R4 billion VIP jet for Zuma?

President Jacob Zuma arrives at Vnukovo 3 International Airport in Russia. (GCIS)
President Jacob Zuma arrives at Vnukovo 3 International Airport in Russia. (GCIS)

A private bedroom suite, a bathroom and a conference room for eight people on board. These are just some of the specifications for a brand-new presidential jet that Armscor, the defence force’s acquisitions agency, is planning to buy for President Jacob Zuma, which could cost as much as R4 billion.

Armscor officially announced the acquisition process on its website on Thursday with a request for information from people who may be able to supply the jet. The deadline is as early as November 20, which means information must be submitted by the time the Armscor acquisitions board meets next month.

Secretary for defence Sam Gulube confirmed that the department had asked Armscor to procure a VIP jet for Zuma. He said specific requirements were submitted to his office by the SA air force.

“We don’t know how much it’s going to cost. Any talk about cost of such a capability is unfounded, groundless and baseless. Armscor has requested information and will only know [about the cost] once that information is received.”

According to the published request on the Armscor website’s tender noticeboard, the aircraft must be able to carry at least 30 passengers and have a range of 13 800km. This means the aircraft must be able to fly to Moscow or New York without landing to refuel.

According to the request, the aircraft must have a conference room for eight people on board as well as a private bedroom suite and bathroom.

The plane could look like this concept interior of a Boeing Business Jet

City Press’ sister publication, Rapport, reported earlier this year that the air force was planning to buy three second-hand jets for R2 billion. With the newly published requirements for only one jet, this budget will not be sufficient.

Inkwazi, the current presidential jet, usually transports not more than 15 people.

With this load, it can reach any destination in Africa nonstop. With a maximum of 10 passengers, it can also fly to a number of destinations in Europe nonstop.

The new jet, however, will be in a class of its own.

When Armscor’s annual report was debated in Parliament recently, it was asked when the new VIP aircraft would be purchased.

Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula earlier said the government’s growing interests internationally meant the air force’s existing VIP aircraft were not adequate to provide VIP transport.

Inkwazi has been grounded a number of times because of mechanical problems, forcing the air force to hire private planes for Zuma and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa at a high cost.

In August, Ramaphosa was embroiled in controversy when it emerged that he had flown to Japan in a Bombardier Aerospace jet, registered to Westdawn Investments, which is owned by the Gupta family.

Ramaphosa has since opted to fly commercially when travelling on state matters.

According to informed sources in the aviation industry, there are only a few aircraft in existence that meet the requirements of the new jet that will ferry Zuma, and none of them is cheap.

The main models are the Boeing 777, Boeing 787 or the Airbus A340. The A330 could serve as multipurpose plane.

. A new Boeing Business Jet the size of the Inkwazi costs R1.4 billion, but it cannot travel the required range.

. A basic Boeing 777 costs about R3.9 billion and will also struggle with such a range.

. The Boeing 787 costs about R3.1 billion and can fly further than the required range.

. The Airbus A330 costs about R3 billion, but it also cannot cover the range.

. The Airbus A340 costs about R3.1 billion, but can also not fly far enough.

If the fittings and design of the bedroom suite, conference room, communications and other equipment on board are included, it could easily add another R1.2 billion to the cost. The low value of the rand versus the dollar when purchasing an aircraft makes the transaction more expensive than ever.

It is not known on which department’s budget the new jet will be purchased or where the money will come from. The air force is stumbling along as it is on a budget that is so small that its fighter planes can only fly for an average of four hours a month.

Presidency spokesperson Bongani Majola said Zuma was not responsible for acquiring planes.

“The provision of air transport for the president and deputy president is the responsibility of the department of defence. They do what they think is necessary to ensure that adequate and appropriate air transport is available. The president does not become involved in the procurement processes or logistical arrangements with regards to the said transport provision,” he said.

Military analyst Helmoed-Römer Heitman said if the air force acted judiciously, this larger aircraft could be an asset, but it must be a multipurpose jet.

“If it could also serve as an inflight refuelling aircraft for the fighter planes or, with minor adjustments, could for example be used as an ambulance aircraft during a disaster, it would make sense.

“It would also be logical if an entire presidential party could be transported in just one aircraft instead of three-quarters of them flying commercially, because then it would be used more cost-effectively.

“However, if the jet is only used in its VIP configuration, it is a waste,” he said.

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