Saturday, June 25, 2011

Weekend Wings #40: South Africa's "Franken-Mirages", Part 2 of 3

Last week, in Weekend Wings #39, we looked at the South African Air Force (SAAF) and its Cheetah program to improve its 1960's-vintage Mirage III fighter-bombers. This week I'd planned to examine three related areas pursued by the SAAF during the 1980's and early 1990's: but the sheer length of the resulting article is way too big for Blogger to handle comfortably! When I initially put it up, it produced errors. I've therefore split it in half. I'll devote this Weekend Wings to South Africa's Carver fighter project. Next weekend, in Weekend Wings #41, I'll cover the 'Super Mirage F1' program to upgrade the engines and weapons of the SAAF's front-line aircraft, and describe various weapons and systems that were developed to equip Mirages, Cheetahs and Carvers.

The Atlas Carver program.

The name 'Carver' doesn't mean anything in particular - I understand it was selected by a random code-name-generator. Those who claim it signifies that the aircraft was meant to 'carve up' MiGs are doomed to disappointment, I'm afraid! (I've seen it spelt 'CAVA' in some reports, but I suspect this is a mis-spelling caused by misunderstood or misheard verbal communication.) Many of the sub-projects of this program had their own code names, so that many of us never referred to the aircraft as a whole, or the name 'Carver', at all. We spoke only of the name assigned to our particular sub-project. It was all part of the (in hindsight, excessive) culture of secrecy prevailing at the time.

I was involved with one sub-project of this program, and had frequent discussions over a few beers with others who were working on the overall design and/or other sub-projects: so I know more than a little about it. However, everyone involved was sworn to secrecy, and I'm not going to break my word in that regard, even though Carver's been dead and buried for two decades. I'll therefore limit myself to a general discussion, and when it comes to 'harder' facts, I'll reference only what's already been disclosed in the public domain.

In the early 1980's, even while the Cheetah program was being planned, it was clear that it could be no more than a stopgap measure.

SAAF Cheetah C, the final iteration of this upgrade program

One simply can't update an old airframe and engine beyond a certain point. To bring a third-generation jet combat aircraft such as the 1960's-vintage Mirage III to a fourth-generation level of performance (comparable to, for example, the 1980's-vintage Mirage 2000) is difficult, but sometimes feasible, given enough money and the right technology.

Mirage 2000 of the French Air Force

However, to take that same third-generation aircraft and equip it to survive and prevail against "Generation 4½" aircraft such as the 1990's-vintage Dassault Rafale or Eurofighter Typhoon is almost impossible.

Eurofighter Typhoon of the Royal Air Force

So many advances have been crammed into the latter aircraft that they outclass their thirty-year-old forebears in every respect, and by a huge margin. As for true fifth-generation combat aircraft such as the F-22 Raptor, the Cheetah and its contemporaries would be almost defenseless. They probably wouldn't even be able to detect the F-22, much less engage it, before the latter aircraft's missiles destroyed them.

Two USAF F-22 Raptors in trail formation

So, while (in the early 1980's) the Cheetah program promised to raise the standards of the SAAF's current fighters to a level sufficient to deal with the aircraft then equipping potential adversaries, it clearly would not be able to keep pace with further developments in combat aircraft. By the late 1990's or early 2000's, such developments would presumably bring far more capable aircraft into the Air Forces of states such as Angola, which were then in a state of undeclared war with South Africa. Furthermore, there was no end then in sight to the Cold War, and no indication that apartheid would end in the foreseeable future. The South African government had adopted a 'siege mentality'. It was willing to do whatever it took to defend its policies and its continued existence, up to and including the development of weapons of mass destruction. In that context, it became clear that the SAAF would have to obtain new fighter aircraft in the foreseeable future. Since they could not be bought from foreign sources, due to a UN arms embargo against South Africa, it would be necessary to develop a local solution.

This posed gigantic problems for the country. A modern fighter aircraft and its weapons systems incorporate many of the most advanced technologies in the world (some will be discussed in Weekend Wings #41, next week). Many of them were present in South Africa at that time only in the form of imported equipment, much of it obsolescent, with relatively little production capacity. If a fighter program were to be launched, local technological capabilities would have to be greatly enhanced and developed before it could succeed. Undaunted, that's precisely what South Africa set out to do - with considerable success.

