Thursday, 21 January 2016

Developing the Rooivalk Mk2 would tick many vital boxes

THE South African Department of Defence is considering whether to restart the Rooivalk project, to develop an upgraded version of the strike helicopter for the South African Air Force and perhaps for export.

That will trigger noise, particularly from those who believe the Rooivalk was an unmitigated disaster. 

Objective analysis suggests otherwise, as has become clear from a recent study of the project commissioned by the Department of Public Enterprises to draw lessons for future major projects.

One finding was that the Rooivalk generated a positive revenue flow for SA: The development and manufacture of 12 aircraft cost about R6.2bn at 2014 exchange rates. Exports of systems developed for the Rooivalk — missiles, stabilised sight, self-protection, health and usage monitoring, and so on — had passed R15.4bn by 2014. A further R7.1bn worth of defence industrial participation work on the Gripen, Hawk, A-109 and A400M aircraft would have been impossible without the skills and technologies established for the Rooivalk project. The exports continue, as does development of those systems. So hardly a disaster.

The project involved about 1,000 engineers, many of whom cut their teeth on the Rooivalk, and many of whom have gone on to other things. One of those was the establishment of Aerosud, with 800 staff manufacturing aircraft components for export; other Rooivalk engineers are key figures in the Square Kilometre Array telescope.

But is there a case for developing and manufacturing a new version? Clearly, the basic technologies and skills are established, but the development of an Mk2 would draw new engineers and technicians into the aerospace field, and give them skills and experience that can be applied in other sectors. And there would be new technologies to establish in SA given that 30 years have passed since the project was launched.

There are two key questions: does SA need combat helicopters? Must it be the Rooivalk?

The key issue is what missions the government envisages for the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). If SA is to play a regional security role, combat helicopters will be a critical force element: The days of rebels being badly led, trained and armed are long gone; so are the days of fighting them with light forces in soft-skin vehicles and without air support.

Bangui in March 2013 is a case in point. Another is the 2013 French intervention in Mali, in which France used infantry combat vehicles similar to the South African Army’s new Badger, armoured cars similar to the Rooikat, 155mm artillery, Tiger attack helicopters, and fighter jets flying precision strikes. And the French had a squadron of tanks on standby to be deployed if necessary. Later, France deployed a similar equipment mix as part of the stabilisation force in the Central African Republic.

One challenge the SANDF will face in regional security operations is force density: it will always have a small force in a large area of operations. That makes air support essential; nothing else can focus and refocus combat power as quickly in response to a rapidly developing situation. But fighters need air bases, which will often be far from where ground forces need support. While turboprop light attack aircraft can use rougher airfields, they are slow and vulnerable to weapons available to guerrillas.

Combat helicopters can deploy with the ground force and be immediately available, can be protected against most weapons, and are vastly better suited to delivering precise fire, minimising the risk of civilian casualties in complex tactical situations.

Of course, the combat helicopter is neither the ultimate piece of equipment, nor invulnerable. But it offers a mix of capabilities ideally suited to the most likely operational situations that cannot be matched by fixed-wing aircraft.

Accepting that SA will need a combat helicopter, must it be the Rooivalk?

Had it not been for the arms embargo, SA would have imported an aircraft and made do with what we could get. Instead, the country developed the Rooivalk and we now have a combat helicopter ideally suited to most likely operations. It has the range and weapons load to be effective, it has demonstrated outstanding capability in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it is protected against most weapons it might face, and it has outstanding "hot and high" performance.

The latter is best illustrated by its 5,545m "out-of-ground effect" hover ceiling (the height at which it can hover without the cushion of air caused by rotor downwash). The next best is the US Apache (3,866m), followed by the Russian Mi-28 and Ka-52 (3,600m); the Franco-German Tiger (3,200m) and the Chinese WZ-10 (2,000m). The Rooivalk also has the highest cruise speed, the best rate of climb and the best range/weapons load performance, and shares with the Tiger the best power to weight ratio, all factors critical in operations and combat. And it is probably better protected than any of those.

The bottom line is that there is no combat helicopter that can match the Rooivalk in African operations. In fact, there are only two things wrong with the Rooivalk: there are too few, and it still does not have the 10km-range Mokopa missile developed for it even though it is being exported.

The problem with the current 12-aircraft force (one in repair) is that, allowing for maintenance, it can only provide six or eight aircraft for operations and training.

Combat helicopters work in pairs — one engaging a target, the other covering it against anti-aircraft weapons — and any deployment against serious opposition should involve at least six aircraft, to ensure two pairs are available to relieve each other and provide extended support to a ground force — and one pair for training. Should a second mission arise — remember how quickly Bangui happened — the cupboard would be bare. A fleet of 24 is probably the minimum practical force; the originally planned 36 would be better.

So, we have an outstanding helicopter ideally suited to our needs, but have too few. Developing an upgraded version and building more seems to be the obvious solution.

But if the Rooivalk is so good, why did no one else buy it? The future of Denel looked bleak when Australia was buying; Malaysia would have bought it if we had brought it fully into service, which we did not; and the Turkish opportunity was lost when Eurocopter refused to supply gearboxes.

Today SA and Denel are still functioning, the Rooivalk has proved itself operationally, and a more rational Airbus Helicopter management is unlikely to repeat that churlish act. So, a new and even more capable Rooivalk might find an export customer. But even if it does not, a Rooivalk Mk2 will be cheaper than buying another, less capable, type and then operating a mixed fleet. And the project would establish new skills and technologies and develop a new generation of hi-tech engineers and technicians for the wider economy — and result in new sub-systems that could find export markets. (DBLive)

• Römer Heitman is a military analyst

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...