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Oct 10, 2008

South Africa’s impressive history in the design and manufacture of armoured vehicles

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South African industry has gained world renown for what the Americans have come to call mine-resistant and ambush- protected (Mrap) vehicles, thousands of which have been produced, and hundreds of which are on order, for a growing number of international customers, especially the US.

But this is not the first time that South African industry has successfully filled a gap in the international light armoured vehicle market. In fact, the history of the design and manufacture of armoured vehicles in this country goes back nearly 70 years – to the start of the Second World War.

World War

When South Africa declared war on Nazi Germany in September 1939, the South African Army estimated that its minimum armoured vehicle requirement was a battalion of 22 light tanks and 67 armoured cars. The country actually had just two obsolete medium tanks and two obsolete armoured cars.

Fortunately, as the threat of war had been glaringly obvious, South Africa had already launched an experimental programme for the local design and manufacture of armoured cars, and the prototype was delivered on September 18, 1939. This vehicle was designed by Germiston-based Dorman Long (Africa), and it was based on a 3-t 4 × 2 truck chassis manufactured by Ford Motor Company of Canada, with a Ford V8 engine. After extensive tests, the design was modified – for example, the chassis was shortened.

The improved vehicle entered production in 1940 as the South African reconnaissance car (SARC) Mk I. Still only a two-wheel-drive vehicle, which limited its tactical mobility, only 113 Mk Is were built. They were replaced by the 4 × 4 SARC Mk II, the first large-scale production version, which, in turn, was replaced (from mid-1941) by the further improved SARC Mk III.

Dorman Long was responsible for the production of the drawings for all South African armoured car designs during the war, and undertook final assembly at its Germiston plant, in facilities specially erected for the purpose. Some 70 other South African com- panies acted as subcontractors on the programme. These companies often had to design and build special tools and jigs to produce these components.

The Mk I to Mk III all used shortened Ford 3-t truck chassis, with the Mk II and the Mk III fitted with four-wheel-drive conversion kits supplied by the Marmon-Herrington company of Indianapolis, in the US. As a result, and for some odd reason, the armoured cars became popularly known as Marmon-Herringtons.

The armour plate for the vehicles was developed and supplied by the then South African Iron & Steel Industrial Corporation, or Iscor (today, ArcelorMittal South Africa). Iscor had, through experimentation, to develop a suitable medium manganese steel for the requirement. This was then heat-treated in a specially designed and built plant. Each plate was individually tested, before being cut to shape and size by acetylene profile-cutting machines.

The armoured steel plates were then sent to the workshops of the then South African Railways & Harbours, where they were welded together to form the turrets and bodies of the armoured cars – the welding shops operated 24 hours a day. The hulls and turrets were then despatched to Dorman Long for the final assembly process.

Iscor also manufactured the bearings for the turret ball races for the armoured cars, another undertaking that had never been done in the country before. The armament was supplied from Britain.

The SARC Mk I served only with the South African Army, while the SARC Mk II was also supplied to the British Army. The SARC Mk III, which had the biggest production run (more than 2 600 vehicles) served with the South African, British, Indian, New Zealand, Free French, Rhodesian (now Zimbabwean) and Dutch East Indies (colonial) armies. It was deployed in every region of Africa – North, South, East, Central, and West – as well as in the Middle East and South-East Asia. Countries and territories in which the Mk III served include (using their current names) Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, Madagascar, Congo-Brazzaville, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Malaysia (Malay peninsula) and Indonesia (Java and Sumatra).

“The Mk II and Mk III were the most important versions of the SARC,” says military historian Hamish Paterson. “The Mk IIs were critically important during the Italian East African campaign, which saw the liberation of Ethiopia, where they were deployed in place of tanks and not as reconnaissance vehicles. The Mk III formed the bulk of British 8th Army reconnaissance vehicles in North Africa from about November 1941 to about July 1942.”

The South African vehicles developed an excellent reputation for reliability, but their production-standard armament of, basically, two 7,7-mm or 7,62-mm machine guns was regarded as far too light by their frontline users. So British maintenance depots in Egypt significantly enhanced their armament, often removing the original guns and even turrets, and replacing them with captured Italian 20-mm and 47-mm, and German 37-mm, guns.

