Feature: Has the South African defence industry lost its edge?

South Africa’s defence industry has a well-established reputation, especially regarding artillery, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), mine-protected vehicles, helmet-mounted sights and guided weapons. Although once a pioneer in these and other fields, it seems that South Africa is falling behind. South Africa was an early adopter of unmanned aerial vehicles, using types such as the Vulture and Seeker. The latter was developed by Denel into the Seeker 400, which can be armed, but the company halted development of the larger Bateleur and only has the Seeker 400, smaller Seeker 200 and civil Hungwe in its portfolio. In the last several years a number of Middle Eastern and African countries (the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan and Nigeria amongst others) have acquired armed Chinese UAVs such as the CH-3 and CH-4, after struggling to gain American approval for the export of similar systems like the Predator. This is widely regarded as a lost opportunity for South Africa’s defence industry, especially as one of its biggest strengths is that it offers US International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) free products. South Africa’s defence exports peaked after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, with thousands of mine-resistant, ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles being exported to the United States military and other customers. Since then, exports have fallen sharply and there is a glut of armoured vehicles on the market today, and a move away from heavy to more lighter platforms. This is one explanation for the decline in South Africa’s armoured vehicle exports. However, it is part of a general trend that has seen SA defence exports dip over the last few years. According to figures from the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC), South Africa’s arms exports (export permits) were worth R2.7 billion in 2015, compared to R2.98 billion in 2014, R3.2 billion the year before and R10.6 billion in 2012.

South Africa essentially pioneered the V-shaped mine-protected hull, which has been copied by countries around the world. However, such an innovation is nearly half a century old and technology has moved on – flat mine protected floors are now becoming popular as they are less top heavy and give a vehicle a much lower profile. South African companies are embracing the flat mine-protected floor, with vehicles such as the Denel Land Systems Badger and Paramount Mbombe, but many other South African armoured vehicles still use the V-hull. Some advances are proudly South African, such as large, curved armoured glass similar to that found in a car, but there have been few major local leaps forward. In the field of artillery, the G5 and G6 howitzers are widely regarded as some of the best in the 155 mm class. Their range, especially with rocket-assisted or base bleed shells, is some of the longest in the world. When it was first introduced the G5 had a 39 km range but this can be extended to 70 km with a longer barrel and advanced ammunition. However, it has been several decades since the G5 and G6 went into production and there have been few other innovative artillery pieces that have made it into production. Denel was experimenting with its LEO/G7 105 mm howitzer that had the range of a 155 mm in a 105 mm package but this project is essentially on hold as Denel Land Systems seeks partners to fund development. It is a similar story with hardware like the Saab LEDS 150 active protection system and Rooivalk attack helicopter. The LEDS 150 system uses radar sensors to detect incoming enemy fire and fires a small missile to neutralise an incoming tank, artillery, RPG round or missile. Development of this sophisticated system is on hold while Saab seeks a partner to finish the project. However, Denel, in partnership with Rheinmetall, is moving ahead with its Cheetah counter-rocket, artillery and mortar (C-RAM) active protection system. With regard to the Rooivalk, the only attack helicopter to be designed and built in Africa, no customers have yet been forthcoming in spite of major upgrades to the aircraft and sterling performance with the United Nations in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Due to a lack of Department of Defence funds, Denel Aviation will only proceed with re-launching the production line and building a greatly improved Rooivalk Mk II with a sufficiently large export order – at least 60 helicopters have to be ordered before this can proceed. A well-known weapon South Africa pioneered was the six-shot multiple grenade launcher, but since this was developed in the early 1980s there have been only incremental improvements in such a design, with improvements instead focussing on ammunition and barrel materials. The development of medium velocity ammunition is, however, one promising area that some South African companies like Rheinmetall Denel Munition and Atlantis are investing in. South Africa’s defence industry is still innovative in some areas, producing everything from submarine periscopes to unmanned ground vehicles. There are some remarkable products, such as the Neopup 20 mm personal area weapon (now known as the PMP Inkunzi), the Denel Land Systems 30 mm CamGun, B-Cat Military Pathfinder unmanned ground vehicle, Ahrlac/Mwari multirole military and paramilitary aircraft, Desert Wolf Skunk riot control UAV etc. However, the South African defence industry should not rest on its laurels. The competition is getting increasingly stiff, with countries from China to Sudan building up their local arms industries and offering their hardware for export. China is offering all manner of systems from UAVs to stealth fighters while Brazil has carved out a niche in the aviation sector and even nations like Singapore are leading with strong domestic defence industries. These countries are making steady inroads into the African market, where South African defence companies are hoping to dominate. South Africa’s defence companies need to stay on top of their game in order to avoid being overshadowed and left behind, and retain the proud reputation of innovative, high quality and reasonably priced products. However, it takes serious financial resources to develop new military equipment. The fact that the South African National Defence Force is strapped for cash does not help (and with a shrinking defence budget the future looks even worse), as foreign militaries are less likely to order equipment that has not been bought by the country of origin’s military. What results is a chicken and egg situation: without orders, it is hard to invest in new technologies. Without the proper financial resources, South Africa’s defence industry cannot keep up with advances outside the country, which puts it even further behind the curve and means less money for research and development in an ever widening vicious circle. Funding is also problematic with regard to financing aerospace and defence equipment. Many countries, such as India, China and the United States, have dedicated export-import banks that provide loans and financing options for aircraft and military equipment, but South Africa does not and this hurts its chances in many countries, especially those that do not have large budgets. Recent editions of the National Conventional Arms Control Committee’s annual report paint a bleak picture of declining defence exports. While there are some positive developments, such as big vehicle orders from the Middle East for companies like Land Mobility Technologies and Denel Vehicle Systems, and innovative new products like the Neopup and Truvelo CMS20x42, it appears the South African defence industry is losing its edge. It needs to step up its game, market aggressively and play on its many strengths to avoid falling completely behind.

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