AAD Exhibition showed innovation continues to take place despite SANDF budget cuts | The Citizen

As the dust settles after the biennial 2022 African Aerospace and Defence (AAD) Exhibition at Air Force Base Waterkloof, it’s time to take stock.

The past four years have been tough with the 2020 edition cancelled because of the Covid pandemic. But this year AAD had 200 exhibitors from 24 countries, with Turkey the biggest single country present with 25 companies, offering a range of technologies.

What was significant was that 70% of the exhibitors were South African – apt testimony to the kind of innovation that has continued to take place despite the cuts in funding for the SA National Defence Force (SANDF).

Defence industries worldwide are traditionally set up to service their own country’s sovereign defence needs. In SA, this is no longer the case because the defence budget has been slashed, leading to ongoing delays over the key Project Hoefyster, established to replace the SANDF’s ageing fleet of Ratel IFVs.

In the absence of this project, many SA companies used the opportunity provided by AAD to step forward with their own innovative solutions to the Hoefyster crisis: from their own 8×8 and 6×6 wheeled IFV variants, to the much cheaper service life extension plan for the Ratel that could improve the serviceability of the almost 50-year-old design.

South African soldiers demonstrate their capabilities at the Africa Aerospace and Defence expo held at Waterkloof airforce base in Pretoria, 21 September 2022. Picture: Neil McCartney / The Citizen

One SA company was saved from bankruptcy between AAD 2018 and 2022 and has since branched out from manufacturing world-class anti-materiel and sniper rifles to developing an entire range of assault rifles.

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Other SA companies have developed high-tech UAVs. Another announced the first order for a high-altitude multirole reconnaissance aircraft, only the second indigenously conceptualised and manufactured aircraft in Africa since the development of the Rooivalk attack helicopter.

There were other innovations too; such as a local company creating tented solutions to put up full-scale hospitals from 500 to 5 000 beds, complete with ICU wards, scrub rooms and operating theatres.

But AAD 2022 was so much more behind the scenes: Armscor CEO advocate Solomizi Mbada had a minimum of six meetings a day with different government and defence industry representatives to discuss their requirements, as well as ways to address our national defence force’s needs.

He discovered it’s not only SA that has been caught in the vice-like grip of diminished defence spending, but many other countries, too. The only answer is cost-effective collaboration, whether using our defence industry’s capacity to manufacture for overseas companies, or licensing our IP and transferring our skills to other countries to forge long-lasting relationships.

The SANDF also proudly displayed its prime mission equipment; the majority of which is very old now, but still combat-ready at a moment’s notice – testament to the immense professionalism of the soldiers and commanders to maintain and safeguard what they have.

AAD Exhibition showed innovation continues to take place despite SANDF budget cuts
An armoured vehicle at the Africa Aerospace and Defence expo held at Waterkloof airforce base in Pretoria, 21 September 2022. Picture: Neil McCartney / The Citizen

Our defence force is forging ahead with its plans to meet its commitments, modernise its doctrines and showcase its abilities, whether in brigade scale exercises at the SA Army’s combat training centre in Lohatla, or performing airborne assaults in front of its own people at AAD.

The biggest story was the return of the Gripen fighter aircraft after their public grounding. Joined by the fighter trainer BAe Hawks and the SA Airforce’s Silver Falcons, they were watched by 1 000 young South Africans, pupils who had been specially transported from all parts of the country to come to Pretoria and be inspired.

These pupils attended motivational talks by our own pilots and the US Air Force on possible career choices – and the need to focus on maths and science at school. They would have been thrilled by the innovation on display at the various stands and the possible job opportunities in the defence industry – once again on the same caveat that they excel in their studies.

And then there was the economic boost that the City of Tshwane would have enjoyed hosting this massive undertaking. The last edition in 2018 netted R160 million to the South African Revenue Service.

But the biggest story is one of resetting the narrative. South Africa has many challenges. All of us know this, but there are also great success stories which don’t attract the headlines or attention. AAD 2022 did just that.

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As Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Thandi Modise said: “For the sceptics who say nothing is working, a lot of things are beginning to work in the defence force.”

The SANDF and our defence industry are national jewels. AAD 2022 was a wonderful opportunity to appreciate them both.

-Dlamini is head of communications at the department of defence

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