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Johannesburg - By the time you hear a Hawk or a Gripen, it has already flown past.
Last week the South African Air Force flew not just one, but five Gripen fighter jets and five Hawk trainer fighter jets over Polokwane in a joint flypast - just because they could.
And that was the point - despite the budget cuts and financial difficulties of keeping very, very expensive pieces of equipment in the air, the Hawks and Gripens are flying.
The scene was the Roodewal Weapons Range near Polokwane, and the event was the SAAF’s air capability demonstration.
Roodewal is an academic bombing range, an outdoor classroom.
The SAAF flew Oryx helicopters showing off Bambi bucket drops (helicopters carrying 2 500-litre buckets of water to dump on fires); the C130 cargo plane, referred to as the workhorse of the air force, which has been deployed everywhere from South Africa to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Central African Republic; the BK117 helicopters inherited from the now defunct Transkei Defence Force; and Agusta A109 light utility helicopters.
The Rooivalk helicopters were absent as they were “packing for deployment” in the DRC. The Rooivalks have reportedly been repainted white - in UN colours - for their peacekeeping deployment.
The demonstration included the “rescue” of a “downed” helicopter team from “enemy” territory.
The C130 team demonstrated how to drop supplies for troops in hostile areas,
Agusta A109s did reconnaissance trips, followed by Oryx helicopters which dropped troops who rappelled down ropes from the hovering helicopters.
The stars were the Hawks and Gripens, in a mock battle with an “enemy” Hawk pitted against two “home team” Gripens.
“It’s not really a fair fight,” said a commentator.
It wouldn’t have been a real demonstration without blowing something up, so the Hawks showed off their cannons, and then dropped 120kg bombs from about 4 000 feet above. All were blanks or dummy weapons.
The real stuff is not cheap - a Rooivalk warhead costs R8 155.
From high above, an unmanned drone watched it all, its vision displayed live on a screen on the ground.
The SAAF has been troubled by budget cuts, which have made it harder to keep machines in the air.
In last week’s adjusted Budget, the mid-year performance reports noted that the SAAF has flown only 1 710 force employment hours in the first half of the year, out of the 6 500 hours planned for the year.
The air defence programme lost another R536 000 in the adjusted budget, reducing its budget to R5.7 billion for the year.
Most of that cut was in the air combat capability programme - the jets - which lost R307 million to drop to a year’s budget of R845m for this programme.
The helicopter programme went up by R88m to R857m.
It’s easier to cut the fighter jet time in the air as helicopters also support civilian programmes such as combating rhino poaching.
The chief of the air force, Lieutenant-General “Zakes” Fabian Zimpande Msimang, dismissed persistent allegations that aircraft were being grounded for long-term storage.
He said the air force had embarked on an “extensive own capability plan” to recruit, develop and retain scarce skills. Some of the ageing infrastructure posed maintenance challenges but there had been some extensive investments, including the refurbishing of the Waterkloof air force base’s runway.
Finances were the undercurrent throughout the day’s visit to Roodewal and the capability demonstration.
“Even in these tough times of low resources, the Air Force Command Council decided deliberately to retain these valuable exercises, even at a reduced capacity,” said Major-General Gerald Malinga, the deputy chief of the air force.
“Tough times come and go, and we all live currently in a tough economic period.
“But with good leadership, discipline, vision and action… hurdles can be surmounted.”
Brigadier-General Piet Burger, director of helicopter systems in the SAAF, said an air force’s height, speed and reach were consistently the dominant factors in a conflict, but that restraints on finances and human resources were a “significant if not crippling constraint on the tactical utilisation of airpower”, not just for South Africa.
The day’s display cheered everyone.
“It’s even better than a day on the golf course for any good soldier,” said Burger.