The aircraft may get all the attention, and they may be the reason for the existence of the South African Air Force (SAAF), but the flying squadrons could not function effectively or efficiently without the support of a wide variety of ground units. One of the least heralded, but most important, of these ground-based formations is the Air Force Mobile Deployment Wing (AF MDW). Without it, the SAAF would not be able to defend the country’s skies or undertake deployed operations. It is the men and women of the AF MDW who have made it possible for the SAAF to participate in African Union and United Nations peacekeeping operations elsewhere in Africa.
“In short, the role of the MDW is to support flying operations from the ground,” explains its officer commanding (OC), Colonel Eddie Crous. “We provide radar coverage, air traffic control, ground support and security. Basically, we supply all the ground aspects of an air force, in miniature and mobile.” To give only some recent examples, the AF MDW has supported security operations for the 2010 soccer World Cup and the 2011 COP 17 Durban climate change conference, and is continually active in ensuring the security of the country’s air frontiers.
The wing also assists local industry. “We’re very involved with industry,” he highlights. “We often work very closely with local industry and often subject their latest systems – for example, local radars – to operational tests. The wing has also displayed an in-house research and development capability. Our personnel developed and tested a Mobile Sector Control Centre (MSCC). Saab Systems Grintek then produced a production version which is now in service. The SAAF has a lot of technical expertise. We use a lot of innovation to keep old systems in operation. With the financial situation, we’re looking at all sorts of ways to save.”
As will become clear, the AF MDW uses a lot of vehicles. “The maintenance of vehicles is a huge cost for the SAAF. So last year [the AF MDW] developed heavy and light vehicle maintenance workshops for the whole SAAF in the Gauteng region. We’re saving the SAAF a lot of money and developing skills.” These workshops employ some 50 motor mechanics, including Military Skills Development System (MSDS) personnel. After their two-year MSDS enlistment, they are discharged back into civilian life with workshop experience and some basic qualifications.
Based at Snake Valley, in Centurion, just south-west of Pretoria, the AF MDW is composed of 140 Squadron (Sqn), 142 Sqn, the Mobile Communications Unit, 18 Deployment Support Unit, 500 Sqn and 501 Sqn. The former Air Force Base (AFB) Swartkop, which borders the AF MDW’s Snake Valley site, and other SAAF properties adjacent to the airfield are now also subordinated to the OC of the MDW.
“The Wing and Swartkop are merging as commands and will become one command. Henceforward, Swartkop will host the Wing and retain operational runways; 17 [helicopter] Sqn will stay at Swartkop,” says Crous. “This amalgamation has four main objectives – to maintain the integrity of the AF MDW, which is a unique unit in the SAAF; to manage and maintain flying operations at Swartkop; to maintain the SAAF’s heritage centre at Swartkop, including the SAAF museum; and to take over the old Air Force gymnasium and convert it into single living-in accommodation for SAAF personnel.”
Once Ministerial approval is obtained, Swartkop will be rerated as an AFB and probably revert to the original spelling of its name, Zwartkop. It is believed to be the oldest operational air base in the world today, having been established in 1921 (its name was changed from Zwartkop to Swartkop in 1949). Its foreign contemporaries no longer undertake flying operations or have been converted into civil airports or airfields, or have disappeared under urban sprawl.
The old Air Force gymnasium site will also form part of the new command (the gymnasium is now located at AFB Hoed-spruit) and, in addition to hosting new single living-in accommodation, will continue to house the SAAF School of Cookery and the SAAF band. This site will, in future, be known as Zwartkop West.
The combined AF MDW/Swartkop command has a personnel complement of some 900, including civilians. Many of these – both SAAF and civilian – are highly skilled technicians.
Both 140 Sqn and 142 Sqn are radar units. They provide the “air picture” without which SAAF commanders could not make informed decisions. Each squadron has a specialist role, with 140 being the long-range radar unit and 142 the low-level tactical radar unit.
“The role of 140 Sqn is to provide deploy- able long-range early warning radar to the Defence Force,” reports squadron OC Lieutenant-Colonel Pierre Wright. “The emphasis is on long range – about 500 km radius, depending on climatic conditions and technical tweaking.”
The unit is equipped with four Umlindi radar systems, which are locally upgraded versions of the British AR3D radar, originally acquired in 1980 (although the radar itself was designed in the early 1970s and was first unveiled in 1974). “There’s obviously been a lot of modifications,” he notes. “We’ve had upgrades on the antennas and the whole computer system.”
Two of the radars are permanently deployed at fixed sites in South Africa – at Mariepskop and Lephalale (Ellisras). The other two are mobile. Each of the mobile radar systems comprises two radar transmitter units, a signal processing unit, one antenna array, one technical workshop/store and two diesel generators.