The SARC Mk III was followed by the Mk IV, which was a complete redesign. The Mk IV had a monocoque hull (no chassis), had its engine (still a Ford V8) mounted at the rear, not the front, and had a larger, two-man, turret, in place of the original one-man turret.
Basic armament was one two-pounder (40-mm) gun, with a coaxial 7,62-mm machine gun, and a pintle-mounted anti- aircraft machine gun (also usually 7,62 mm) on top of the turret. The Mk IV started rolling off the production line in March 1943, and 2 116 were built in two versions, the Mk IV and Mk IV F, the latter using only Ford automotive components.

However, the war in North Africa ended in 1943 and the SARCs, designed specifically for African conditions, were adjudged unsuitable for operations in Europe, with the result that the Mk IV reportedly did not see combat until the 1948/49 Israeli War of Independence, in which the Mk IV served with the Egyptians, Jordanians and Syrians, and (a few captured units) with the Israelis. The Mk IV also served with the Cypriot National Guard, apparently seeing action as late as 1974, during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. The Greek Army also operated Mk IVs post-1945, later assigning them to defence duties on islands in the Aegean and reportedly only finally retiring them in the 1990s.

The Mk IV was the final production version of the SARC series, but there were also Mk Vs, VIs, VIIs, and VIIIs, which existed in prototype form only. The most significant of these was the Mk VI, an 8 × 8 vehicle inspired by highly successful German armoured cars of the same layout. Two prototypes were built, each powered by two Ford engines. The first had a main armament of a two-pounder gun, the second, a six-pounder (57 mm). Ideal for operations in North Africa, but clearly unsuitable for the much more cramped environments of Europe, the Mk VI programme was cancelled, although it probably served as a conceptual inspiration for today’s Rooikat armoured car.

Thus, the first phase in the history of South African armoured vehicle design and manufacture came to an end. In total, some 5 770 SARCs of all marks were manufactured, with production ending in April 1944. “The success of South Africa’s Second World War armoured cars may have entrenched the culture of wheeled armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) in the South African Army,” suggests Paterson. “Wheeled AFVs are easier to design, manufacture, and maintain. Also, the wartime experience showed the South Africans that wheeled AFVs could be taken to places that other armies wouldn’t have believed possible.”

Regional Wars

Perhaps, significantly, the South African Army’s first armoured personnel carrier (APC) was the British wheeled (6 × 6) Alvis Saracen. And during the 1960s, South Africa manufactured the French Panhard AML familiy of 4 × 4 armoured cars under licence as the Eland.

The reinitiation of indigenous armoured vehicle design activities was stimulated, as the original phase had been, by necessity. If any one weapon can be identified as the characteristic weapon of the Southern African liberation wars, which covered some 30 years from the early 1960s to the end of the 1980s, it was the landmine. The Portuguese, Rhodesian, and South African armies were all heavily dependent on trucks for troop transport, motor patrol, outpost resupply and convoy escort duties, and these trucks were terribly vulnerable to landmines – the blast would not only wreck the vehicle but, much worse, kill or wound a significant proportion of the troops riding in it.

Protection against landmines became imperative. The first step was improvisation – the first attempts at mine protection involved putting sandbags on the back of the trucks and water in their tyres. To a degree, this worked – it reduced, but did not eliminate, the casualty toll.

The Rhodesians experimented with all sorts of mine-protected vehicle designs, manu- facturing several hundred, and there was close cooperation between them and the South Africans.

The history of the South African develop- ment of mine-protected vehicles is rather complex, with different streams of development running parallel. A plethora of vehicles were developed – Buffels, Mambas, Hippos, Casspirs, Bulldogs, Okapis, Kwêvoëls, and so on – and many companies were involved. There was a further development stream, concerned with heavier AFVs, which gave rise to the Ratel, the Rooikat, and the G6 programmes. Consequently, the following account is somewhat simplifed and some projects will be omitted.

Over the years, the main industry players were TFM Defence & Security, Sandock Austral, OMC Engineering, Truckmakers, Gear Ratio (specialising in transmissions and powerpacks), Henred Fruehauf, UCDD, and Ermetek. Mergers, aquisitions, and disposals complicate the corporate history of modern South African AFV design and manufacture.

