considered an advantage over Holloman or Eielson AFBs, to mention two U.S. training sites.
However, the “gold rush” of contracts and partnerships related to these major acquisitions is now winding down.
Local economic conditions, with low labor costs and the high technological level of several local companies, convinced international companies to keep or create a high-profile presence in the country, mostly by acquiring local companies or creating joint ventures that are not intended only to serve the Sandf customer. Therefore it is not surprising that a good chunk of the South African defense industry is now made up of foreign-controlled or -owned companies and joint ventures, such as the South African units of BAE Systems, Saab, Thales, Siemens, Zeiss and Rheinmetall.
There is also a wealth of independent companies, starting with Denel—which is state-controlled and will remain so, possibly moving from the Ministry of Public Enterprises to the Ministry of Defense under the proposed South African Defense Review, which Defense Minister Lindiwe Sisulu presented last April. There also several privately owned companies, including Reutech, Grintek, Paramount, Reva, ATE and Damen, which have developed state-of the-art-systems and technologies.
The whole defense industry complex, however, is threatened by the wrap-up of the first wave of major acquisition programs, combined with the lack of relevant Sandf investments in research and technology. In many cases a foreign customer is needed to support new developments (such as Ahrlac), or, at least, a joint program is required to split the R&D costs (such as those conducted by South Africa and Brazil in the missile arena).
Many South African products are interesting to the market because they are based on the lessons learned during years of counterinsurgency warfare or operations in difficult terrain. For instance, South Africa invented the V-hull mine-protected vehicle, and continues to market that experience through Paramount and BAE Systems, which is introducing the all-new RG35 family of 4 X 4 and 6 X 6 reconnaissance, patrol and utility vehicles.
Technologically, South Africa's weapon systems are as advanced as anything on the market, with a double advantage in some cases: The nation's embargo-driven independence ensures that its products are free from the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations regime, down to the component level, and it can sell in areas where Israel, a leading non-ITAR supplier, cannot.