Air Force keeps mum on combat pilots

2010-11-17 22:20

Cape Town - The SA Air Force (SAAF) on Wednesday invoked "national security" to avoid telling MPs how many fully-trained combat pilots it had to fly its multi-billion-rand Gripen fighter and Hawk fighter-trainer aircraft.

This question, among others, came after a briefing by SAAF air capability planning director, Brigadier General Wiseman Mbambo, to members of Parliament's defence portfolio committee.

In the briefing, he told MPs that "inadequate funding" of the Hawk and Gripen combat systems had placed these "in the balance", and the SAAF "has not been able to generate the required number of flying hours and re-provision the systems adequately".

To save on costs, pilots were training on Pilatus aircraft rather than the Hawks, because these were cheaper to operate, Mbambo said.

This prompted at least two MPs to inquire on the number of qualified combat pilots available for the Hawks and Gripens.

Responding, Mbambo called on committee chairperson Mnyamezeli Booi to advise him whether or not to answer this question.

"I would like to get some advice on that one because it touches exactly on the... security of the country in terms of what we have currently for combat readiness."

Mbambo had earlier been cautioned by the chairperson not to venture into areas that touched on national security.


His call for advice prompted an objection from Freedom Front Plus MP Pieter Groenewald.

"That can't be a threat (to national security). I've asked this question in Parliament a couple of times. What is the threat? To know how many combat pilots we have? Let us know!" he said.

Booi then asked Mbambo if he was saying that divulging this information was a threat to national security.

Mbambo responded: "It's digging into the actual capability that we have. Another thing... the combat readiness of pilots will differ from time to time. I can give you an answer now, but as I walk out of this room, the answer is not perfect anymore."

Booi then ruled that the question was "bordering on national security", that Mbambo was not in a position, as a serving officer, to answer it, and would have to consult Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu before providing an answer.

He further suggested the question could be "posed through the parliamentary system to the minister herself".

Short of funds

Earlier, Mbambo sketched a picture of an air force that was desperately short of funds.

The SAAF's budget allocation for 2009/10 had been R3.1bn, of which R1.6bn was for personnel and R1.5bn for operations.

"In the year under review, the SAAF was under-funded to the tune of R132m, specifically on operations," he said.

Reporting on the SAAF's air combat capability, he said it had been planned to fly 950 training hours, but only 715 were achieved.

"The reasons include: substantial underfunding of the systems, long lead times on spares, the Gripen support package has not been fully delivered (during the year under review), and a software upgrade on the Hawks which affected availability," Mbambo said.

MPs also heard the SAAF had been forced to dig into its severely-strained operations budget to fund capital equipment.

"If we do not take operational funds to buy spares, we will not be able to fly the aircraft," an official told the committee.

  • Lesteringham - 2010-11-17 23:19

    In order to achieve representivity, they inflated the number of support personnel who's salaries are draining the SAAF budget. To compensate for this, the number of flying hours had to be reduced and the qualifed pilots and engineers left the SAAF and went to work for foreign air forces. Now the SAAF does not have enough experienced pilots and engineers. Releasing the numbers of combat pilots is not necessarily a matter of national security, but admitting to the fact that the SAAF is understaffed would be a matter of national security and extremely embarrassing to the Minister of Defence. The fact that they don't admit this is probably confirmation that the SAAF does not have the required capability to defend the country from internal and external threats. The question is: What are they going to do about it? .

      AJ - 2010-11-18 05:35

      Lesteringham looking at the various blunders presided over by the Minister of Defense (previously minister of Housing), embarrassment is something she is clearly immune too. It's just another day in the life of...being a Minister.

  • Macho Mike - 2010-11-17 23:20

    Call Julius in. He can count the pilots for us, and we will then know if we have at least two or not. On da udder hand, we could just twitter the answer............

      djmilano.26 - 2010-11-18 13:59

      you Wish julius was your brother ne ?

  • francois.roux1 - 2010-11-17 23:29

    No, they all had to buy new Mercs and Range Rovers so they can drive to the airforce base and look at the pretty planes, that's why there is a shortage of money. I'd warrant a guess and say that we probably only have 3 people who can fly those planes, one of which is most certainly a ghost(they need to keep those fancy car's tanks full of petrol), another one still struggling to figure out exactly how a compass works and the last is in the process of receiving a package because his not of the right colour... Pathetic...

      freeflyshannon - 2010-11-18 07:42

      My sentiments exactly

  • alfred - 2010-11-17 23:52

    With over R1billion in wasteful expenditure, the Defence department should hang their heads in shame. We have some of the most sophisticated "toys" in the world and its all going to waste. Lindiwe Sisulu was useless as Housing minister and even more useless as Defence minister. Please give this dumb b##ch a golden handshake just to get the hell out of our lives.