The first important issue was to decide what kind of aircraft to build. This wasn't nearly as simple as it sounds. There were so many factors to take into account that it took well over a year to figure out how best to proceed.

If one examines the fourth generation fighters on the international market in the early 1980's, and new aircraft being developed at that time, a number of common factors may be identified. They include:

  1. A thrust-to-weight ratio of 1:1 or better (or as close to it as possible).
  2. In aircraft designed for air-to-air combat, the lowest possible wing loading, to give the best possible maneuverability (although this is less of a priority for aircraft designed primarily for the strike mission - i.e. attacking ground or naval targets).
  3. Thrust vectoring held out great promise to further improve maneuverability. It would be flight-tested in the late 1980's and 1990's, and enter production in the USA and Russia during the early 2000's.
  4. Relaxed stability using fly-by-wire control systems also offered increased maneuverability.
  5. Greatly enhanced computer processing power, speed and storage improved aircraft capability whilst allowing pilots to do more, making it easier for them to perform complex tasks such as weapons targeting and delivery.
  6. 'Glass cockpit' avionics and weapons systems did likewise.
  7. Supercruise (the ability to cruise at supersonic speeds without using afterburner, which greatly increases fuel consumption) was becoming a desirable objective (although not yet achieved by any aircraft in production at that time).
  8. Advanced avionics, particularly Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars, were under development, and would be introduced in the following decades.
  9. Stealth technology was not spoken of under that name at the time, and the existence of the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk (the first production aircraft to incorporate it) had not yet been revealed. However, designers were already speaking in general terms about "reducing the radar cross-section (RCS) of an aircraft". This was seen as highly desirable.

South Africa's new aircraft would ideally incorporate as many as possible of these advances; but it was already clear that some of them would be out of reach. As discussed in Weekend Wings #39 last week, the country could not (at first) obtain modern turbofan engines. It was restricted to the 1960's- and 1970's-vintage SNECMA Atar series turbojet (which had its roots in German World War II engine technology). This was heavier, bulkier, less powerful, less economical, and less flexible and responsive than more modern engines . . . but it was all that was available. Any local fighter would have no choice but to use it (although efforts were made to improve its performance and obtain future alternatives, as we'll discuss next week). In the absence of a more capable engine, a high thrust-to-weight ratio, thrust vectoring, and supercruise were simply not available.

Another problem area was advanced avionics. South Africa could (and did) obtain modern systems from Israel (as in the Cheetah program, discussed last week), but Israel did not (at that time) have the technology to produce equivalents to the largest and most powerful radars (e.g. the US APG-63 and APG-70 systems used in the F-15 Eagle, or the Zhuk systems then under development for the Russian Sukhoi Su-27 and its successors).

US APG-70 radar fitted to an F-15E Strike Eagle fighter-bomber

These large radars offered significantly greater detection range, and better tracking and engagement options, than the less powerful systems fitted to smaller aircraft such as the US F-16C/D Fighting Falcon, the French Mirage 2000 or the Soviet Mikoyan MiG-29. However, they required a large fuselage cross-section to accommodate them (thereby increasing aircraft size, weight and aerodynamic drag), plus additional electrical generating capacity, computer processing power, and cooling systems to dissipate the heat they produce (thereby increasing the aircraft's overall complexity). Even if such radars had been available to South Africa (which they weren't), the latter factors would have been so expensive as to preclude their use in a local fighter. South Africa's pilots would therefore have to do their best with the more limited systems available to them, and compensate for any shortcomings in that area by adapting their operational doctrines and tactics.

The technological issues affecting the type of aircraft to be built were thus clarified. It would incorporate the most advanced composite materials available, to reduce its weight (which would partly compensate for its lower-powered engine, and improve wing loading); it would use a fly-by-wire control system for maximum maneuverability; it would incorporate the latest and most sophisticated avionics and weapons systems available to South Africa; and its radar cross-section would be reduced as far as practicable. The latter would involve both the aircraft's size, and the use of non-metallic composite materials that would absorb or diffuse radiation rather than reflect it.

