On Wednesday 25 October, a German Air Force (GAF) Airbus Military A400M-180 touched down at Cape Town International Airport, the first time the GAF had sent one of their brand-new transports to the country.
The aircraft was there to collect some of the final remaining equipment from the force’s earlier round of weapons testing and training at the Denel Overberg Test Range (OTR) and the adjacent South African Air Force base at AFB Overberg, near Arniston. But it’s unlikely that South Africans will see another GAF A400M again soon, as after reportedly receiving the cold shoulder, being messed around with permits and approvals, and generally being made to feel extremely unwelcome, the Germans have decided to go somewhere else next time, rather than returning to South Africa.
This is not Denel OTR’s fault: The dedicated staff there rolled out the red carpet and ran a well-prepared and efficient setup. Nor was it the fault of the SAAF personnel at AFB Overberg, whom the Germans found to be as accommodating as ever. Rather, the blame lies with certain elements within the South African government and at higher levels in the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), who made what should have been routine approvals and clearances into a bureaucratic nightmare, doubtless causing many sleepless nights and much hair-pulling frustration for the organisers.
To add insult to injury, a polite request by the Germans to conduct a brief joint exercise between GAF Tornados and SAAF Gripens, submitted far in advance of their arrival, was turned down without proper explanation, even though both 2 Squadron and 85 Combat Flying School were scheduled to deploy over a dozen aircraft at AFB Overberg at the same time for their own weapons qualification trails. For the pilots of both sides, being unable to fly with and learn from each other despite being in the same place at the same time, must have been discouraging.
Unfortunately for the staff at OTR, not only does the presence of any foreign military aircraft and weapons in the country require formal Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) and SANDF approval, but, as aircraft using the test range have to be based at AFB Overberg, there are additional clearances needed. So, however, much Denel may try to market the range and be welcoming to foreign delegations, they’re completely at the mercy of the authorities over whose decisions they have no control. What’s worse is that unless something is done to change the outcome, this brings to an end almost two decades of German involvement with Denel OTR, destroying a valuable relationship that began in 1999.
In 1999, Germany’s BWB, or Bundesamt für Wehrtechnik und Beschaffung (Federal Office of Defense Technology), arms acquisition agency signed a multi-million Rand long-term contract to use the range for the development of the KEPD Taurus stand-off missile. While that contract had run its course, the German Air Force had since contracted OTR for its biennial weapons development and testing deployments, and there was every indication that OTR deployments would continue indefinitely. Now they won’t.
The direct financial loss to OTR will be serious, as anywhere from 30-60% of the range’s revenue in any given year comes from foreign clients, and the German Air Force’s regular testing formed a substantial part of it. Not only will Denel scramble to fill that hole, but the circumstances under which the Germans were persuaded to go elsewhere will discourage other countries and companies from using the range for their own testing, especially as any use of the range requires a huge logistical undertaking and a deployment over thousands of kilometres.
It would be easy to attribute the delays and difficulties experienced by the German government in using OTR to the indifferent incompetence that has become a regular feature of South Africa’s civil service, but neither DIRCO nor the SANDF are quite so incompetent as to be unable to efficiently evaluate and expedite such routine clearances. Instead, it has become clear that the prevailing attitude inside the responsible authorities, particularly SANDF Defence Intelligence and the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, is that these visits by mostly-Western militaries are simply not important and not deserving of any real effort.
Despite attempts to make them aware of the economic and military importance of these visits – whether to use OTR, attend Africa Aerospace & Defence, or partake in joint exercises – the response has universally been one of ‘so what, we don’t need them here’. At the same time, the willingness to approve joint exercises with foreign air forces in particular has dwindled to historically-low levels, with the SAAF being able to partake in fewer and fewer joint exercises with non-SADC air forces.
This is part of an undeniable pattern of South African military and diplomatic staff not treating a number of militaries, particularly Western ones, with the same level of professional courtesy and shared respect that was once the case and should still be expected. It appears this stems from the belief amongst some influential senior military officers and civil servants that, because the country is shifting its foreign policy position toward being more closely-aligned with the BRICS countries, being Brazil, Russia, India, and China, this means that engagement with non-BRICS countries in all other areas should be reduced too.
But this is a foolish mindset. It ignores the fact that bilateral and multinational engagements should be determined by interests and practicality, not wishful thinking.
South Africa can still benefit from working with countries, and their armed forces, even if it does not agree with them on all areas of policy. The determining factor should be which countries are, first, willing and able to send forces half way around the world for training or testing. Second, have practices, techniques, and doctrines that are worth learning from. And third, may have to be partnered with for future peacekeeping or disaster response operations.
Part of the problem is that many politicians, some senior generals, and an influential swathe of the population have a misunderstanding of multinational military exercises, believing them to be something one does only with close allies for fear of divulging secrets. It’s an outdated view and out of touch with modern approaches, especially for air forces, most of which around the world are more than happy to engage in joint exercises with others, even potential foes, because they’re able to strictly define the parameters of any exercise to ensure that any strategically-crucial capabilities remain hidden while still gaining valuable training and reducing distrust.
For instance, in Exercise Tapioca 2002 when USAF F-15Es of the 494th Fighter Squadron exercised against Cheetah Cs of the SAAF’s 2 Squadron, the rules stipulated that only basic radar modes would be used, that no electronic countermeasures would be activated, and that only a standard heat-seeking air-to-air missile and gun fire configuration would be simulated. Despite these limitations, the exercise was exceptionally valuable and instructive for the pilots and ground crew of both 2 Squadron and the 494th.
So not only is that fear and paranoia unjustified, but it has the situation backwards. South Africa usually has more to learn from foreign exercise partners than their foreign partners could possibly ever learn from them. The SAAF has few opportunities for comparative evaluation, as it lacks the budget to send people and aircraft to multinational exercises held elsewhere, and therefore must rely on those willing to visit.
This is also not the first time that paranoia and petty politics have resulted in a damaging overreaction and the severing of a promising relationship, nor was it the most harmful and embarrassing. That honour belongs to the SANDF and DoD’s wholesale rejection of the Gripen Fighter Weapons School (GFWS) in 2012, despite it having been broadly approved by the SAAF.
The idea behind the GFWS was brilliant: A fighter weapons school hosted at AFB Overberg that would hold an annual two-month intensive course that would teach advanced air-to-air and air-to-ground tactics to Gripen pilots from around the world, with live firing, aggressor platforms, and real-world radar and EW exposure. Saab was to have invested the money for the venture, building a dedicated 1,000 m2 facility for the school, providing all start-up funding, and deploying simulation and other training tools.
The SAAF would have made available four to six Gripens for each course, with Saab paying for their use, and would of course have had front-row access to the facility and its training, while gaining massive amounts of experience in working with other Gripen users. But when Saab made the news about the school public, the reaction from the Department of Defence secretariat and the highest levels of the SANDF was brutal and unequivocal: In no way, shape, or form would they ever accept the GFWS or any other similar concept.
It emerged later that the SAAF senior officers who had developed the idea of the GFWS with Saab and approved its structure had not yet been able to sell the idea to their superiors, who in turn overreacted in anger at being left out of the loop and then refused to back down. An immensely promising opportunity, without any doubt the best chance the SANDF had to gain regular exposure to and experience from non-SADC militaries, was lost forever.
With the SAAF struggling under the strain of a woefully insufficient budget and punishing commitments, and Denel desperate for new clients and sources of revenue, now is not the time to turn away those partnerships that could provide cost-effective experience or new business respectively. It is to be hoped that those in power come to realise this before they damage too many viable partnerships beyond repair.