Each antenna array has two antennas – a primary antenna and a secondary one. The primary antenna is the active detection unit which sends out and receives the radar pulses, while the small secondary radar, on top of the array, is mainly used to detect Identification Friend or Foe transponder signals. The radar transmitter units, the signals processor, the workshop and diesel generators are all mounted in containers and transported on articulated trailers, while the antenna array is mounted on a specialised articulated wheelbase.
“The whole system was designed to be hauled by 20 t trucks,” he points out. The squadron is thus equipped with MAN 4 × 4 20 t trucks, acquired at the same time as the radars. “They’re good trucks – reliable.” However, to haul the diesel generators, the squadron uses some Mercedes and MAN 30 t trucks. As the SAAF currently possesses no aircraft capable of carrying the units of the system, the squadron normally deploys by road. “We spend a fortune on tyres,” remarks Wright. Should any inter- national deployments be needed, large cargo aircraft would have to be chartered to do the job, or a friendly air force requested to help.
In operation, the radar transmitter unit generates the pulses which are carried by means a wave guide to the primary radar antenna which then emits them at a rate of about 250 pulses/sec. Any returned radar pulses are received by the primary antenna, amplified and then passed, by cable, to the signal processing unit. This receives the signal in analogue form and digitalises it, as well as determining the target’s azimuth, elevation and range. This is then used to create a ‘plot’ (radar display) in the sector control centre (SCC).
When a mobile radar system is deployed in the field, it is usually connected to the MSCC, but the SAAF also has two fixed SCCs, the Lowveld Airspace Control Sector and the Bushveld Airspace Control Sector. The SCCs and the MSCC are command and control centres for air power, and are connected to the radar systems by microwave links.
The upgrades to the radar systems are extensive. They have completely new moving target indicators (MTIs). Each has been fitted with a control and monitoring computer for the whole system; the original cathode-ray tube display units have been replaced by off-the-shelf flat screen computer monitors; and the processing computers have been completely replaced with units using pentium processors. Although the transmitter and signal processor units still use analogue technology, they have both been upgraded.
“All the upgrades have been done locally and involved Tellumat, although BAE Systems in the UK oversaw the upgrades as they have design authority for the AR3D,” he points out. “Some of the systems used came from the UK, but others were designed and produced locally, such as the MTIs.” Denel Personnel Solutions also provides technical support for the squadron.
Operational experience revealed that 140 Sqn’s AR3D Umlindi radars could not provide low-level coverage and that the SAAF needed a system that could cover these altitudes (below 700 m). The required radar was developed locally, with overseas inputs, and is simply designated as the tactical mobile radar (TMR), although its is also known as the sonic radar, as the programme under which it was developed was called Project Sonic.
The TMRs are the responsibility of 142 Sqn. “The role of the squadron is to provide low-level tactical radar capability for the SAAF and the Defence Force,” states 142 Sqn OC Lieutenant-Colonel Edrich Wilson. The unit received four TMRs in 1989. These radars have a range of about 150 km. Normally, three are with the squadron and one is in reserve or in maintenance. “The maintenance contract is with Reutech. This covers the radar component, which includes the oper-ations pallet, the antenna pallet and the transmitter pallet. All the pallets are transported on MAN 8 × 8 trucks.”
A full deployment of one of the radars uses four MAN 8 × 8 trucks, one or two light vehicles for command and control purposes, a water bowser (tanker), a diesel bowser and a technical workshop vehicle. “All the systems have their own generators and, when deployed, the system can also operate autonomously from any external power,” he points out. Yet the manpower demands are low – a deployed system can operate 24 hours a day with just 20 people, including personnel from other AF MDW units like the Mobile Communications Unit and 501 Sqn.
The TMR radars have gone through a number of upgrades since they were first delivered, especially with regard to their display systems. The latest upgrade will involve the fitting of the radars with the locally developed Air Picture Display System. “This has been fitted to one radar,” reports Wilson. “This system will be subjected to operational testing this year. If it passes the trials, it will be fitted to all the radars.”
As with 140 Sqn, 142 was involved in security operations for the 2010 soccer World Cup. It is also involved in border protection missions and in force preparation exercises for the whole of the Defence Force and not just the SAAF. “The [TMR] system is getting old now, but will still be operational for the next 10 to 15 years,” he states. “However, the SAAF is considering purchasing new radars.”
“We have initiated a project to acquire new radars for the AF MDW. They would be multipurpose radars, for both surveillance (long range) and tactical (short range, low level),” reports Crous. “The general view is to adopt one type and use it in different ways. Currently, we have static radars, deployable radars, mobile tactical radars and airfield radars.”
