Combat pilots - secret's out
Erika Gibson, Beeld
Pretoria - The air force's "secret" about the number of qualified Gripen fighter pilots was recently made public in great detail by its own officers during a briefing.
The sudden secrecy regarding the numbers is probably the result of the growing persecution complex, which has been siphoning downward from the defence ministry, experts said on Thursday.
During a recent visit to 2 Squadron at the Makhado air force base, where the Gripens are based, the air force held a comprehensive briefing regarding its fighter pilots.
Brigadier General John Bayne, director of combat systems in the air force explained at the first solo flight of locally-trained Gripen pilots that the first six South African pilots were trained by the SAAB aviation and defence company in Sweden.
SAAB is the manufacturer of the Gripens.
Lieutenant Colonel Musa Mbhokota, the squadron's operations officer, said at the same occasion that the squadron will train a further three Gripen pilots next year.
Coincidentally, Mbhokota is one of the six who were trained in Sweden.
On this occasion three pilots, including the first female Gripen pilot, and a navigator conducted their first solo flights.
This brings the total number of trained pilots to nine, with another three to follow next year.
Brigadier General Wiseman Mbambo of the air force refused to say how many pilots there are at a Parliamentary briefing on Wednesday.
He said such a disclosure would involve "a threat to national security".
Lately similar excuses have been offered by the defence ministry as the reason why details about VIP flights and those of President Jacob Zuma also can't be disclosed.
According to military expert Helmoed-Römer Heitman, it is clear that the air force has no policy regarding what is classified and what not.
"Senior officers now look like fools because there's no proper, logical policy regarding what they are allowed to say. In this case they might be a little embarrassed to say there are only nine Gripen pilots.
"It's almost like a revival of the era of General Magnus Malan (former minister of defence) when no-one was allowed to release information without permission.
"Under Mosiuoa Lekota (former minister of defence) this practice gained new momentum, and now it appears to be common practice to avoid uncomfortable answers by invoking 'national security'," Heitman said.
Bayne said at a recent briefing that the air force has already received 16 of the 26 Gripens on order.