At the same time as the technologies involved were being analyzed, the SAAF was trying to decide on the sort of aircraft it needed from an operational perspective. Budgetary considerations meant that it would have to be a multi-role, general-purpose plane. South Africa could not afford to develop different types of aircraft, each designed or optimized for a particular role (as, for example, the US F-15 had originally been intended solely for the air superiority mission, epitomized by the slogan of its design team - "Not a pound for air-to-ground!"). The SAAF's new plane would have to fight other aircraft, launch bombs and missiles against ground and/or naval targets, refuel in the air and/or act as a 'buddy store' tanker to refuel other aircraft, and perform reconnaissance flights - perhaps doing more than one of these tasks during a single mission.

The problem was to decide what sort of aircraft could best accomplish these multiple missions. Given that only a relatively low-powered engine was available, it made sense from a pure performance perspective to use two of them, doubling the aircraft's thrust. That would permit higher speeds and the carriage of a heavier weapon load. However, it would also mean building a larger aircraft, to support two engines plus their mountings and control systems. This, in turn, meant bigger fuel tanks, to cater to the engines' double thirst, and greater wing area, to lift the additional weight, plus enlarged control surfaces. All these factors would impose penalties in overall size, weight and aerodynamic drag, for which designers would usually compensate by installing more powerful engines - but none were available. Such an aircraft would also be much more expensive (an important consideration for South Africa, which was suffering under the growing impact of economic sanctions). A final factor was that, in combat operations, a larger aircraft is more readily seen, and, if it's non-stealthy, has a larger radar cross-section, making it easier for enemies to detect.

To illustrate, let's compare the USAF's F-15C with its F-16C. Both were in service during the period under discussion. The first is a large, twin-engined air superiority fighter; the second is a (relatively) lightweight, single-engined multi-role aircraft. Look at their respective measurements (click the table for a larger view):

The F-15 is a third longer and has a wingspan a third wider than the F-16; weighs over 1½ times more than the smaller aircraft; and requires 1¾ times more thrust than the F-16 to give it its stellar performance (forcing it to carry nearly twice as much internal fuel). Furthermore, each F-15C cost the USAF over 1½ times more than the F-16C. Clearly, given the technological limitations and budgetary constraints affecting the SAAF, an aircraft in the size and weight class of the F-16 made much more sense than something like the F-15.

All sorts of designs were examined for the Carver project: one or two seats, one or two vertical stabilizers, one or two engines, high-, mid- or low-mounted wing, conventional or delta planform (with and without horizontal stabilizers), and every possible combination and permutation of these elements. At every step, all the factors discussed above had to be considered. Furthermore, the availability of technology had to be taken into account. If a particular item couldn't be manufactured in South Africa, or obtained from the (very few) reliable suppliers of arms to that country, it wouldn't help to incorporate it in the design.

The two-decades-long familiarity of local industry with the Mirage series of fighters was also (at least initially) a very important consideration. Atlas Aircraft Corp. had assembled Mirage F1 aircraft under license, and performed all heavy maintenance and overhauls on the SAAF's Mirage fleet. It was about to embark on the Cheetah upgrade program, as discussed last week. It made sense to capitalize on the knowledge and experience base thus built up, and use similar construction techniques and technologies for the new fighter program. Any design deviating too far from this base of experience was seen, at first, as a less than optimum solution. Later in the development of the Carver, the growing exposure of local industry to new technologies would render this consideration less important.

By the mid-1980's the Carver's design had gravitated towards a smaller, single-engined aircraft, with one or two seats. To develop it further, foreign expertise was brought in. A senior design engineer had been hired from France, where he'd worked on the Mirage 2000 aircraft, and he brought some colleagues with him. Israel provided consultants from its then-current Lavi project.

IAI Lavi

At a later stage, after the cancellation of the Lavi in 1987, the South African armaments industry tried to hire many of its laid-off engineers and technicians, offering extraordinarily high hourly rates or salaries, payable in US dollars in any country of their choice. This caused a great deal of resentment among local personnel, who were working as hard as - if anything, harder than - the 'imports', but earning much less for their efforts.

