SAAF jets aren’t in storage, says general

Johannesburg - The fuel is only R11 a litre but it costs about R135 400 an hour to keep a Gripen fighter jet in the air.

The Hawk trainer fighter jets are a bit cheaper, at about R82 900 per flying hour.

The SAAF bought 26 Gripen fighter jets (pictured) and 24 Hawk trainer fighters in the 1999 arms deal, which the commission is investigating. Credit: Reuters

This was divulged by General John Bayne at the Arms Procurement Commission on Tuesday.

Bayne is the director of combat systems for the South African Air Force, responsible for the Gripen and Hawk systems.

Bayne said the “dry costs” (without fuel) for a Gripen were R104 600 per flying hour and fuel cost R30 800, giving a total “wet cost” of R135 400. Hawks fly at a dry cost of R67 500, with fuel costs of R15 400 and a total cost of R82 900.

The SAAF bought 26 Gripen fighter jets and 24 Hawk trainer fighters in the 1999 arms deal, which the commission is investigating.

“To date the Hawks have flown over 10 000 major accident-free flying hours since 2005 and the Gripens 3 500 since 2008,” said Bayne.

He said there had been “some minor accidents and incidents, like on all aircraft fleets”.

Bayne touched on the controversial issue of whether the fighter jets were in long-term storage.

Earlier this year, Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula caused some confusion by telling Parliament that 12 of the Gripens were in long-term storage because there was not funding to fly them; then last month she told Parliament that none of the Gripens or Hawks were in storage.

Bayne said the SAAF had found that it was better - and cheaper - not to put the aircraft into long-term storage even though budgets were tight this year. “We were warned that this would be a particularly tough financial year.”

Bayne said the SAAF had discussed the storage and maintenance issue with the aircrafts’ manufacturer, Saab, earlier this year after initially storing 12 Gripens, and then set up a less costly process. This reduced the maintenance hours required for storage and made the aircraft more readily available for flying.

“With both these aircraft it would be far more costly and require much more maintenance putting them into long-term storage,” he said.

They now use a rotational preventive maintenance programme which involves flying the aircraft every now and then.

All 26 Gripens are flown and managed in this way, Bayne added.

Some are put under “tents” to slow the corrosion process while the aircraft are standing.

The SAAF uses a three-tier system with the fighter aircraft. This means the fighter pilots start training on the Pilatus aircraft, then move on to the Hawk trainers, then the Gripens.

The Hawk is used as both a trainer and a fighter jet in its own right.

“The SAAF today has an excellent, well-balanced and well-equipped fighter-system capability within the ideal three-tier system wherein the gap is higher between the first and second tier and relatively small between the second and third tier,” said Bayne.

He said the training success rate was very high for air crew, both men and women.

Bayne said Hawks and Gripens had been well utilised in line with the current security environment.

He emphasised the need to retain the fighters as part of the SANDF’s deterrent force.