March 11, 2010: The South African defense budget for the next three years includes some cuts. For example, the 26 new Gripen jet fighters would only be flown 550 hours this year, and 250 hours in each of the next two years. Modern aircraft cost over $5,000 an hour to fly (mostly for fuel and spare parts, particularly the engine change required after a certain number of flight hours.) South Africa is a poor country, and cannot afford to fly the aircraft enough to train pilots to handle the warplanes in combat. This is a common situation for poor nations that buy high performance warplanes, tanks, or warships. Normally, there are two or more pilots for each jet fighter, and each pilot flies over 1,200 hours a year to build and maintain skills.
Last year, the South African Air Force stopped automatically releasing data on how many hours combat pilots flew for training. When the numbers were finally obtained, it was discovered that in the last year, fighter pilots were in the air for 325 hours (less than two hours a month per pilot). In contrast, pilots on VIP flights (carrying politicians and government officials) were up there 1,932 hours. There are about fifty transports, and 80 helicopters in the air force.
But there's more going on. First, the air force only has twenty fighter pilots, and only nine fighters. In the next three years, 26 Swedish Gripen fighters are being delivered. Nine were delivered last year. Two years ago, the last of the 66 Cheetah fighters (rebuilt French Mirage IIIs) were retired. In 2008, the last full year that Cheetahs were operational, fighter pilots got 2,084 hours in the air. The year before that, 2,448 hours. It's believed that only six of the twenty fighter pilots are competent to handle their aircraft in combat. Most competent pilots have left the air force because of the lack of flying hours. Many of the pilots remaining got in under a quota system that attempts to add more racial diversity to the air force.
Not surprisingly, many South Africans believe that the South African Air Force (SAAF) is falling apart. The most obvious aspect of this is the decrepit state of aging buildings, runways and aircraft. But the biggest problem is getting, and keeping, technical people. This is complicated by a government program to integrate previously all white institutions. This has been most difficult in areas that require lots of technical training and education. Like pilots and aircraft maintainers.
The government has set a racial goal for SAAF pilots, and wants them to be 75 percent black and 25 percent white. Currently, it is still over 50 percent white. The morale problem arose a few years ago, when the three top rated graduates of pilot training school, who would normally go on to fly fighters, were told that, because they were white, they would instead fly helicopters or transports. Three, less qualified black pilots would go on to fly fighters. When commanders noted the morale problem, and public outcry, they declared that it was no longer the policy to send the best pilots to fighters, but to spread the best pilots around to all flying communities.
The problem here is that, flying fighters is the technically most demanding job for pilots, and the best pilots only stay in the SAAF to fly fighters. If they wanted to fly helicopters or transports, they could make more money, and fly more often, as civilian pilots. So the SAAF is ending up with less competent fighter pilots (which ultimately results in more accidents), and fewer, and less capable, helicopter and transport pilots as well. Since the SAAF pilots are currently less than 40 percent black, the morale of most pilots will remain quite low until enough white pilots retire or quit, and 75 percent of pilots are black.
A similar situation occurs in other technical specialties, like maintaining the aircraft. Fewer whites are enlisting for these jobs, and more existing techs are quitting for civilian jobs. There is also pressure on civilian airlines to integrate, but the pressure is not as great, because politicians fly those airliners, and want the highest quality pilots and maintainers for those aircraft.
Even with the current situation, it won't be easy getting that many black pilots, as blacks with the skills to be pilots tend to prefer better paying civilian jobs. And there aren't many black pilots to begin with. In the long run, this won't mean much, beyond a higher accident rate for military aircraft, and some lost aircraft. This has been the case in other African countries, where most, or all, air force pilots are black. South Africa has no enemies in its neighborhood, and little likelihood that the SAAF would have to go to war. So the politicians are settling for an air force that looks good on paper, but cannot fight.