South African Air Force Capt Lennon Atchanna with an Agusta 109 helicopter in 2009. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
South African Air Force Capt Lennon Atchanna with an Agusta 109 helicopter in 2009. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

THE news that the South African Air Force’s (SAAF’s) R2bn fleet of Agusta 109 helicopters has joined the Gripen fighter jets in cold storage due to a lack of funds to fly them while VIP helicopter flights continue, has sparked outrage.

This follows Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula’s admission earlier this year that few of the Gripens are actually flying, with most of them being held in long-term storage. It has also been reported that the aircraft in storage are being cannibalised for spares to keep a handful of aircraft flying.

Thirty Agusta helicopters and 26 Gripen jet fighters were bought in 1999 as part of the arms deal, which is now being probed by a judicial commission of inquiry.

Democratic Alliance defence spokesman David Maynier on Wednesday demanded an explanation from Ms Mapisa-Nqakula.

"The budget for the SAAF’s ‘helicopter capability’ has been slashed from R915m in 2012-13 to R769m in 2013-14. Because of this only 71 flying hours have reportedly been allocated to the operational fleet of about 20 Agusta 109 helicopters.

"This means there are reportedly insufficient flying hours to actually fly the Agusta 109 helicopters.

"The 18 Agusta 109 pilots are reportedly not able to fly the minimum number of hours required to maintain their qualifications. The situation is so bad that there are rumours that a large proportion of the Agusta 109 light utility helicopters will have to be put into long-term storage," Mr Maynier said.

He noted there appeared to be no shortage of funds for VIP helicopter flights for President Jacob Zuma. Ms Mapisa-Nqakula recently attracted criticism for using an air force helicopter to visit Tlokwe.

Military expert Helmoed Heitman said the SAAF was suffering due to government indecision over the future of the defence force. "An air force without fighter aircraft is a dead duck in Africa’s military context. An army without helicopters and transport aircraft is a dinosaur in a swamp. An army without attack and tactical transport helicopters is a lame duck. A navy without helicopters and maritime patrol planes is blind," he said.

Repeated attempts to obtain comment from the defence ministry failed on Wednesday.