By Garth Calitz
In the last week or so social media has been a buzz with the announcement that the SAAF will be headlining the annual SAAF Museum airshow with at least one of the twenty-six Saab JAS 39 Gripen languishing at AFB Makhado.
The Gripens appear to be rolled out only for large events that are in the public eye, last year two Gripen were hastily returned to airworthy status to partake in the African Aerospace and Defence Expo and earlier this year the fighters were once again pulled from the mothballs to be paraded at the SAAF Prestige day parade and Armed forces Day. This would be perfectly acceptable if the aircraft were being utilized for their intended purpose between their “Show Pony” appearances but sadly this seems not to be the case.
In August 2021 the entire Gripen fleet was grounded due to a lack of funds to keep them maintained which was further exacerbated by the maintenance and support contracts for the fighters lapsing and not being renewed. In addition, because the Gripen simulator based at 2 Squadron’s headquarters in Makhado, Limpopo, is part of the maintenance and support contract the pilots could no longer maintain their currency on the fighter. In short, all the aircraft and pilots effectively had to be grounded.
The SAAF has since announced that the contracts have been renewed but to date, this has not changed the situation at Makhado, as far as we could ascertain, the Gripens have not yet been brought to fully operational status. Earlier this year LtGen Mbambo, Chief of the Airforce, was asked about the operational status of our front-line fighters his answer was that this would take time and was not willing to commit to any sort of timeline for their return to operational service.
Sadly, the average member of the public sees these aircraft in the air at the odd event and blindly believes that the Gripens are flying and capable of performing their task of defending South Africa’s airspace. Little do they know that flying is all these aircraft are capable of at the moment and to make matters worse they are being flown by SAAF Reserve Force pilots, not full-time SAAF pilots, that happen to have other opportunities to keep current on the specific type elsewhere.
The ever-shrinking military budget and lack of political will to defend our country should be of major concern to every citizen, the old adage of “Good Fences make Good Neighbours” comes to mind. Our Defence Force should be observed as our greatest “fence” and as such a deterrent for any of our neighbours with ill-intent towards South Africa, just because we are not at war at the moment is no guarantee that the situation will not change in future.