I regarded these later recruitment efforts as largely a waste of money. Many (most?) of those hired (although fortunately not all) appeared to be in the Carver program for what they could get out of it, rather than what they could contribute. They seemed to me (and to many of my colleagues) to be lazy and uncooperative. After all, if they taught their skills to local personnel - as it was intended they should - they'd be doing themselves out of a job; so they didn't try very hard. After the cancellation of the Carver, many of the foreigners recruited for the program reportedly went to China, to join former comrades in working on that country's Chengdu J-10 project. This bears at least a passing resemblance to the Lavi, and is now in front-line service.

Chengdu J-10

(It's worth noting that the USA contributed something like $2 billion (in 1980's dollars) of its taxpayers' money to the Lavi project, and transferred some very sensitive technologies to Israel. Some of those technologies - passed on by those who'd worked with them - were gratefully received in South Africa, but I suspect (and some reports appear to confirm) that a great many more were even more gratefully received by China. The USA's investment of money and technology in an Israeli aircraft seems to have helped China to develop its own fourth-generation fighter instead. I think the Chinese aviation industry owes a vote of thanks to the US Congress, which buckled to pressure from lobbyists and authorized the use of US funds and technology to develop the Lavi [over the objections of the Department of Defense and the US aircraft industry, let it be said . . . objections that appear in hindsight to have been well-founded].)

By the late 1980's, wind-tunnel models of the single-engine, single-seat Carver design had been successfully tested. Preliminary full-size fuselage frame mock-ups were also produced. A few of them may be seen in the background of this photograph of some of the Carver team.

(Yes, I knew several of the people in that photograph, and what they did; and no, I'm not going to post the details! After twenty-five-odd years, they'll all have changed in appearance, anyway. Those who knew the Mirage 2000 design team in France may recognize a familiar face.)

A small display model was produced of one of the Carver design iterations (not the final one). In the photograph below, it's shown standing on a table at an international armaments exhibition. It wasn't identified as the Carver, of course; and by the time it was displayed, the Carver design looked different, anyway (which is, of course, the only reason Atlas Aircraft Corp. was allowed to use it in this way). Those looking at it would probably have assumed it was there as a generic advertisement for Atlas, without realizing that it was actually something more.

By 1988 the Carver design was almost ready to proceed to the construction of a prototype. Many of the composite components that would have been used on production aircraft weren't yet available, but for the prototype they would have been replaced by aluminum or other lightweight alloy parts. This would have made the aircraft heavier, but not by so much that it couldn't have undertaken aerodynamic and other tests. However, without warning, everything suddenly changed.

The then-Chief of the SAAF, Lieutenant-General Dennis Earp, was a veteran of the Korean War, where (as described last week) he flew F-51D Mustangs with No. 2 Squadron as part of the USAF's 18th Fighter-Bomber Wing. As a former 'fighter jock', he'd been a strong supporter of a lighter, more agile, more maneuverable Carver. However, in 1988 he retired, and was replaced by Lieutenant-General Jan van Loggerenberg. According to what we were told at the time, the latter had flown the SAAF's large, twin-engined 1960's-vintage Buccaneer S.50 strike aircraft, the few survivors of which were at that time tasked with delivering South Africa's nuclear weapons, if necessary. They also carried the country's newly-operational 'smart weapons' (which we'll discuss next week).

SAAF Buccaneer S.50 performing JATO takeoff

If Lt.-Gen. van Loggerenberg could get only one type of aircraft out of the Carver program, he wanted one able to deliver a greater weapons load over a longer range. It's not for me to question why and how his strategic and/or tactical judgment differed from that of his predecessor. He was now operationally responsible for the program, and I presume he acted in what he thought were the best interests of the SAAF. Nevertheless, given the limitations of the Atar 09K50 engine, the Carver didn't have a hope of meeting his requirements as a single-engined design. To do so, whilst retaining even minimally acceptable performance, it would have to have two engines . . . which brought everything to a grinding halt while the design team went back to the drawing-board.