One of South Africa’s earlier attempts at series-production mine protection by design was the Bosvaark, which was simply a German-designed Unimog cross-country tactical truck fitted with a V-shaped rear body; otherwise, it was unprotected. This was followed by the Buffel, with a V-shaped and lightly armoured (but open-topped) hull.

The Buffel was designed by the Defence Research Unit (DRU) of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and manufactured by several companies, with mass production starting in 1978. Some 1 400 were built. The Buffel employed the chassis and automotive components of the Unimog, and many Unimogs were later cannibalised to supply these components to the Buffel production lines.

The Buffel was effective, but it was subject to excessive roll when moving across rough terrain and its open top left the troops vulnerable to shrapnel. It also proved unsuit- able for urban operations. So, at the end of the 1980s, it was succeeded by the Mamba, designed for internal security tasks – lower than a Buffel, more stable, less military in appearance, and enclosed.

Built by TFM (later absorbed into OMC), the first Mambas were 4 × 2 vehicles, but 4 × 4 soon became the standard. Mambas were built reusing the Unimog components originally used in the Buffels and some originally used in unprotected Unimog ambulances. So, just as Unimogs had been stripped to supply the needs of the Buffel production line, so Buffels were cannibalised to feed the Mamba programme. Mamba production numbered over 500. Surviving Mambas were upgraded to Mk III standard during 1997 and 1998.

Meanwhile, another stream had developed, in parallel. Even before the emergence of the Buffel, a prototype vehicle, designated the Hippo, had been built. This was a modified Bedford army truck, which proved to have good protection but was overweight. Developed by the DRU, the Hippo Mk I was built by three companies, with the first order placed in July 1974; some 670 were built. The vehicle served with both the South African Police (SAP – now the South African Police Service, or SAPS), which was the original customer, and the South African Army.

To eliminate the weaknesses of the Hippo Mk I, a totally new vehicle, misleadingly (perhaps as a security measure) designated Hippo Mk II, was developed. “The Hippo Mk II did away with the chassis – it had a monocoque hull. It was the start of a new phase in South African mine-protected vehicle design,” highlights BAE Systems Land Systems OMC engineering and business improvement director Gert Pretorius. (The Rhodesians had already developed some monocoque mine- protected vehicles.)

From the Hippo Mk II, the CSIR developed the Casspir, specifically for the SAP (the vehicle’s name is an anagram of CSIR and SAP). The first Casspir was built in 1979, by TFM, with initial production (by another company) following in 1980 and mass production (also by TFM) starting in 1981. The Casspir employed automotive components stripped from Bedford trucks, and well over a thousand were built. Conceived as a mine-protected, lightly armoured, counter- insurgency combat vehicle, the Casspir, because of its superior off-raod mobility and better protection, was soon adopted by the South African Army as well, replacing some Buffels in bush operations.

Meanwhile, the South African Army needed new armoured vehicles for more conventional warfare operations, to replace the Saracens and Elands, and to be able to provide more effective support for the tank force. This programme started in the early 1970s, when the South African Army evaluated four AFVs – the Unimog UR-416 from Germany, the French Panhard M3, the Brazilian Engesa Urutu, and a vehicle from local company Springfield Bussing, confusingly named Buffel. The three foreign designs were all APCs – basically, armoured ‘battle taxis’, armed only with a machine gun, which carried troops into battle, at which point they had to disembark to fight. But the South African Army decided to go with a new concept, pioneered by the West German Army – the armoured infantry fighting vehicle (AIFV, but usually referred to in South Africa as IFV). An AIFV carries a powerful gun (20 mm or 30 mm) as well as a squad of troops, who have their own vision ports and firing ports, so that they can fight from within the vehicle. So, around 1975/1976, the South African Army decided to adopt an AIFV based on the Springfield Bussing vehicle.

This became the Ratel (honey badger, in English), which was mass-produced by Sandock Austral. Another monocoque design, the Ratel hulls were made in Sandock Austral’s Durban dockyard and taken by rail to Boksburg for fitting out. The turrets were based on those on the Eland armoured cars – the 20-mm gun turret of the standard Ratel IFV, for example, was a redesigned Eland 90 turret. A whole family of Ratels was developed – command vehicles, fire support vehicles (with 90-mm gun turrets taken from Elands), mortar vehicles (with 60-mm breech-loading mortar turrets taken from Eland 60s), and, later, tank destroyers armed with Z3 antitank missiles, and mortar carriers with 81-mm muzzle-loading mortars carried in what had been the troop compartment. An 8 × 8 Ratel logistics vehicle did not go into production. It is reported that more than 1 400 Ratels were built, and a number have been exported.

