By PAUL KIRK
JOHANNESBURG - Despite having blown billions of rands on jets the air force did not want, South Africa would be almost powerless to prevent a nightmare 9/11 scenario during next year’s Fifa World Cup.
An investigation by The Citizen has established that, having been the first to buy BAE Systems’ controversial Gripen fighter and Hawk trainer jets, the South African Air Force (SAAF) was then forced to prematurely retire all its fighter jets in order to be able to afford the BAE purchases.
Yesterday Helmoed Romer-Heitman, the African correspondent for Jane’s Defence Weekly, confirmed what various sources have told The Citizen:
South Africa has no operational fighter jets – and will not have any for several years to come.
When former defence acquisitions chief Shamin “Chippy” Shaik appeared before Parliament to defend the 1999 purchase of arms for R60 billion, he produced a list of SA National Defence Force (SANDF) equipment and the projected dates by which it would be obsolete.
The Citizen has a copy of the document, which shows that all of the SAAF’s Cheetah aircraft will be obsolete by 2012.
Earlier this week, Ecuador announced it was negotiating with Denel to buy no fewer than 12 Cheetah fighter jets: proof that the aircraft are far from obsolete.
Denel Aviation has also offered a maintenance plan for the aircraft until 2015, which can be extended by more than a decade beyond the date at which Shaik said the craft would be obsolete.
When the SAAF purchased the Gripen fighter no other country had considered the jet and no missiles had been designed for it.
Development of a missile to arm the Gripen is still under way, and no air-to-air missile will be available to arm it for at least another three years. Said Romer-Heitman: “I do not think we bought the Gripen prematurely.
What is very clear, however, is that we retired the Cheetah prematurely. With no money to maintain the Cheetah ... the jets have been parked in hangars and left. There are one or two jets left with a few hours of flying time, but these are only used for air shows and so on.
“In the nightmare scenario of someone trying to repeat the New York twin towers attack next year, the only plane that might be able to fulfil an air policing role would be the Hawk trainer.”
The Hawk is, however, relatively slow and not equipped with radar to track a hostile aircraft. Romer-Heitman said he was not sure how many of the SAAF’s Hawks were armed: “We have certainly bought a small number of air-to-air missiles for them, but they are far from ideal for air-to-air combat.
If we had a Cheetah or two armed up in case of emergencies, the problem would be where to base them. Having retired the Boeing tankers, we have no means to refuel them in the air: if a Cheetah took off in the north of the country it would not reach Cape Town, should the threat be there.”
Numerous SAAF officials have, over a period of time, told The Citizen the SAAF is in dire straits, but none has been prepared to be named.
Several top experts on terrorism have warned that al-Qaeda and other terror groups may target the 2010 World Cup. Earlier this month the UK Serious Fraud Office (SFO) announced it had completed an inquiry into allegations that BAE paid bribes to secure the South African sales, and recommended to the UK Attorney-General that BAE be prosecuted for bribery.
Yesterday SFO spokesman Katie Winstanley told The Citizen her office had yet to send its investigation files to the Attorney-General, but this would be done by the month’s end. She declined to comment on when a prosecution might commence.
In previous prosecutions UK companies have been forced to publicly disclose who they paid bribes to.
Andrew Feinstein, the former ranking ANC MP on Parliament’s standing committee on public accounts, told The Citizen that he had long believed that the BAE prices were “massively” inflated in order to cover bribes for senior ANC politicians.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
By PAUL KIRK