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More money for Rooivalk

Government has decided to invest another R962 million into the Rooivalk attack helicopter programme.

The investment comes despite the helicopter's builder, Denel, questioning the viability of the 23-year-old project. The rotorcraft's cockpit reflects an avionics and computer processing power system that is now two decades old.

“The amount of R962 667 346 has been budgeted for the financial years of FY07/08 to FY10/11,” defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota told Parliament in a written reply to a question asked by Democratic Alliance member of Parliament Hendrik Schmidt.

Lekota added that, once operational, the helicopter will be used during peace support operations and, more specifically, in peace enforcement operations should it be required by the United Nations (UN) or the African Union (AU).

But, earlier this year, Air Force chief lieutenant-general Carlo Gagiano said neither the AU nor UN seemed anxious for the helicopter's deployment. And Denel CEO Shaun Liebenberg told Parliament late last month that the Air Force would have to make a “strategic decision” on the future of the Rooivalk in the light of its “potential obsolescence and redundancy”, and its funding requirements over the long term.

Two weeks later the decision seems made.

It is not clear whether the money Lekota mentions is in addition to R102.85 million allocated to completing the helicopter's primary weapon, a fire-and-forget tank-busting missile, this year. The air force has already spent R8 billion on the Rooivalk and R120 million on the missile that, when allocated a target, uses its internal processing power and sensors to guide itself to intercept.

Industry sources say the helicopter's entire ICT infrastructure needs a refresh – starting with the cockpit flat-screen displays, electronics to the radio suite and data link to the processors underlying the helicopter's flight systems.

They are divided on whether the project is worth the effort. Some sources say it amounts to throwing good money after bad and paying for a Porsche to do a CitiGolf's job. But others argue the military needs a weapon in this class – if only to keep a modern IT-driven avionics industry with local intellectual property (IP) content alive in SA.

The Rooivalk was conceived in the early 1980s as a heavily armed, heavily armoured attack helicopter to take on tanks on apartheid's Angolan battlefields. Funding was heavily cut back after the end of the Angolan war in 1989, but government kept the project alive to keep the capability in being, eventually buying 12 of the helicopters.

But funding remained a trickle and the helicopter is still regarded as a project; meaning that 23 years after development formally started in March 1984, Rooivalk is still not an operational weapons system.

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