On operations in the bush, it became clear that the Elands could not keep up with the Ratels. So a programme was launched to develop a new and more capable armoured car (the Ratel 90 fire-support vehicle was an interim solution). Three prototypes, from three companies, each using a different suspension system, were ordered.

The Sandock Austral prototype, fitted with an upgraded version of the Eland suspension – independent suspension on each wheel – won. The Rooikat (lynx or caracal, in English), as it is called, was designed as a long-range, high-mobility, AFV with good hitting power. To increase ammunition storage capacity, it was armed with a 76-mm gun (although later a 105-mm gun version was developed, in the hope of attracting exports). It is believed that more than 250 Rooikats have been built.

Mention must also be made of upgrade programmes for the South African Army’s Centurion tanks, by OMC, first to Skokiaan standard and later to Olifant standard. Nor must the G6 155-mm self-propelled gun be forgotten – the hull was developed by OMC, and the turret and gun mounting by Denel-LIW. Unlike the Rooikat, the G6 has been exported.

International Markets

The end of war in Southern Africa at the end of the 1980s, unlike the end of the Second World War, did not see the end of armoured and mine-protected vehicle design and manu-facture in South Africa. Rather, horizons were broadened, and foreign investment obtained.

With Reumech manufacturing the Mamba 4 × 4, TFM sought to develop a new mine- protected, lightly armoured vehicle, specifi- cally for export markets, which were now (post-1994) open to South African defence companies. The result was the RG31, which benefited from the experiences with the Casspir and Mamba. The launch customer proved to be the United Nations (UN), in 1995, followed by the first order from the US Army in 1996. The latest versions are the RG31 Mk 5E and Mk 6.

The company then developed the RG32 Scout as a 4 × 2, 3-t, protected patrol vehicle for the SAPS. The UN also adopted it, but required that its version be 4 × 4. The next improvement was to fit a diesel engine. Then a military version was developed – the RG32M – which was ordered by Sweden. As with the RG31, the RG32M has been constantly upgraded, with the latest version being the RG32M LTV.

While technical developments were driving forward, major corporate changes were also taking place. TFM, Sandock Austral, OMC, Ermetek and Gear Ratio merged into Reumech OMC, based in Benoni. In 1999, Reumech OMC was acquired by British defence group Vickers, becoming Vickers OMC. In 2002, Vickers was, in turn, taken over by another UK group, Alvis, and then, in 2004, Alvis was bought by BAE Systems, so the local company was renamed BAE Systems Land Systems South Africa (Land Systems SA, which is 75%-owned by the British group and 25% by a South African black economic- empowerment enterprise) and divided into Land Systems OMC and Land Systems Gear Ratio. In 2008, Land Systems SA acquired IST Dynamics, which became Land Systems Dynamics. Being a part of major international defence groups has greatly facilitated the global marketing of the South African vehicles.

To date, 1 388 RG31s are in service with, and 984 more are on order from, 12 countries, while 442 RG32Ms are in operation with ten countries. Most of these have been manufactured in South Africa. Moreover, Land Systems OMC has designed a new Mrap vehicle family, specifically to meet US requirements. This is the RG33 family, comprising the 4 × 4 RG33 and the 6 × 6 RG33L. Rapidly prototyped in Benoni, the production vehicles are made under licence in North America. Total RG33 family orders to date are about 2 300.

Meanwhile, smaller players are re-emerging in the market. For example, black-owned defence company Ivema has launched a 4 × 4 mine-protected APC named the Gila, which is designed to replace the veteran Casspir.

Since the original prototype SARC emerged in 1939, South Africa has manufactured some 13 000 locally designed amoured and mine-protected vehicles, not counting those being produced under licence overseas. It is an impressive story of improvisation, innovation, design, manufacture, and operational and commercial success over 70 years. And it is far from finished.

Edited by: Martin Zhuwakinyu
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