The first part of this series covered the development of Electronic Warfare (EW) systems in the South African Air Force (SAAF) and the primary operational EW systems in use. This month is a more focused look at the aircraft counter-missile self-protection systems, both developed in South Africa and in use on the SAAF’s aircraft.
As with the integrated EW systems described previously, aircraft self-protection systems are another area where South Africa entered the late 1990s with a strong set of capabilities and products that, as a result of diminishing defence budgets and limited R&D funding, have gradually been whittled down to dangerous levels. By and large, SAAF aircraft are no longer sufficiently protected for the threat levels they face.
A prime example of this shortfall in capability is the Rooivalk which, despite being the only SAAF aircraft deployed in a direct combat role and intentionally exposed to enemy fire, is still not fitted with a Missile Approach Warning System (MAWS) that can detect and warn of incoming IR-guided man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADS) missiles.
This leaves it vulnerable in operations in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo where Rooivalks operate with United Nations peacekeeping forces, especially as government forces discovered a nearly-complete SA-16 (9K38 Igla-1) launcher during a raid of the ADF rebel group in the north-east. There are also reports that rebel groups in the area are actively seeking modern MANPADS launchers and missiles. While there is some inherent protection in the Rooivalk’s exceptionally low IR signature, that may not be enough to defend against newer types of air-defence systems, like the Igla or the Chinese-made FN-6 and QW-2 systems already in service in South Sudan and being used by irregular forces in Syria. It’s only a matter of time before these newer MANPADS proliferate to rebel groups in Africa.
To understand what can be done about this, it’s important to first understand the local history and surrounding context of these systems.
South Africa’s indigenous developments in aircraft self-protection systems began with research by the Council on Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) into radar warning receivers (RWRs) as part of the RWR1 design study in 1975. This swiftly led to the RWR2 and RWR3 systems that were fitted to the SAAF’s Canberra aircraft and even used operationally in 1977. RWR3 was constructed in part by ESD (now Reutech) under contract from the CSIR, and consisted of four spiral receiving antennas placed around the aircraft and a pair of omni-directional antennas in the aircraft’s wooden tail. The system could detect and record radar signals between 500 MHz and 18 GHz, with two extra channels at 80 MHz and 150 to 170 MHz, specifically to detect the Spoon Rest radar system. The threat display was just eight lamps in a circle, displaying the angle-of-arrival of the detected signal but not its type or distance.
The CSIR’s expertise in self-protection systems was substantially improved with the acquisition of two radar warning systems in the late 1970s. First was a modern software-programmable system featuring a proper cathode-ray tube (CRT) based threat display indicator with customer-selectable symbols and user-modifiable threat libraries. This was fitted to the SAAF’s Mirage F1AZs, Buccaneer S.Mk50s, Mirage RZ/R2Zs, and the signals intelligence DC-4s and 707s.
At more or less the same time, Grinel, the predecessor of what became Avitronics, received a contract to manufacture a foreign radar warning system under licence as the Compact Radar Warning System (CRWS) with a frequency range of 2 GHz to 18 GHz, using four locally-made spiral directional antennas and two omni-directional antennas. Available imagery of the CRWS suggests that it was based on the Israeli Elisra SPS-20 system, although Grinel, the CSIR, and other local companies made a number of modifications to improve the system’s performance in South African conditions, such as adding a set of quadruplexers to provide better frequency band separation and radar detection. The CRWS went on to equip nearly every type in the SAAF’s inventory, such as the Mirage F1CZ, C-130BZs, C-160s, Puma (and later the Oryx). To accompany both systems, the CSIR and local firms created flare and chaff counter-measure dispensing systems (CMDSs).
Lessons learned from exposure to the foreign systems, including the newer-generation EW kit on the Cheetahs, propelled the CSIR and local companies like Avitronics to new levels of sophistication and expertise at a rapid pace, to the point where they entered the 1990s with a number of local systems equal to the global state-of-the-art. EM Lab, later acquired by Avitronics, took the experience it had developing spiral antennas for the CRWS and developed the ability to create extremely accurate and low profile phase-matched spiral antennas. Avitronics developed an integrated and innovative Multi Sensor Warning System (MSWS) consisting of radar warning receivers, laser warning receivers (LWR), and UV-based missile approach warning (MAW) systems all linked to a centralised electronic warfare control unit. When combined with a counter-measure dispensing system, like Saab’s BOP launchers, the total system is termed the Integrated Defensive Aids Suite (IDAS) and has been an export success, with 400 systems in service across 13 countries.
Radar jamming, too, underwent substantial development, starting with local modifications to the Italian-made Elettronica SpA ELT/555 radar jamming pod acquired covertly in the early 1980s. The ELT/555s proved unable to handle the more sophisticated Soviet-built systems, such as the SA-8, that began to appear by the mid-1980s, so Avitronics modified them to be able to handle multiple simultaneous threats at once with threat-specific responses and updatable internal threat libraries.
