Warplanes: Zombie Gunships Fly Again


August 21, 2010:  South Africa is taking its twelve Rooivalk helicopter gunships out of storage and putting them into service for peacekeeping operations. This is something of a last chance for a helicopter that seemed headed for oblivion. The Rooivalk began development in the early 1980s, as an anti-armor gunship. But the apartheid government of South Africa was replaced by a democracy in 1995, thus eliminating the worldwide arms embargo, and hostile neighbors. As a result, the Rooivalk was no longer needed.

Although the Rooivalk first flew in 1990, the original order of 36 was cut back to twelve and these were built by 1999. South Africa hoped to sell the Rooivalk to export customers, but this did not work out. For example, China expressed some interest. At first China approached gunship manufacturers in South Africa and Italy for technical assistance in building their own Z10 gunship. The South Africans turned down a Chinese order in 2001, because all the Chinese apparently wanted was to buy a single Rooivalk gunship. The manufacturer, Denel, refused, realizing that the Chinese, as they have so often done in the past, simply wanted to reverse engineer elements of the Rooivalk, without paying for any technology used. Italian manufacturer Agusta/Westland was apparently more cooperative, and provided consulting services, and perhaps more. This was done in secret.

All this was part of the intense competition in the helicopter gunship market. In addition to the expensive (over $40 million each) 10.4 ton American AH-64, there was the older U.S. AH-1 (especially the 4.5 ton AH-1 SuperCobra), the recent six ton Franco-German Tiger and the 4.6 ton A-129 (the first helicopter gunship designed and built in Western Europe, introduced in the 1980s). These competitors blocked the Rooivalk at every turn. So the South African Air Force, facing growing budget shortages, put their Rooivalks in storage. But when Parliament heard of this, there was an uproar, and money ($137 million) was found to continue upgrades and put the Rooivalks back in operation. That, it was hoped, might get the Rooivalks some positive media exposure, and some export orders.



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