Tuesday, October 26, 2021

BDF command recommended F5 upgrade ÔÇô Khama ignores advice

Leaked documents reveal for the first time that the Botswana Defence Force (BDF), concerned over lack of training and insufficient logistical support advised its chain of command to upgrade the 28 Squadron’s existing F-5 planes as opposed to buying new aircraft.

A confidential military report, indicating that the “28 Squadron has been tasked to research on the viability of operating the BF-5 and make recommendations based on their findings” was presented to the highest chain of command in the BDF. The Report, which was prepared to advise on whether it would be cost effective to engage in an outright purchase of new aircraft and further develop BDF’s airwing, recommends that government does not purchase new aircraft, “As thus (sic) we advise that the BF-5 platform should be kept, but instead change to the BF-5E variant. The same approach is being used by other operators of the F-5 worldwide, hence this platform has been found to be sustainable and relatively less expensive to maintain” advises the report.

Ignoring the Report’s recommendations President Khama, in his capacity as Commander in Chief has engaged in talks with both Sweden and South Korea to purchase military aircraft. In 2015 Khama was invited to South Korea to inspect South Korean military aircraft, during his visit he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate Degree in Political Science. In June 2017, Sweden invited Khama to view their military facilities and inspect the Gripen C/D state of the art fourth generation fighter jet. The move by Khama, a civilian though the former commander of the BDF, is seen by some in the BDF chain of Command as undermining the subservient role that the military ought to play in a democracy and elevating it above its oversight organs in parliament such as the Public Accounts Committee, the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs, Trade and Security and the Parliamentary Committee on Finance and Estimates.

In justifying its position as to the need to upgrade its existing aircraft and not purchase a new fleet, the Report by the BDF highlights the increased expense of purchasing new supersonic aircraft, which cannot be seen as the cost of new aircraft alone.

The Report advises that within the existing framework of the airwing additional training craft will be required, which the BDF currently does not possess, highlighted by the finding that, “under training pilots should be exposed to an intermediate trainer before they commence their flying on the BF-5. This will definitely result in a smooth transition from a slow speed conventional trainer to a twin engine supersonic fighter. Modalities regarding sending BDF pilots abroad to a suitable country or to conduct in-country lead-in training could be worked out keeping the overall cost-effectiveness in mind. In such a scenario, BDF will not only get 4-5 better skilled and operationally orientated pilots every year but will also be required to have shorter conversion periods and syllabi on their return.”

The inability of current pilots, trained on BDF’s trainer aircraft, the PC-7 to successfully move over to the current turbo jet F-5’s, is cause for concern in the Report, noting that “training pilots find it difficult to handle the BF-5 in the desired fashion during the initial part of their syllabus which shows that there is a quantum jump for these trainees from a turbo prop trainer of PC-7 class to a high speed, swept back platform of the BF-5”. The current BDF F-5 have a top flight speed of Mach 1.64 as compared to the Gripen C and D designations which reach speeds of Mach 2. 

In order to retain their fighter pilot credentials air force pilots are required to continuously undertake a specified number of flight hours. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) established the international standard for fighter pilots to log a minimum of 20 flight hours per month (240 flight hours per year per fighter pilot) to remain qualified. The leaked Report reveals that the BDF’s pilots log considerably less than the international standard, indicating that “from 1996 to 24/01/2013, the actual total hours flown by 14 aircraft is 8901.2 hours. The average hours flown by each aircraft is 421.5 hours,” or 3 hours per month per pilot.

As a result of the lack of flight time, the Report notes that the BDF airwing will not in the foreseeable future be combat ready with only 5 of the 11 pilots being qualified to fly the F-5’s, “at present, there are only 5 qualified operational pilots in the squadron and with the rate of flying (3 hours/ pilot/ month), it will take us a very longtime (sic) to have 21 qualified operational pilots which is our target, hence the squadron will continue to be a training squadron.”

Pilot training costs and retention of pilots raise additional costs for the airwing, emphasises the Report. Under the current BDF airwing the need to increase personnel remains a priority, “The squadron currently has 11 pilots and 85 maintenance crew comprising of engineers and technicians. To efficiently operate and maintain a fleet of 14 aircrafts, the squadron needs to increase its current strength to 135 personnel: 21 pilots and 114 maintenance crew.” The veil of secrecy surrounding the intended purchase of the new airfleet means that such additional costs, of training and logistics has not been publically disclosed.

While the Report does not estimate the costs of an entirely new unit, it does acknowledge that the cost of training new pilots for the F-5 “is divided into two main categories: local and external pilot training. From 1996 to 2000, a total of $2 169 984.00 (~ P9 764 928.00) has been spent on 12 students sent abroad for pilot training. The average student training cost was about P813 744.00.” Local training using international instructors over the same period was P86 088 749.00.

The air requirements of the BDF, can be met without needing to purchase an entirely new fleet as the existing F-5’s will be able to continue to serve the country to the next 15 years without placing undue financial constraints on the fiscal, “the BF-5 platform is capable of carrying some of the latest armament in the world and therefore with minor modifications/additions such as Forward Air Control Systems, Mapping and Mission Planning Systems, the aircraft can be used as effectively as some of the latest fighter platforms in the market.”

Concluding their Report, military experts from within the BDF and internationally highlight that “It should be taken into consideration the fact that for a fighter aircraft to be kept in the air a suitable set of ground support equipment has to be put in place and it goes without saying that a lot of funds have to be made available to acquire those”.

Government has not disclosed the total cost of the intended purchase of the new airwing for the BDF, with estimates in the media indicating that the purchase of the aircraft will set the taxpayer back in the region of P17 billion. The cost estimate have however been based on the unit price for each aircraft and not ancillary costs.

The Report, is clear in its recommendations that that BDF does not see the need for an entirely new airwing, desiring instead to focus on improving its logistical and training capabilities at considerably lower expenses than that currently engaged in by government, raising the question as to why the  Khama led Cabinet is currently engaging in refleeting 28 Squadron.

Seleka Springs a company owned by the President’s brothers, acted as the agent for the 1996 purchase of the F-5 “Freedom Fighters” for 28 Squadron. Seleka Springs’ commission for the purchase has not been disclosed to the public.

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