Radars are useless if they cannot relay the information they collect to those that need it, whether the SAAF SCC/MSCCs or army air defence units. Providing those communication links is the responsibility of the Mobile Communications Unit.
“We provide mobile communications for the SAAF and the Defence Force – in general, the datalinks, fax, telephone and video conferencing. We use radio, satellite communi- cations and landline (including field tele-phone) communications,” explains unit OC Lieutenant-Colonel Pat Moodley. “We provide strategic communications, but our main job is tactical communications. When the AF MDW deploys, we link all the units up. Each air force base has a nondeployable communications section, but we’re the only mobile communications unit. We are unique in that we will deploy anywhere and establish communications.”
The unit is equipped with ‘Tac16’ Land Rovers, double-cab pick-up trucks employed as command and control vehicles and some 25 Samil 50 4 × 4 military trucks. The Samils are used to transport the unit’s Tactical Communications 4 (or TC4) containers and its containerised radio rooms.
“A lot of our equipment is now commercial-off-the-shelf,” he states. “We bought new equipment for the 2010 soccer World Cup and that sustained us through the event. We bought microwave radios to set up our links, [and] UHF/FM [ultrahigh frequency/frequency modulation] base stations and repeaters to create and maintain communications links.”
The Mobile Communications Unit is maintaining a team on a rotational basis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to support the United Nations Monuc peace-keeping force and to maintain its communi- cations net. Each team comprises four people and a tour of duty in the DRC lasts six months. The unit also has personnel in Mozambique supporting antipiracy operations in the northern Mozambique Channel. It has also been deployed within South Africa – including in support of rhino conservation and anti- poaching operations.
Deployed personnel, however, need to eat, drink and sleep. That is where 18 Deployment Support Unit (DSU) comes in. “Our role is logistical support to the SAAF with regard to external and internal deployments. The mass freight of equipment [including ground equipment for the flying squadron], the logistical side of setting up camps – accommodation, messing, ablution and electrical – we do these things,” elucidates 18 DSU acting OC Major Gerhard Kroukamp. “Typically, we’d be tasked to establish a tactical air base. We’d be told how many people would be based there. We would then determine what was required to support that complement. We would assign the required number of tents, sufficient kitchen equipment – including the kitchen sinks – gas bottles, pantry facilities and so on.”
Incredibly, 18 DSU does all this with a staff complement of only 52 (two of whom, on rotation, are based in the DRC with Monuc). The unit is divided into three main sections – basic stores (tents, beds, bedding, freezers and cleaning materials), transport (light vehicles, trucks, trailers and water tankers) and kitchen equipment and mess capability. Its equipment includes mobile pantries and containerised refrigerated facilities (the latter is also used to transport refrigerated goods), as well as mobile toilets.
To move all this around, 18 DSU has its own vehicle fleet, ranging from light pick-up trucks through 10 t and 20 t to 30 t trucks, as well as water tankers, low-bed trailers and so on. “We hope, in August, to start receiving some new 20 t and 30 t trucks and low-bed trailers,” he reports. “We have enough vehicles to do the job, but our current fleet is old. Serviceability of the fleet is important and proper fleet management is essential. We have only three new trucks (received last July), so more new vehicles will help us a lot.”
Crous says, “18 DSU is being refitted with new equipment. The project is still running. It includes the new vehicles but also new tents, and so on. The unit will look brand new by the end of this year. It’s quite exciting.”
In base and in the field, the AF MDW requires security or, to use contemporary US military jargon, force protection. Uniquely, in the SAAF, the AF MDW has two protection squadrons subordinated to it – 500 and 501. However, 500 is a special unit, parachute-trained, which acts as a rapid reaction force and VIP protection unit for the SAAF and the Defence Force and is basically hosted by the AF MDW.
It is 501 Sqn that provides security and force protection for the AF MDW. “We safeguard the AF MDW, the Swartkop airfield, Swartkop West and the SAAF Memorial on Bays Hill. Security for the Lephalale/Ellisras radar site also falls under us,” sums up 501 Sqn OC Lieutenant-Colonel Mashadi Tswidi. “We are responsible for entrance and exit control. We also deploy into the field with other AF MDW units and we make sure we secure and protect all the people, equipment and systems.”
The squadron includes a canine unit and has a total strength of 63 men, 22 women and six dogs. It is equipped with motorcycles and 4 × 4 vehicles and also carries out foot patrols and, naturally, operates 24/7. Patrolling is more intense at night.
“Virtually every single operation the SAAF has been and is involved in, the AF MDW was and is integral to it,” sums up Crous.