This seemed, at first, to be an unmitigated disaster for the Carver program, setting it back by two to three years and throwing a great many suppliers into confusion. They'd been working on components, sub-systems and weapons; but now they had to stop everything, wait while the new design was prepared, then redesign their own elements of it accordingly. On the other hand, serendipitous developments over the next couple of years brought the opportunity to use more modern engines. This enabled the design team to give Carver much more power in a smaller airframe size - a huge benefit, which (in my opinion) would have more than compensated for the delay in the program, if it had continued to production. I'll speak more about the engines in Weekend Wings #41. Suffice it to say that even if the original, single-engined Carver design had gone ahead, it would probably have had to be redesigned to take advantage of the new engine. Therefore, in the long run, Lt.-Gen. van Loggerenberg's decision probably didn't make that much difference to the timing of the program.

The most promising of the Carver's early twin-engined conceptual designs had resembled the Mirage 4000, a larger twin-engined evolution of the Mirage 2000. This had been designed as a private venture by Dassault, and initially funded by Saudi Arabia, which wanted an F-15-class fighter but was (at the time) unable to buy the US aircraft. The only prototype flew in 1979; but the USA ultimately allowed Saudi Arabia to buy the F-15, so it withdrew its funding for the Mirage 4000 project, and the plane was never put into production. It's shown in the two photographs and video clip below.

I suppose it's not surprising that early twin-engine Carver design studies resembled it, given that the Mirage 4000 program grew out of the Mirage 2000, and South Africa had one of the latter program's design engineers on staff. However, the Carver would have performed less well and carried a smaller payload, due to the lower power of its older-technology engines (which would have delivered about 25% less thrust than those of the Mirage 4000).

The new (1990/91) twin-engine Carver design built on all that had been learned over the past few years, and progressed much further than a mere Mirage 4000 look-alike. I was no longer involved with the program at that stage, so I didn't see the new designs myself, but I discussed them with others who were still on the team. Here's a reduced-size version of one purported later design study (one of several published on a British forum a few years ago).

It's not far from what I recall discussing over a beer or three with colleagues who were still working on the program, along with another, almost identical design with twin vertical stabilizers, reminiscent of the US F/A-18 Hornet. You'll note that it incorporates elements from the Lavi design (compare the drawing to the photograph of the Lavi above, and recall that by this time the Lavi had been cancelled, with many of the project's personnel now working in South Africa). It also has some similarities to the Dassault Rafale A technology demonstrator, which first flew in 1986. There are no canards, the wing is shoulder-mounted, the engine inlets are set well back, and the exhaust nozzles are different from those depicted in previous Carver drawings and models. That's because, as discussed above and in Weekend Wings #41 next week, by this time (1990/91) the use of more modern engines had become possible. Note, too, the similarities between Carver's wings and the later Cheetah ACW wing (described in Weekend Wings #39).

(EDITED TO ADD:  Some years after writing this article, pictures became available of a model of the proposed twin-engine configuration of the Carver.  You'll find them here.)

You'll notice the resemblance between an aerial shown beneath the fuselage (below the cockpit) in the drawing above, and an aerial in roughly the same place on the Cheetah C, shown in the first photograph in this article. That's because many of the Israeli avionics and systems used in the latter aircraft had been intended for the Carver, using a MIL-STD-1553B databus to permit future upgrades. The Carver's nosecone would also have resembled that of the Cheetah C, to house the same Elta EL/M-2032 radar.

Sadly, while this redesign work was going on, time and events caught up with the Carver. South Africa withdrew from Angola in 1988, and from Namibia the following year. In February 1990 the new State President, Mr. F. W. de Klerk, unbanned South African opposition movements and began the process of negotiation that would lead, four years later, to the end of apartheid and the advent of genuine democracy in that country. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, bringing an end to the Cold War. All these developments meant that the strategic situation confronting South Africa had changed greatly. The military threats to its security were considerably reduced. Furthermore, by 1989 the country was spending approximately 4½% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defense; but international economic sanctions and internal political, social and economic turmoil were taking their toll. GDP would contract by 1% in both 1990 and 1991. Given these economic realities, plus the changed international and domestic political environment, some very expensive military programs were no longer cost-justifiable.

