Last year was a busy year for the Rooivalk, with the attack helicopter firing thousands of cannon rounds and rockets at rebels in the DRC and Denel pushing ahead with a possible upgrade and export sales of the aircraft.
2016 was the busiest year for the Rooivalk in terms of combat, with the three aircraft deployed to the United Nations mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Monusco) firing 1 200 70 mm rockets and 11 000 rounds of 20 mm ammunition. This compares to 55 70 mm rockets in 2013, when the aircraft were first deployed to the DRC. In total, from 2013 to 2015, the Rooivalks had flown 1 163.3 hours in the DRC and fired 199 70 mm rockets and 610 rounds of 20 mm ammunition.
An idea of how busy the aircraft were last year comes from the last two weeks of December 2016, when Rooivalks engaged in combat eight times, mostly against ADF rebels in the region of Beni in the eastern DRC. Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels were mostly in the Rooivalk’s crosshairs but other smaller rebel groups/armed gangs were targeted as well.
2017 has been quieter for the aircraft compared to last year, as fighting has slowed somewhat, but the rebel threat remains and conflict has displaced hundreds of thousands. The situation remains tense, especially in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
The SAAF at the beginning of this month rotated two of its Rooivalks to the DRC, with two Oryx medium transport helicopters also being rotated on 7 June. It takes the aircraft about 16 hours to fly the roughly 2 700 km up to the DRC. Since 2016, Rooivalks have been self-deploying with drop tanks instead of being transferred by Il-76 transport aircraft, which necessitates partially disassembling the airframes. The two Rooivalks and two Oryx will return to South Africa in August.
16 Squadron’s Rooivalks have been busy on the home front this year, and recently took part in a tactical weapons camp at the Vastrap weapons range outside Upington from 7 May, and a Rooivalk participated in the South African Army Capability Demonstration at De Brug outside Bloemfontein on 18 May, giving it a valuable opportunity to work with ground forces in a live fire exercise.
A single Rooivalk took part in the SAAF’s Air Capability Demonstration at the Roodewal weaposn range on 1 June, firing rockets and cannon at targets in support of ground forces. It does not appear that the Rooivalk will be taking part in the SAAF’s upcoming exercise Winter Solstice.
Denel, meanwhile, is pushing ahead with proposed Rooivalk upgrades and continues talking to the SAAF about enhancing the Rooivalk, as the present Mk I will require a midlife upgrade within the next five years as a result of known obsolescence. Hugh Petersen, Executive Manager Strategic Projects at Denel’s aviation division said his company is still engaged with the SAAF and defence community at large, including the Secretary for Defence and defence minister’s office on upgrading the Rooivalk and promoting export sales.
The Department of Defence is in the process of defining future requirements for the Rooivalk, including fleet enhancement and expansion. Denel has identified enhancements that address future operational needs, such as to the airframe and mechanical systems, avionics, weapons and main computer.
Part of this process is seeing Denel continue with Mokopa anti-tank missile certification (several missiles were fired in early 2016) and exploration of integrating the Denel Dynamics A-Darter air-to-air missile onto the aircraft. The Rooivalk has been designed to accept a variety of different air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles, and that this will depend on operator requirements.
Denel has been working with Airbus and in September 2016 Denel and Airbus Helicopters announced a memorandum of understanding on enhancing the Rooivalk. The two companies said this would be done in a phased manner, starting with improving supportability of the existing Rooivalk Mk I fleet. The next stage would see further upgrades, and a market assessment and feasibility study looking into a modernised version of the helicopter with an eye towards exports.
Part of the collaboration saw a Hensoldt Optronics Argos II airborne observation and targeting system be fully integrated onto the Rooivalk for evaluation purposes. Further evaluating including flight trials are planned for this year.
Denel and Airbus have an agreement covering which areas the Rooivalk and Tiger will be marketed in. Although the Rooivalk uses Airbus Helicopters dynamic components like the engines and gearboxes, Denel hopes to become an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) in its own right.
Airbus continues to support the Rooivalk programme for systems in the field and its portfolio of proposed enhancements of the system. The two parties have agreed to work closely together to advance Rooivalk interest internationally given the performance of the system and its operational success. Denel does have commitment for support from Airbus Helicopters.
Petersen said the attack helicopter market is growing at 5% a year, especially in the developing world, and Denel is aiming at smaller players looking for a regional capability, such as Thailand and the Philippines. Other countries like Australia and South Korea may be potential customers as well – Australia has experienced issues with its Tiger attack helicopters and wants to retire them early. However, Denel can only re-launch production with an order, or cumulative orders, for around 65 aircraft.
Petersen has no doubt the industry can support a next generation Rooivalk, and pointed out that the aircraft is flying operationally and outperforming its peers. “We were able to accomplish that with the capability we had in 1987 -we have significantly improved that capability… those skills still exist.” However, Petersen did note that gaps will exist but challenges can be met.
Discussions are still underway between Denel and the SAAF about Rooivalk 679, which suffered a hard landing, and using it as a prototype for future development.