South African air force's helicopter woes

Aug. 13, 2010 at 2:45 PM
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CAPE TOWN, South Africa, Aug. 13 (UPI) -- South Africa's Denel AH-2 Rooivalk attack helicopter, once the country's hope for entering the lucrative global armaments market, is facing problems at home.

Questions are being asked in Parliament as to why 12 Denel AH-2 Rooivalks in the South African's Air Force 16 squadron have been put in storage rather than remaining operational, Business Day reported on Friday.

Democratic Alliance defense spokesman David Maynier said, "The DA believes that the chief of the South African Air Force, Gen Carlo Gagiano, should appear before the portfolio committee on defense and military veterans to explain why the air force's Rooivalk attack helicopters have reportedly been grounded and are in storage outside Bloemfontein," adding that Defense Minister Lindiwe Sisulu "has refused to brief the portfolio committee on defense on the combat readiness of the defense force. The fact that the air force's attack helicopter squadron is in deep trouble is exactly the kind of information that is being hidden from Parliament. The committee has a constitutional duty to provide effective oversight of the defense department and will therefore have to drill down into the state of readiness of the South African Air Force."

The Denel AH-2 Rooivalk project was begun in early 1984 by Atlas Aircraft Corporation, the predecessor of Denel Aviation. Faced with the increasingly conventional nature of the South African Border War, the South African Defense Force recognized the need for a dedicated attack helicopter for close in troop support. The 1966-1989 South African Border War took place in South-West Africa, now Namibia, and Angola and was fought between South Africa and its allies, primarily UNITA and the Angolan government, South-West Africa People's Organization and their allies, mainly the Soviet Union and Cuba, eventually becoming submerged in Angola's civil war.

The Denel AH-2 Rooivalk made its first maiden flight in 1990. The South African government intended to build 36 helicopters but funding cuts repeatedly delayed the project, with only 12 built and entering service by 1999, five years after the country's apartheid political system was dismantled.

South Africa pinned its export hopes for the Denel AH-2 Rooivalk on winning a massive Turkish order, which had been looking to modernize its attack helicopter fleet since the mid-1990s and in 2006 solicited tenders for 91 attack helicopters. The number was subsequently cut back to co-production of 30 helicopters with options for another 20 more. In March 2007, Finmeccanica subsidiary AgustaWestland announced that it had been chosen to begin contract negotiations in partnership with Turkish Aviation Industry for producing the Tactical Reconnaissance and Attack Helicopter for the Turkish Land Forces Command, a contract worth more than $1.5 billion for 51 A129 helicopters, effectively dooming South Africa's chances. Further closing opportunities for exports, discussions with the Malaysian Defense Forces and Pakistan also feel through.

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