Saturday, October 16, 2021

Gripen war jet mania still grips BDF

An internal report commissioned by the Head of Air Arm at the Botswana Defence Force, Major General Odirile Mashinyana fuelled government decision to purchase the now controversial Gripen war jets from Sweden, new information has shown.

A report by the 28 Squadron of which Sunday Standard is in possession of had motivated to General Mashinyana that southern Africa was undergoing a fast process of reinvention.

As such the BDF had to respond in kind.

But markedly, after a lot of evaluation, the experts explicitly recommended against buying a new fleet, arguing for modification of an already existing one.

Additionally, the report, dated 2013, also found that the military jets that the BDF was using at the time were fast becoming obsolete under the circumstances.

The report further doubted the overall viability and cost effectiveness of continuing with the BF-5 fleet that at the time were BDF’s premier war machines, having been so for 17 years.

The BDF’s Freedom Fighters (also known as the BF-5) was acquired from the Canadian Forces in 1996 as a multi-role fighter. They were at the time replacing the old strikemaster fleet.

In Canada they were primarily used as a “lead in fighter trainer”, with its secondary role being a “tactical fighter”.

In a somewhat damning report that is likely to sway the ongoing public debate, the experts that compiled the report came to a conclusion that BDF was lagging behind other countries in the region.

This is likely to give ammunition to those in the debate who have argued in favour of re-fleeting the BDF’s jet armoury. Interestingly, the same experts also added in their report that with more money invested in modifying the existing fleet, the same jets could effectively continue to defend the country for another 10 years, without having to buy new variants.

The report further observes that there had been a general decline in running the fleet. “This is partly because of strict cost control measures derived from BDF personnel acquiring knowledge and skills in keeping and maintaining the BF-5.

“It is found (that) even though it is cost-effective to continue using the BF-5, the changing dynamics of air-power in the SADC region are rendering the BF-5 strategically obsolete,” says the report to General Mashinyana.

The report observes that since the induction of the fleet, a lot of effort and investment had been put into place in the form of maintenance, crew training, building of engine test cell, engine workshop facilities, establishment of contracts for spare parts procurement, and a steady stream of pilot training.

“Several modifications were also made to ensure that the aircraft would operate smoothly while in service with the BDF. Tactically, the BF-5 can be equipped with modern day weaponry systems and can continue defending the nation for the next 10 years but the cost-benefit analysis so far suggest it would not give BDF value-for-money. As thus 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.

The report further found that pilots at BDF were struggling before they could master flying BF-5s, especially if such pilots were transitioning from other older models of aircraft in the BDF fleet.

”Many a times under 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,” says the report.

A recommendation was thus made for BDF pilots to be exposed to an intermediate training 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,” it says.

Experts recommended to the high command that modalities regarded sending BDF pilots abroad to a suitable country be worked out.”

“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,” says the report.

“The above scenario can be analyzed by dividing the next ten years into two phases. First phase may be termed as the transition phase and the second as the consolidation phase. In the transition phase, BF-5 continues to be employed basically as a platform for fighter conversion and if the need arises may be tasked for tactical missions. This is also the phase where the pilot base of the fleet is being consolidated.

“In the consolidation phase, with the induction of 4-5 pilots per year into the Squadron and perhaps with the addition of one more instructor, the squadron training can now tilt towards more operational aspects. Therefore, by the end of consolidation phase, provided pilot intake rate remains healthy, BF-5 aircraft can become the frontline fighter of the BDF rather than being restricted to a training role only.”

The report, however, has many components in it that basically argued against buying new jets in favor of keeping the existing fleet as that was more economical.

For example in the report, the experts persistently argued that spare parts for BF-5 were not an issue as there would be plenty in the world market for a foreseeable future.

And that it would be easy with modifications to keep the fleet for another 10 to 15 years.

“The BF-5 arsenal includes bombs, rocket warheads and missiles. These weapons are universal and can be carried on any aircraft as such will still be in the market for the next 10 years.”

In the end, instead of buying new jets, it was recommended that “the F-5 platform should be kept for the next ten years but the variant upgraded to BF-5E.

“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,” concludes the report.

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