This experience was called upon when, around 1987, in response to the risk posed by the MiG-23s fitted with radar-guided AA-7 Apex (R-23) missiles, Avitronics was tasked with developing and integrating a continuous wave radar jammer onto the Mirage F1CZ. Not only was this a challenging technical requirement, as the F1CZ’s small internal capacity required an immensely compact and efficient jammer, but Avitronics managed to complete both the development, integration, and qualification work within two years. Even so, it became available just as the war was ending and was never ordered for production. Nonetheless, expertise developed by Avitronics in the project was later reused in the 1990s, when the then-CeliusTech (later Saab) purchased some sub-systems from Avitronics to be used in the internal jammer for the Gripen C/D.
Of course, the full history of EW and self-protection system development in South Africa is too substantial for a single article, and much has necessarily been left out of this summary.
Unfortunately, despite this history and the immense capability that exists locally in the form of Saab Surveillance South Africa (formerly Saab Avitronics), the state of aircraft self-protection systems in the SAAF at present is far from ideal. Years of underspending on defence have bled the SAAF’s acquisition and operational testing budgets dry, leaving too little money to properly fit all of its aircraft with adequate self-defence systems.
As previously discussed, the SAAF’s Rooivalks are fitted with Saab’s IDAS platform but have only the radar warning receivers and laser warning receivers fitted, along with twin underbody counter-measure dispensing launchers. This is because the missile approach warning receivers were deleted from the Rooivalk Mk1 Block 1F baseline, along with the Pilot Night Vision System, Mistral air-to-air missile (ATAM), and Mokopa air-to-ground missile (ATGM), to save costs. While this was understandable at the time, as the SAAF and Denel were desperate to get the Rooivalk operational, in hindsight it was short sighted. The SAAF is at present investigating the possibility of updating IDAS on the Rooivalk and adding the missing MAW sensors either as part of the upcoming Mid-Life Upgrade of the fleet or a standalone enhancement. As IDAS is modular in nature, this should not require substantial changes to the rest of the platform.
About half of the SAAF’s Oryx helicopters have been fitted with IDAS using MAW sensors above the cockpit doors and under the sponsons, coupled to flare dispensers on top of the sponsons. Those that have received this update have had their CRWS controllers and spiral antennas removed, meaning they are no longer able to detect enemy radars.
None of the A109s are currently fitted with IDAS, although provision was made for an IDAS based around MAW sensors and a CMDS to be easily added in a ‘fitted for but not with’ scenario.
Most, if not all, of the C-130BZs still in service are fitted with IDAS and have MAW sensors on the forward front fuselage and on the tail, coupled to countermeasures launchers in the rear fuselage sponsons. Given that the C-130BZs have to frequently fly through risky airspace on resupply missions for South African forces deployed in peacekeeping missions, and that they are tasked with the non-combatant evacuation role (which saw at least one operating in Libya during the fall of Gaddafi), the C-130BZs were rightly prioritised in receiving adequate MANPADS protection.
Unsurprisingly, the Hawks and Gripens are fitted with radar warning receivers and countermeasure dispensers as standard. The Gripen, however, is only fitted with the standard BOP/C fuselage dispensers (three above and one below the rear fuselage), as the SAAF opted not to purchase the rearward-firing BOP/B pylon-extension launchers or the BOL under-pylon countermeasure dispenser. This is not at present a major concern, as the existing dispenser is adequate for current needs, but the SAAF should prepare itself for the rapid acquisition of either, or both, of those launchers should it need to go up against more modern opponents.
As far as can be ascertained, none of the other aircraft in SAAF service are fitted with missile self-protection systems, including the presidential BBJ and the rest of the VIP fleet operated by 21 Squadron, as well as the SuperLynx 300s used on the Navy’s Frigates.
What’s more, all flares and chaff are not made equal, and newer MANPADS, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and air-to-air missiles (AAMs) are not going to be deterred by the usual stuff. To deceive two-colour infrared seekers, only much costlier pyrophoric flares will do, and against the latest imaging infrared missiles there’s no defence other than laser-based Directed IR Countermeasures (DIRCMs) that can dazzle, jam, or damage the seekers. Similarly, chaff has evolved substantially to meet more sophisticated radars and now needs to be dispensed in specific patterns to work, while against the latest radar-guided systems, only off-board decoys like Leonardo’s active BriteCloud radar decoy are effective.
There is therefore a real need for the self-protection systems on board the SAAF’s aircraft to be updated and made more comprehensive. That doesn’t mean investing in the absolute latest protection systems or countermeasures, as the SAAF does not yet face that level of threat and it certainly can’t afford to maintain that level of sophistication, but there’s much that can be done with only a relatively small injection of additional capital from National Treasury. If all that’s done is adding MAW sensors to the Rooivalk, completing the fitting of IDAS to all Oryxes, and providing more funding to the CSIR for its vital simulation, modelling, sensor measurement, and doctrine development work, it’ll still be a big improvement over the status quo.
The next piece in this series will look more closely at the EW-related supporting structures and institutions in the South African Air Force and the CSIR.
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