The chief of the South African Air Force, Leutenant-General Carlo Gagiano, recently took delivery of 5 of 11 Rooivalk helicopters that have been ordered by the Air Force.
Gagiano was all smiles when he described the helicopters as “aircraft which the South African National Defence Force cannot do without”. He went on to explain that these helicopters would dictate a change in battle patterns. Why is this so? Well, the answer is that, although the Rooivalk looks like a normal helicopter, in many respects, it is not a normal helicopter. It is something of a cross between a helicopter and an armoured car or tank.
The locally designed and built Rooivalk is a ground forces support system. It has been designed to fly at almost ground level. It can fly so low that it ducks between trees, creeps down valleys and sneaks around rock faces.
It carries heavy-duty machine guns but can also take tank-busting missiles – that is why it is something of a flying tank. I have watched a Rooivalk moving around, and it looks like a dragon fly darting between pieces of vegetation. I have also seen the whole development of the Rooivalk from beginning to end – I have looked at each rivet, climbed into the body of the aircraft and onto the production line, and sat in the cockpit. I have done this a number of times. It gives one a great sense of pride to look at this South African-designed and -built aircraft. When walking in the construction area, one can just feel the pride radiate from every person involved.
The Rooivalk is not just another piece of military hardware – it is a symbol of South African pride. The helicopter is packed full of fancy stuff. It has infrared detection, gunsights that are connected to the pilot’s helmet so the guns just follow his eyes, and a whole array of other modern technology that enables the fighting machine to, in effect, creep through the trees like an animal on the hunt. It is probably the best helicopter in the world, and when it first came out, it was the only helicopter in the world that could fly upside down.
I was at an airshow once where a Rooivalk was on display and I was there looking at it when a Dutch Air Force officer walked by. He stopped dead, his jaw dropped and he said something like: “Good grief! A real, genuine Rooivalk, the world’s best helicopter.” He was awestruck and asked me to take a number of photos of him in front of the helicopter with his camera so that he could show his friends back home. Being able to design and build a Rooivalk is important for national pride and national self-confidence. Our scientists, engineers and industrialists now know that we can produce world-leading gear of this quality.
So, when anybody asks about the cost of the project, remember that we have achieved something great. We have a world-leading machine that we built, so we know exactly how to maintain it and modify it in the future, when this becomes necessary. We have also developed construction technology that has already flowed into other projects, and will continue to do so. This type of spin-off is extremely difficult to quantify financially. Even more difficult to quantify finan- cially is when some South African company gets an international order to supply parts to or provide service for someone who awards the contract because they say: “If South Africa can build a Rooivalk, then they certainly can produce what I want.”
The SAAF’s Rooivalk squadron is 16 Squadron, based at Air Force Base Bloemspruit, in the Free State. The SAAF chief pointed out that the helicopter could be used for United Nations peace-enforcement missions, and could also be used in various other roles, thanks to the versatile nature of the whole concept. He said: “Without a doubt, this beautiful machine will make major differences to the Air Force’s capabilities.”
Of course, one must never forget the pilots and all the ground crew. Such a helicopter is not just a helicopter – it is an entire military system that links into ground radar and into one or more military headquarters, and also links into other Air Force units on the ground and in the air.
It has been said that the military is an extension of a country’s foreign policy position and capability. The Rooivalk and those who deploy the system have certainly just strengthened South Africa’s foreign policy muscle power and added to national pride at the same time.