Sophisticated, state-owned arms industry unveiled

Straits Times Foreign Desk reporter Derwin Pereira is on assignment in South Africa. He continues with his update of various aspects of the country, which held momentous multi-racial elections recently. In this dispatch, he looks at South Africa’s once-secretive arms industry which is lifting the veil off its organisation and operations in the post-apartheid era.


SOUTH Africa’s state-owned arms-acquisition organisation, Armscor, has unveiled its highly secretive arms industry, revealing sophisticated home-grown defence technology.

Armscor has developed helicopters, upgraded aircraft, tanks, tactical radios that are almost impossible to intercept, underwater telephones and a coding unit for fax machines, according to its annual report – only the second the organisation has published since it was set up in 1977.

A flare that can be seen only with special equipment, side-scan sonar technology, an engine cooler that consumes 50 per cent less power, armour and artillery have come off its drawing boards.

The report, presented by Defence Minister Joe Modise and Armscor chairman I.J. Moolman recently, said that such rapid technological development arose because of massive cut-backs in the country’s defence budget.

The defence budget has decreased by 43 per cent in real terms over the last five years. As a result, a special industry and technology survival plan was initiated in 1991 to retain the South African Defence Force’s capabilities.

“The purpose was also to enable industry to adapt to a new market of survival,” the report said, adding that this could be done by entering the civilian market with products developed from armaments technology. It revealed that Armscor had concentrated on its 2.4-billion-rand (S$1 billion) aerospace programme.

This meant replacing the aged Harvard aircraft with the Swiss-built Pilatus PC-7 and the PC-6 aircraft for the South African Police Service.

The report said the Rooivalk attack helicopter was “a good example of what can be achieved with technologies that were established formerly within our manufacturing industry”.

A one-billion-rand vehicles and weapons systems programme was also in the works, including production of the Rooikat armoured vehicle and bullet-resistant Scout vehicles used for mobile patrols. Electronics and maritime developments were mostly locally based, costing 980 million rand.

Among the advanced equipment developed were tactical radios for communications between mobile army, air-force and navy units over longer distances than usual.

A new sonar and electronic-warfare sub-system was also designed for the navy.

A spokesman for one of South Africa’s leading arms manufacturers, Denel, said: “That is the blessing of the arms embargo. We were forced to develop our own technologies.”

Mr Paul Holtzhausen revealed that gun maker LIW was developing an enhanced version of the G-5 and G-6 long-range artillery howitzers.

He declined to give extra details, but LIW artillery designer Willie Theron was quoted as saying that the new version could be developed in two years’ time.

Mr Theron said a new, longer barrel for the 155 mm artillery piece had been tested with a variety of ammunition. The range of the second-generation gun with enhanced “base-bleed” ammunition would “reach much further than 40 km”, he added.

The G-5 is a towed howitzer, while the G-6 is a self-propelled gun. They have a range of about 30 km at sea level with ordinary ammunition, and about 40 km with long-range “base-bleed” ammunition.

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