  • willem.els - 2010-11-18 00:19

    715 hours divide by (hours needed to be a pilot) = max active pilots

      Observer - 2010-11-18 07:53

      That is one way...but that's assuming that we even have a number of active pilots. A better way would perhaps be to count the number of Gripens that flew in the recent air show in Cape Town - this is our max number of pilots!

      TinyT - 2010-11-18 09:44

      There is no minimum needed to be an active pilot once you have your licence. This is training hours which can be all one person or 1 hour each... Good idea Observer but do not forget that we may have more pilots than Gripens...

      Fred Basset - 2010-11-18 13:49

      TinyT - I beg to differ. Each pilot must log 'X' hours each year in each type of craft that they fly if they want to retain their clearance to fly that particular aircraft. A mate of mine used to fly jets for SAAF, but the dept had no funds for fuel for the pilots to maintain their hours. Eventually got so bad that they were offering private flips for any member of public as long as they would pay the fuel bill just to keep their hours up (that was at Louis Trichardt about 10 yrs ago). The pilots spent loads of time flying Astro's, as these were cheap to run, but they could not use the hours to qualify for jets.

  • Arthur Phili - 2010-11-18 01:34

    Why do we need a large air force? If the penguin army to the South attacks us I'm sure we can hold them off with a useless Malema speech till international help arrives? Indeed, what is the threat we need to counter with fighter jets? Penguins can't even fly! Some threats we do have is unchecked population growth exceeding our resources, which leads to poverty and social ills. Just ask the 20 million unemployable people we produced who can only produce more children but nothing else. We have a corrupt government, which used to be a terrorist organisation, pilfering money faster than justice can be dealt. The Rule of Law is eroded by people like Zuma, who disbands bodies which should protect us from people like him. If he was innocent he would have gone to court, there is nothing better than proving yourself innocent, but he went through great lengths to stop that. We have HIV, reducing every South African's life by 12 years (life expectancy in 1992 was 64 years, it is now 52 years). 12 years is quite allot, its like losing 1 in 4 soldiers in a war. Now that is a real worry, but Zuma got a shower so no worries. Maybe we won't have useless jet fighters if our friend Zuma didn't purchase planes we don't need or can't use and can't afford. Maybe we would have been better off not voting corrupt leaders in to government..

  • John Wilderness - 2010-11-18 02:19

    The Airforce runs at a 132 million Rand pa operational deficit and the Minister of defence wants to use a $2 billion Airbus refund to buy more planes ???? Can't ? ..can you... ?? hmm .. FORGET IT !!!

  • Benoexpat - 2010-11-18 03:23

    Being in Australia I met some fellow expats the other day and it turned out they are all ex-SAAF technicians lured to greener pastures, thirteen families in all! It doesn't end there. The former officer commanding the fighter squadron near Louis Trichardt is also reported to be at the local airforce base flying F18's. And then there's the young SAAF trained helicopter pilot we met during a bushfire. He was flying a fire fighting helicopter and he told us he wasn't the only ex-SAAF pilot in their outfit. Now, all of this makes me wonder just how many pilots are left in the SAAF. Not many I would say. No wonder the real numbers can't be divulged. It won't be a threat to so-called national security but a very big embarresment.

      seastarhennie - 2010-11-18 04:39

      I am no expert, however there is surely some acceptable ratio of pilots to aircraft, with a few more pilots than aircraft? It is no secret as to how many aircraft we bought, HOWEVER, it might be a secret as to how many are serviceable. Presumably one wants to be able to have all the aircraft you bought to be capable of flying in an emergency so we should have as least so many pilots. It cannot be of benefit to an enemy to know we have twice as many pilots as there are aircraft for, it can only benefit the enemy if they know we do not have ENOUGH pilots to fly our aircraft!! Hence national security is being invoked.

  • AJ - 2010-11-18 05:33

    "in the interests of National security" - in other words none.

  • Francois - 2010-11-18 06:17

    please please wakeup we do not have a defense force in any form shape or size...what we have is a hand full of corrupted conman that is raking in the money... in ten year they will be called WAR VETS and demand food and what not. so in all it is wise to say if there is an plan to do a terror attack on SA it will be like a walk in the park for the terrorist.

