Eagle or turkey? Should it be saved or slaughtered? These are the questions exercising the minds of the South African government, parliamentarians, journalists, interested taxpayers (and they should all be interested, given the amount of money it has consumed), and, not least, the nation’s aerospace industry, concerning the Denel Rooivalk attack helicopter.
Reportedly, from the inception of the Rooivalk (Afrikaans for ‘Kestrel’) project in 1984 to the first flight of the first prototype in 1990, R1-billion was invested in the programme. From the start to the present, the programme is believed to have cost just over $1-billion (roughly R7-billion). For the sake of comparison, the cost of South Africa’s acquisition of 28 Gripen fighters and 24 Hawk fighter-trainers is $2,2-billion.
The Rooivalk was hailed in South Africa as a world-beater, the best such helicopter anywhere. Yet, 17 years after the Rooivalk first flew, not one export order has been won, and only 12 production standard aircraft have been manufactured, all for the South African Air Force (SAAF).
Even more incredibly, these production Rooivalks are still not fully operational and could not be deployed elsewhere in Africa if an emergency arose and United Nations (UN) forces needed their support. (The UN has employed Russian-built Mi-24 and Mi-35 attack helicopters on combat missions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in recent years.)
No one could reasonably claim that this represents a success story. So what went wrong?
The idea of South Africa developing an attack helicopter was not, in and of itself, erroneous. The then South African Defence Force saw a real need for an attack helicopter, in order to escort and support heliborne raiding forces, destroy anti-aircraft positions, and meet the potential threat of growing tank forces in other African countries, particularly Angola. Equipped with anti-tank missiles, such a helicopter could neutralise numerically superior hostile tank forces.
But – and this is a very important point – South Africa could not design and build a complete helicopter from scratch. The design, development and manufacture of the necessary powerplant and dynamics system (rotor head, main and tail rotors, and main and tail gearboxes) were beyond this country’s capabilities. Acquiring such capabilities would have been extremely time consuming and incredibly expensive, rendering the project totally impractical. So the new machine had to be based on an existing design, as far as its power plants and dynamics were concerned.
At the time, the SAAF operated two main helicopter types – the Aerospatiale (formerly Sud Aviation, now Eurocopter) Alouette III and the Aerospatiale Puma. The Alouette III could not possibly form the basis of a credible attack helicopter – it was not just that it was small, but its powerplant and dynamics system were 1960s technology, clearly outdated, and lacking in power. (An Alouette III powerplant and dynamics system were used as the basis for an engineering and development capability demonstrator for Atlas – now Denel – as a precursor to the Rooivalk programme; designated the Alpha XH-1, it first flew in 1984 and is today preserved at the SAAF Museum at Air Force Base Swartkops, Pretoria.)
Athough the Puma was larger and more powerful than the Alouette III, it had already been displaced on the French production line by its bigger and more powerful offspring, the Super Puma, which first flew in late 1978. This led to South Africa’s developing and successfully executing a project to produce a new helicopter that was a hybrid of the Puma and the Super Puma – the Denel Oryx. The Oryx has a fuselage that is longer than that of the Puma but shorter than that of the Super Puma, and was fitted with the powerplants, dynamics systems, and tail boom of the Super Puma (later, military versions of the Super Puma were redesignated Cougar).
The result was and is a helicopter with a greater payload and range capability than the Puma and a greater power-to-weight ratio than the Super Puma/Cougar. In consequence, the Oryx is an ideal transport helicopter for the hot temperatures and high altitudes frequently found in Southern Africa.
The Oryx was developed in parallel with the Rooivalk prototypes. Being simpler and cheaper than the Rooivalk, the Oryx programme was completed much more rapidly, the helicopter being unveiled in 1991, and has been the SAAF’s transport helicopter ever since. Thus it was proposed that the Super Puma powerplants and dynamics systems, being made in South Africa for the Oryx programme, be used as the basis for the planned attack helicopter.
At least one engineer is known to have proposed that the attack helicopter be based on the engines and dynamics system of the Aerospatiale Dauphin, an intermediate- (light/medium) size helicopter with good manoeuvreability and power, which would have resulted in a smaller, more rapidly developed, and more economical (to develop, buy and operate) system. As the French were allowing South Africa to use the powerplants and dynamics of the Super Puma, they would surely have agreed to the South Africans using the same elements from the Dauphin. However, the SAAF felt that using the same engines and dynamics as the Oryx would simplify logistics and reduce maintenance costs, so the decision was made to use the Super Puma systems as the basis for the Rooivalk.
The consequence of this decision was that the attack helicopter would have to have a big airframe, which it needed in order to accommodate the fuel required for it to achieve the desired range. But it also meant that it would be able to carry many sensors, advanced avionics, and a heavy and diversified weapons load. In short, it would have the capacity to be outfitted as a top-of-the-line, world-beating attack helicopter. And this, possibly, plus the lavish defence budgets of the 1980s, seduced the SAAF and Armscor/Atlas/Denel into seeking to make the Rooivalk a world-beating system, forgetting the saying that “the best is the enemy of the good enough”.
This was the fundamental conceptual flaw in the programme – it was an oversophisticated project for a country like South Africa. Trying to be the best drove up the costs, and extended the development timeframe, very significantly indeed. (The cost increase, relative to a simpler design, was not unforeseen, with the result that an appropriate budget was assigned and, contrary to some reports, the Rooivalk programme never exceeded its budget during the period 1984 to 1990.)