Carver was one of them. By 1991 almost $2 billion (at then-current exchange rates) had been invested in the program and associated projects. This enormous sum had been spent to establish and develop the technologies and infrastructure that would be required to make the Carver program a success, and prepare the aircraft's design. However, not a single airframe had yet been fabricated, much less flown. The same amount of money would have bought, at contemporary prices, a fleet of 70-80 of the latest F-16C/D multi-role aircraft (that is, if they'd been available to South Africa); yet it would cost at least as much again, probably more, to produce that many Carvers. This was hardly value for money by anyone's standards. (Of course, the only reason the program had been authorized in the first place was because South Africa couldn't buy comparable aircraft elsewhere. Strategic considerations had outweighed financial concerns at the time . . . but not any more.) Furthermore, it was predicted (correctly) that as soon as the country's apartheid policies were finally terminated, international sanctions (including the arms embargo) would be lifted, and the nation would be able to buy fighters on the world market once more, incorporating more advanced technology (particularly engines) than South Africa could produce itself. The Carver program was therefore cancelled in 1991.

This was a bitter blow to the South African aviation and defense industries. Many of the top companies and individuals in these fields had devoted years of effort to the Carver program. They'd supervised the growth of the sector into a national aeronautical technological capacity rated (by Israeli experts, in the early 1990's) as being among the top 20 in the world. They'd ridden out the disruption caused by the sudden change of focus from a light, single-engined design to a larger, heavier, twin-engined version, and were just beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel . . . only to find out that it belonged to an oncoming political and budgetary train. Many defense companies were forced to scale back or shut down some of their biggest projects, including electronics, missiles and other systems related to Carver. Many highly qualified individuals lost their jobs. Some remained in South Africa, but a large number left the country to offer their skills and experience to the highest bidder on the world market.

A change in career direction ended my limited involvement with the Carver program a couple of years before it was cancelled. Still, I can't help but wonder what would have happened if the almost-prototype-ready single-engined design had been allowed to proceed. I think she might have flown by 1990/91, and would probably have been a sweet bird, particularly with a smaller, lighter, more powerful engine. If she'd been in the air by 1991, the program might have survived. I'm sorry she never had the chance to fly. The later two-engined design might also have turned out very well indeed, despite its setbacks. An Israeli specialist told me in late 1990 that, with the more powerful turbofans then becoming available, it might rival the Dassault Rafale (then still under development) or the US F/A-18 Hornet as a multi-role aircraft. Sadly, we'll never know if he was right.

By the time Carver was cancelled, the Cheetah program had produced 32 upgraded Mirage III aircraft (16 two-seat D and 16 single-seat E models, all delivered by 1991). They were intended to augment a similar number of surviving Mirage F1 fighters in the SAAF's front-line squadrons, and allow the latter to be upgraded in their turn. This mixed fleet was planned to see the SAAF through until the late 1990's, when the Carver would have taken over from all of them, as well as the few surviving Buccaneers and Canberra bombers. However, Carver's cancellation threw these plans into disarray, and posed a whole new set of problems.

The mandatory arms embargo against South Africa was still in force (the end of apartheid and the advent of full democracy wouldn't happen until April 1994). The ground war in Angola was over, but airborne threats were not. There were persistent reports that Zimbabwe, a nation openly hostile to South Africa's apartheid government, was trying to acquire MiG-29's. These would have been the most advanced fighters in the region, far superior to anything then in the inventory of any other Southern African air force. If Zimbabwe got them, other currently hostile nations on South Africa's borders would undoubtedly seek to do likewise. As far as anyone could foresee in 1991, such aircraft would soon pose a very real threat to the country's security. The SAAF had to be prepared to counter them; but its Cheetah D and E models, which had relatively unsophisticated radars, and its Mirage F1's, with their 1970's-vintage systems, weren't up to the job.

