Saturday, June 25, 2011

Corruption: BAE - SA`s Arms Scandal. Why SA had to buy the Gripen

Source: ISS

Anton Kruger, Consultant, Peace Missions Programme, ISS Pretoria Office

The 11 year controversy surrounding the South African government’s controversial arms deal has once again made news headlines after Swedish defence company SAAB admitted that following its own investigations, it found “supposed” evidence of large scale corruption by British defence company BAE systems. From a purely military perspective, the question that needs to be asked now, is whether the decision by the South African government to purchase the hugely expensive Gripen aircraft from BAE was actually warranted in the current low threat environment? Also, does the Gripen actually fulfill the needs of the South African Air Force (SAAF)?

According to the latest revelations SAAB claims that BAE systems, in what only can be described as a classic money laundering case, paid nearly R24 million towards the South African National Industrial Participation (SANIP) company. This money was then supposedly channelled towards South African consultant Fana Hlongwane as commission. Hlongwane was to advise BAE systems in terms of its industrial offset obligations in the South African purchase of the Gripen and Hawk aircraft. Hlongwane was also an advisor to former South African defence minister Joe Modise.

Why did the SAAF want a new fighter aircraft in the first place? The Air Force’s previous fighter platform the Cheetah strike aircraft’s lifetime was coming to an end and the Air Force needed to replace it. Itself being an upgraded version of the vaunted French Mirage 3 that was purchased by the South African Air Force in the 1960’s, it served the country nearly 20 years.

Since the announcement of the Gripen winning the competition to become the SAAF’s new fighter aircraft, the contract has come under intense criticism from several quarters. This centred mainly around three points. Firstly, the argument that the Cold War was over and that the South African State faced no military threat from its neighbours to warrant the purchase of high end fighter aircraft.

Secondly the point was made that the Gripen was not compatible with the South Africa’s military’s new role of peacekeeping and possible peace enforcement operations on the continent. The Gripen was seen as being a too aggressive platform to conduct such missions and that the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) had more pressing equipment needs, such as sufficient transport aircraft and ships, to conduct such missions.

Thirdly, the purchase of the Gripen itself came under scrutiny. It was claimed that the other contenders competing for the government’s arms purchase, namely the French Mirage 2000 and the German Mako fighter/trainer, had better capability and was cheaper.

In answer to this however, it is clear that the Gripen is not only used as an aggressive platform designed for offensive warfare. If any, Sweden developed the Gripen out of a purely defensive viewpoint. The SAAF has used the aircraft for several operations within South Africa, including border air patrol operations and to conduct air defence operations during the 2010 FIFA Football World Cup. Nearly half of the 51 intercepts of suspect aircraft during the tournament was done by Gripens in what was claimed to be the most complicated air defence exercise ever undertaken by the country.

Contrary to popular belief, aircraft such as the Gripen have also been used extensively during peacekeeping and enforcement missions the world over. British peacekeeping forces used Harrier fighter aircraft in Sierra Leone to intimidate rebel forces advancing on the capital city. French forces also deployed Mirage 2000 fighters to the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Ituri province in 2003 to conduct air patrol operations over the area. This deployment effectively stopped the flow of illegal arms into the area by air. Also, it was only the effective application of military air power during both the Bosnian and Kosovo conflicts that bought them to a conclusive end.

The Gripen was also the best option for the SAAF in terms of the kind of operational capability the SAAF requires. Its contenders such as the Mirage 2000 might have offered more operational range, but would have been extremely difficult to operate in most places in Africa. The Gripen’s capability to conduct flight operations from undeveloped airstrips and also the fact that it is very cheap to operate and maintain, gave it the edge over the other options open to the SAAF.

The Mirage 2000 is already rather elderly in its technology and would have not been able to serve the SAAF for the next 30 years. The German Mako fighter/trainer aircraft, a modern aircraft in all respects, was nothing more than a paper project at the time and have still not been developed further.

South Africa is one of Africa’s biggest contributors to peacekeeping operations on the continent and this commitment can only be expected to increase in the future. The conduct of air denial operations such as we have been witnessing over Libya the last couple of months, and the extensive use of aggressive air power by belligerents in the South Sudanese conflict recently, shows that missions to enforce and keep the peace through air power is not as farfetched for the SAAF as some would like to think. Also, with the current economic crises in the Western world and the military drawback by European countries out of Africa, it cannot be expected to ask foreign powers to conduct such missions.

In conclusion it can be said that the Gripen was indeed the best aircraft for the SAAF to replace its elderly cheetah fighters and that the government did indeed need to replace it.

Those responsible for corruption and malpractice during the awarding of the arms deal should be severely punished. The scandal surrounding the arms deal has been continuing for far too long now and it is time for it to be brought to a conclusion. It is however also time for the South African public to separate the two issues: there is one the one side the bad practice and corruption, but the needs of the SANDF should also be taken into account.