South Africa’s troops at risk as military helicopters grounded

South Africa’s military faces a critical setback as its attack and transport helicopters remain grounded due to the lapse of a maintenance contract with state arms maker Denel SOC Ltd. The contract, crucial for technician and engineer expenses, expired four months ago, endangering operations in Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This lapse highlights the country’s mismatched ambitions with a strained budget, jeopardising counterinsurgency efforts. The situation underscores the urgent need for financial support to restore and maintain vital air assets, crucial for successful peacekeeping missions on the continent.

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By Loni Prinsloo and Antony Sguazzin

South Africa has deployed its troops into two wars without renewing a maintenance contract needed to keep its essential attack and transport helicopters flying. 

A so-called fixed-cost contract between state arms maker Denel SOC Ltd. and the Department of Defence — which covers the expenses of technicians and engineers — lapsed more than four months ago and hasn’t been renewed, Denel said in a response to queries. 

That jeopardizes the South African military’s ability to protect about 4,000 troops it’s deploying to fight jihadists in Mozambique and rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo with its Oryx transport helicopters and Rooivalk, or Red Falcon, attack helicopters. 

The contract lapse is evidence of how South Africa’s ambitions to bolster its influence on the continent with peacekeeping missions aren’t matched by a budget that’s struggling to finance everything from its armed forces to port and power-plant overhauls. 

“Air assets are absolutely critical in any counterinsurgency operation, particularly in this terrain,” said Piers Pigou, Southern Africa program head at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies. “We have put our hand up for something we aren’t able to deliver.” 

While South Africa has sent troops into Congo as part of a Southern African Development Community mission since December, the 2,900-strong deployment was only announced on Feb. 12 in a press statement from President Cyril Ramaphosa’s office. On Feb. 13, he formally notified parliament with a note backdated to Dec. 21. 

The troops in Mozambique were deployed in 2021 and are due to leave this year.

While Denel is supplying spares and materials through a so-called ad-hoc contract with Armaments Corp. of South Africa SOC Ltd. — the Department of Defense’s procuring agency that’s known as Armscor — talks over the fixed-cost contract that supports the helicopters with specialist equipment and skills have yet to be resolved, said Mike Kgobe, chief executive officer of Denel Aeronautics.

“The Oryx and Rooivalk are unique helicopters flown only by South Africa and require specialist skills and special equipment to sustain the capabilities,” Kgobe said in an emailed response to questions. While Denel has done some work of that nature for the air force, it hasn’t been paid, he said. 

In October, South African Defense Minister Thandi Modise said only five of 39 Oryx’s were functional and 2.5 billion rand ($132 million) was needed to restore the fleet. 

Three of 11 Rooivalk could fly “with restrictions,” and the helicopters’ avionics systems were obsolete, Modise said in a reply to a parliamentary question at the time, saying 1 billion rand would be needed for the upgrades. Of 97 other aircraft listed in the reply, only 17 were operational. 

This month, a mortar attack killed two South African soldiers deployed in Congo, while an Oryx was peppered with small arms fire and its crew injured. 

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