  • witadder - 2010-11-18 06:24

    The real reason they are using Pilatus aircraft are that the current hawk trainer fleet is un-serviceable because the majority of the airframes are bent due to (very)hard landings.

      Smaal - 2010-11-18 07:59

      Not only landings. Some (I assume trainee pilots) handle the aircraft like a taxi on the ground with so interesting and humorous outcomes.

  • ArtGee - 2010-11-18 06:27

    I have it from an INFORMED SOURCE.... the Qty is 4....... yes people a grand total of 4. Sad isn't it?

  • Boerseun - 2010-11-18 07:10

    So basicly, we will have no airborne defences if an attack comes and what we do have will be so limited in training, quality and numbers that they will be wiped out withing the first skirmishes....or even worse, wiped out before taking of? What a lot of bafoons we have to secure our security?

  • toxicpolony - 2010-11-18 07:21

    Hard to believe that this same airforce once fought a war in another country. Irrespective of whether the war was just or unjust, its hard to believe that a once slick fighting machine (for all the wrong reasons) is now so ineffective & ill equipped.

      shmangle - 2010-11-18 07:45

      Agreed, we shouldn't have been engaged in that war, but our army,navy & airforce were on top of their game. As it stands now we couldn't repel an invasion of snuggly bunny rabbits.

  • YasButIDunno - 2010-11-18 07:23

    "...long lead-times on spares..." This is because the one designated to strip the spares from one of the aircraft to keep the others going is doing a SETA course to find out which end of the spanner to use.

  • jacogreeff - 2010-11-18 07:43

    When the time comes for the defense force in South Africa to defend the people the biggest threat to the people will be the defense force. They will only hurt themselves trying to figure out what is happening and what to do. They should do what they do best: sit on their fat behinds and try to throw money at the situation.

  • jacogreeff - 2010-11-18 07:43

    When the time comes for the defense force in South Africa to defend the people the biggest threat to the people will be the defense force. They will only hurt themselves trying to figure out what is happening and what to do. They should do what they do best: sit on their fat behinds and try to throw money at the situation.

  • jacogreeff - 2010-11-18 07:43

    When the time comes for the defense force in South Africa to defend the people the biggest threat to the people will be the defense force. They will only hurt themselves trying to figure out what is happening and what to do. They should do what they do best: sit on their fat behinds and try to throw money at the situation.

  • Jimmy - 2010-11-18 07:50

    I wonder, of the 715 hours flown, how many were flown during or in preparation for the World Cup? If the World Cup hadn't happened, how many hours would have been flown? I also wonder how much was spent on VIP flights during the year. It would be interesting to compare the VIP spend to the combat readiness spend.

  • Skeletor1 - 2010-11-18 08:07

    What nobody is mentioning here is the fact that the core of the SAAF budget is transporting VIP passengers. The VIP squadrons is doing more hours with their aircraft than any other. Also think of the expensive catering, etc for each of these fligths.

  • ArtGee - 2010-11-18 08:08

    The OTHER pilot that can fly, flies Zuma around in a rather LARGE Helicopter.... from "PUTTY" to "PUTTY". He Flies from "DEBBEN" to Nkhandla to pick up JZ.... then flies him to Ladysmith for a "PUTTY". Once he has dropped him off, he floes back to "DEBBEN" and waits for the call to pick him up again. He then flies to Ladysmith, to do the pick up, then lfies him to Margate for a TRADITIONAL FUNCTION, and goes back to "DEBBEN". Sits a waits for the call to pick him up AGAIN! Then flies down to Margate, does the pick up, and flies him to MATHUBATHUBA, back to "DEBBEN and waits... Thats ALL this pilot does in ONE DAY... when ever JZ is in KZN... Never mind the cost of R3500-00 just to START that thing, the flying time is another story! NICE TO BE KING!

  • Snys - 2010-11-18 08:09

    Off the matter: I tried to comment on " Lindiwe and her Duracells", but it wouldn't post! Anybody else had the same problem-there were no comments. Is this some kind of censorship...or was it a case of "National Security"?

  • robg - 2010-11-18 08:13

    715 hours flown. Majority taking JZ to Nkandla probably. Therefor, how much actual training. Zip. Just as well no-one wants to attack us. Remember when we went into Lesotho and two of their medics shot the crap out of us? And we certainly have not improved since then.