The SAAF had no choice but to accept that money to continue the Carver program simply wasn't there any more. However, it pointed to the perceived air threat confronting the nation, and insisted that, if it couldn't have Carver, an alternative had to be found in the short term. A new engine for its Mirage F1's (which we'll discuss next week) would not suffice; their combat systems and weapons also had to be upgraded - a project that was still years away from implementation. Furthermore, it was already clear that the SAAF's budget would decline drastically in the new political reality emerging in South Africa. That would inevitably mean reducing the size of its fleet, so that fewer front-line aircraft would be available. Those that remained would have to be as capable as possible, given their limited numbers.

I'm sure President de Klerk didn't want to spend more money on military programs than he absolutely had to: but he was caught on the horns of a dilemma. If he cut military spending immediately to levels that were realistic in the light of current threats, he'd alienate the military-industrial establishment, which had grown very large and very powerful over the years of conflict, and risk a coup d'état by the armed forces in an attempt to derail the negotiating process. (Indeed, some retired senior officers led right-wing opposition to the negotiations, although most, including a former Chief of the South African Defense Force, later joined the political process.) However, if he spent too much money on the military, he'd upset the opposition movements with whom he was negotiating about the future of South Africa. They (understandably) wanted more money spent on social programs, to begin to undo the immense harm that apartheid had inflicted over several decades.

President de Klerk and his Cabinet opted for a middle road. They didn't buy new aircraft for the SAAF, but they authorized a further tranche of Cheetah conversions, to be equipped to a much higher standard. The result was 'Project Tunny', the hastily-implemented Cheetah C program, which incorporated many of the systems that would have been fitted to the Carver. These aircraft were described in Weekend Wings #39 last week. To help pay for Project Tunny, the SAAF was required to substantially reduce its operating costs. It could only do so by withdrawing from service over two-thirds of its former strength. A parliamentary reply in 2002 indicated:

... 469 aircraft were withdrawn from service since 1990 due to "either obsolescence or a reduction in force design". The list included Mirage F1, Cheetah E, Canberra, Buccaneer, and Impala strike aircraft, as well as Harvard, Cessna, Impala, Cheetah D and E, and Alouette 111 basic and advanced trainers. The SAAF also divested itself of Aztec, Queen Air, C160, Dakota, Kudu, Viscount, DC4 Skymaster, Super Freelon, Puma, Alouette 111, HS125, and Islander transports, as well as Canberra, Bosbok, and Cessna reconnaissance planes.

Of these, 297 had been sold, while the others were being stored at Hoedspruit and Bloemspruit Air Force Bases, as well as at Polokwane and Swartkops airfields. Only limited maintenance was performed on these aircraft, so varying degrees of additional maintenance would have to be carried out in order to restore them to serviceable condition.

There's more at the link. As part of this fleet reduction, a number of squadrons and training units were amalgamated or stood down.

38 Cheetah C's were delivered between 1992 and 1995. The Carver wing design was developed into the ACW for the Cheetah (described last week), and the engine upgrade was also pursued (we'll discuss this next week). Both projects were successfully flight-tested, but for budgetary reasons neither was put into production. When they were terminated, the last vestiges of the Carver program died with them.

The SAAF would see further reductions in its fleet during the 1990's, retiring all its Mirage F1AZ strike aircraft, plus all the Cheetah E's and some of the D's. By the turn of the century it had a front-line combat force of only 18 Cheetah C's and ten Cheetah D's, serving in a single squadron (No. 2) on a single airbase. Many other aircraft were also retired (although some new ones were ordered). As a result, many of the SAAF's most highly skilled and qualified personnel left for pastures new, realizing that there was no future for them in so truncated a service. Today, according to many news reports, in terms of budget, equipment and the numbers and level of expertise of its remaining personnel, the SAAF (indeed, the entire South African National Defence Force) appears to be no more than a shadow of its former self. To say that I'm disappointed by this state of affairs is putting it very mildly indeed . . .

Next week, in Weekend Wings #41, I'll post details of the engine upgrades planned for South Africa's Mirage F1 fighters, and some of the weapons and systems developed for the SAAF during the 1980's and beyond.



Old NFO said...

Great post Peter! Thanks!!!

RobC said...

Thanks for the great post on the SAAF.