Denel Dynamics, the smart weapons division of the state arms maker, is conceptualising a new high-performance radar-guided missile that, if it comes to fruition, will provide SA's fleet of Gripen advanced light fighter aircraft its main punch.
The advanced weapon will also have substantial export potential and could gain the country billions of rand in foreign exchange in addition to boosting the local ICT skills and know-how base.
The missile is known as the T Darter and is being designed to replace the R Darter (Radar Darter) currently in service with the SA Air Force (SAAF), where it is known as the V4. Cabinet, in 2003, decided to retire the V4 when the Cheetah fighter jet was withdrawn from service as the missile contained Israeli technology and required continued assistance from that country to remain operational.
Denel Dynamics CEO Jan Wessels says the T Darter will join their A Darter, currently under joint development with Brazil, under the wings of the Gripen, which has just started entering service with the SAAF. Last month SAAF started phasing out the Cheetah and the V4.
SA is the only member of the Non-Aligned Movement, other than India, that can design and build missiles in this class, called the beyond visual range category in military circles.
"T Darter is a concept radar-guided missile," Wessels says. "We are [proposing to use] some of our existing technologies and [are] looking for partners for the rest. We will typically provide the nose of this missile, which is the radar and are looking for a partner for the 'back end'," he says.
Other than the radar, the 'front end' also includes a number of proprietary processors that guide the weapon to its intended target at ranges that can extend to over 60km - the striking distance of the V4.
"Our next product is the A Darter, also an air-to-air missile. It is a co-development project between South Africa and Brazil. Engineers from both countries are working together on the project on Denel Dynamics' premises (at Irene, just south of Pretoria)."
Wessels says, although Denel Dynamics is an anomaly as a result of the politics of the 1970s, it represents a unique high-end ICT capability.
"Many other countries want to be in this position, but don't have the proven capability. We have the proven capability, but don't always have the market or need," he says of the company and its product range that includes various types of missiles, smart bombs and robotic aircraft. "Our strategy is to find a match between that capability and the market."
He adds that other than strategic imperatives, such as security of supply, the national investment in missilery has spin-off for the broader economy. Wessels says such programmes "develop technologies for SA that go beyond just the product.
It is an enabler for a whole sphere of technology and country capabilities in fields as diverse as design and simulation software, fine mechanics, electronics, aerodynamics, electro-optics, inertial sensing, drivers and controls.
"A few years ago testing was time consuming, expensive and involved extensive test flights. Now you only use a few flight tests as spot checks to make sure your simulation model is good," Wessels says. "That way you no longer have to test as many missiles in the past."
"If you look at the Umkhonto [a surface-to [air missile developed for the SA Navy], we probably tested ten, 15 missiles; the Americans 10 years ago would have tested 100, 150 before considering the tests as done," Wessels explains.
"When you don't have money you learn some tricks," he says wryly.