  • gmck21 - 2010-11-18 08:15


  • Terence - 2010-11-18 08:38

    We should be asking the same questions of the Navy and the Army. How many trained officers who can actually "fight" a ship and use the weapons systems (If installed). How many trained soldiers that will actually fit into a tank or can jump from an aircraft, pathetic. We have gone from being the best on the Continent to a laughing stock in 15 years! Terry.

  • mcbey.kevin - 2010-11-18 08:44

    Eish..... it is difficult..... how do i run a national ministry, when in all probability, i have run/managed nothing else......

  • Justin - 2010-11-18 09:16

    What is the point? There is nothing left to defend, between the ANC,Juju and certain far eastern governments, the country has been robbed of anything worth taking.From having one of the best equipped and trained forces on the continent (albeit for the wrong cause) to a tinpot group of layabouts and thieves. I wouldn't even call them guerillas because they are organised.

  • mariovdm - 2010-11-18 09:31

    Yes I think Zimbabwe's air-force is twice if not more, as big as ours, and then the anti-aircraft gunners also take one another out ... when the real war comes, the fat politicians, will be easy targets. Just shoot the expensive cars, 80% of the time it would be someone with only woodwork....

  • scott - 2010-11-18 11:18

    it is a pity,we used to have some of the worlds best pilots(with the Israelis)a few became instructors at the Top-gun school. i wouldnt worry tho. who is going to go to war with us? we are the rainbow nation. Led by half ,communist assholes and terrorists anyway.we have friends everywhere......

  • Bull Terrier - 2010-11-18 12:52

    Will the last one out please switch off the lights? You can not run an effective "any" force where employment/promotion is based on race and not ability, skill, knoweldge and experience. Oh by the way, will the last one out bring me a souvenier please, I forgot to take one when I bailed.

  • WernerBeytel - 2010-11-18 13:06

    Aaah... the irony! Spend billions acquiring the means to protect ourselves and then don't have the budget or personnel to actually use the aircraft. Our previous, well maintained, and functional Cheetah fighters provided infinitely better air superiority than our current squadron of grounded moth-balled Gripen. It is simple logic. A functional and loaded flintlock pistol is a better weapon than a moth-balled, unloaded Glock!

  • AraBilly - 2010-11-18 13:23

    The number is 19 - including Helicopter pilots - Public information!

  • Paul - 2010-11-18 13:33

    The SA airforce could not shoot down a Seagull. If you want to Invade south Africa , start by sending 50% of your population over the border...wait..hang on...

      WernerBeytel - 2010-11-18 15:20


  • Other Justin - 2010-11-18 13:52

    Must admit, not surprised. Maybe it would be a good idea for someone to invade us and get rid of the ANC-PF government and make old Julias tour as a target at driving ranges across the country. We have gone from a top notch world class military nation (all be it for the wrong reasons) to a bunch of overweight, undertrained, underfunded oxygen thieves. We used to be able to produce some of the best military hardware in the world, now we can't even find people to fly the planes we bought from the other oak. What a disgrace! VIVA AMAUSELESS VIVA!!!!

  • Other Justin - 2010-11-18 13:55

    Please someone INVADE US and send Julias and the gang to the South Pole!!!! PLEASE PLEASE!!!!!

  • Weepee - 2010-11-18 14:10

    I'm going to go out on a limb here and say .. 1 qualified pilot. I'm basing that on the airshow in CT where only one of the mentioned aircraft was in the air at anyone time.

  • Gorilla - 2010-11-18 15:09

    The only "threat' to this country are the palookas running it as far as i can make out.

  • JohnMcgee - 2010-11-18 17:19

    I think the situation of the Air Force is unfortunate. A few mates of mine are serving members. They are also frustrated about severe under funding and lack of political will to improve the conditions of service. SAAF pilots and technicians are highly skilled and driven people that have gone from ‘doing more with less’ to ‘doing everything with nothing’. I know for a fact there are in fact too many pilots in the Air Force and not enough funding to keep them all flying. The 715 hours are only for the Gripin fleet. They did not mention the other aircraft types that fly quite often. Somebody said that there are only 19 pilots in the SAAF. That is obviously wrong. There was a formation of 15 Pilatus PC-7s that flew over the Cape Town air show. Half of those aircraft had two people in them which already disproves the ’19 pilots’ comment. The public cannot make informed decisions about an organisation they know nothing of. Instead of bad mouthing the people who work 100 hours of unpaid overtime a month to serve their county for a pathetic salary, try and support them. A pilot does not have a say what aircraft the government buys for him to fly. The government is to blame, not the proud men and woman of the armed services.

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