Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula has conceded that almost half of the air force’s state-of-the-art Gripen jet fighters have been placed in long-term storage.
Twenty-six Gripen fighters were purchased as part of the controversial arms deal at a cost of more than R10bn, but there has long been speculation that some or all of them would have to be mothballed due to lack of funds to keep them flying operationally.
The fighters, as well as Hawk trainers, played a critical role in securing South Africa’s air space during the 2010 soccer World Cup.
When it was first mooted that some of the Gripens be placed in storage in 2010, questions were raised about South Africa’s air defence capability and the legacy of the multibillion-rand arms deal.
At the time, local defence expert and Jane’s Defence Weekly correspondent Helmoed Heitman said the decision would leave South Africa "vulnerable" should there be an incident. It would leave the air force unable to enforce a no-fly zone, as has been mooted for Sudan’s Darfur region.
On Tuesday, in response to a parliamentary question by Democratic Alliance MP David Maynier, Ms Mapisa-Nqakula acknowledged that almost half of the Gripens bought were in storage.
"The South African Air Force (SAAF) has 12 Gripen fighter aircraft placed in long-term storage," Ms Mapisa-Nqakula said.
"These aircraft are placed in a storage as a planned activity in line with their utilisation and the budget expenditure patterns/flow of the SAAF."
Mr Maynier responded that "the 12 Gripen fighters in long-term storage are presumably vacuum-packed like frozen chickens, in a hangar somewhere in South Africa", and that they had effectively been grounded because the operating budget had been stripped to the bone and the air force could not fly them.
"The sad facts of the Gripen system are as follows: 26 Gripen fighter jets were delivered; 10 or fewer are operational; 12 are in long-term storage; there are six qualified pilots; there are about 150 flying hours available to the entire squadron for 2013."