Whereas a simpler, cheaper, basic “good enough” Rooivalk system would almost certainly have completed its development in the late 1980s and entered production in parallel with the Oryx, the actual Rooi-valk was far from finishing its development when the war in Angola ended in 1988 and the then South African government began to cut the defence budget. The first Rooivalk proto- type made its maiden flight only in 1990.
Budget cuts inflicted further delays on the programme, and the planned acquisition was cut from 36 to only 12. This deprived the programme of the benefits of economies of scale.
“Some key people in the SAAF felt that the Rooivalk was a threat to what was most important to them – their fighter programme – so they sought to kill it; for a period, the Rooivalk was kept going with army funding because the army felt that it was essential for them: without the Rooivalk, they would have needed a lot more armour,” reports defence analyst and Jane’s Information Group correspondent Helmoed-R�mer Heitman. “But the money was always very tight.”
Make no mistake – the Rooivalk was a triumph for South African industry and technology. The programme created a significant and powerful pool of experience and expertise in the country, which played an essential role in the creation of highly successful South African private- sector aviation companies such as Advanced Technologies & Engineering (ATE) and Aerosud. But the delays that were caused by the budget cuts meant that what had been a cutting-edge aircraft in 1990 was an obsolete aircraft when it finally began to be delivered to the SAAF in 1998.
As a flying machine (as distinct from a fighting machine) the Rooivalk is first class, reportedly hailed by all who have flown it. It is also ideal for operations in Africa.
But its avionics system, a magnificent achievement for local industry when it was developed and integrated in the late 1980s, is today as obsolete as a dinosaur’s brain.
This is a key reason in Denel’s failure to export the aircraft. No one will buy a warplane whose avionics system is based on 20-year-old computers. Then there is the cost of the aircraft – the direct result of both attempting to make it a world beater and depriving it of eco-nomies of scale by cutting the order to only 12. “The unit cost of the Rooivalk is about $40- million,” says Heitman. This makes it as expensive as the Boeing Apache and the Eurocopter Tiger, the latest models of which have state-of-the-art avionics, and much more expensive than the smaller AgustaWestland Mangusta/Mongoose, and the Russian Mi-24/35 family.
Export possibilities have been further reduced by foreign worries about the long-term viability of Denel: will the company still be around in 20 years to continue to support the Rooivalk, if they should buy it? And then there is the fact that the Rooivalk is very heavily dependent on French technology, now the property of Eurocopter, yet Denel tried to export the Rooivalk not only without Eurocopter’s prior agreement and support, but actually in open competition (for example, in Australia) with Eurocopter’s own Tiger. Foreign diplomatic sources have indicated that the European company has warned countries interested in buying the Rooivalk that they could not be guaranteed the support they would need for the engines and dynamics. This effectively killed off any remaining interest in the Rooivalk.
Oversophisticated, overdelayed, overexpensive, outdated, and lacking economies of scale – what next for the Rooivalk?
The programme could simply be cancelled, the costs written off, the aircraft scrapped or sent to museums, like so many other South African aerospace projects launched in the 1980s. But the South African National Defence Force would still need an attack helicopter, to support UN missions elsewhere in Africa.
Attack helicopters – this term, by the way, is technical North Atlantic Treaty Organisation jargon indicating an armed helicopter intended to undertake missions in direct support of troops, “attack” originally being the US term directly equivalent to the British term “ground attack” – are the only vertical take-off and landing combat aircraft available to a country like South Africa. Unlike the SAAF’s fighters, they do not need good-quality surfaces to operate from, nor large spaces, and they will also be able to operate from the flight decks of the Navy’s planned amphibious ships. Cancelling the Rooivalk will leave a gap which will, sooner or later, have to be filled by buying someone else’s attack helicopter.
Further, the Defence Force needs more than 12 of these machines – an absolute minimum deployment would need three attack helicopters, to ensure two were always available for operations; with just 12, the SAAF could not have more than just two such deployments at any time. But the Defence Force is already involved in three major missions – in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Darfur, in Sudan. “South Africa needs 24 attack helicopters, which would give 16 operational,” argues Heitman.
So, an alternative is to reinvest in the Rooivalk programme, order another 12, but to a new, more modern, yet simpler and cheaper, standard, and subsquently refurbish the existing aircraft to the same standard. This ‘Rooivalk Mk 2’ would also produce a much cheaper aircraft, with a unit cost of less than $20-million. That would be financially and technically much more appealing to many developing countries.
It would also cease to be a competitor to the Tiger, but become a complement to it.
This would open the door to cooperative marketing of the Rooivalk with Eurocopter, and, if this could be negotiated, the Eurocopter name and support would assure possible customers so that the new Rooivalk would indeed enjoy long-term through-life support.
Heitman thinks that developing the Rooivalk Lite, or Rooivalk Mk 2, will cost South Africa another R1,5-billion. “This is a lot less than the cost of scrapping it and bringing another type into service,” he argues.
Denel does not have this money. Only the government does. The future of the Rooivalk thus lies in the hands of the Cabinet. They are the ones who are going to have to make the final decision. Ultimately, it is President Thabo Mbeki who will decide whether the aircraft will soar like an eagle or be slaughtered as a turkey.
(This story was also based on interviews conducted, on the basis of anonymity, with an engineer and an SAAF officer, who were involved in different aspects of the Rooivalk project.)